Aug 31 2008
“Our parents are always telling us that we don’t have any special talents, so we need to just work and study hard to get what we want, so when people [counselors, colleges, teachers] tell us we need to talk about how great we are and all our skills and talents, it’s really hard. We don’t believe we’re special and we don’t know how to talk about ourselves like that.” — C.C., 16-year-old Chinese-born American.
C.C. tells me this as I help her rewrite her practice cover letter and resume and figure out what makes her stand out. While searching for RN jobs in this dismal market, I’m also working as a counselor for a 3-week UCSF summer program for underserved high school students who are interested in careers in health care. Like I was, most of them are going to be the first in their family to attend college and most are Asian American.
As C.C. shakes her head dejectedly at her letter, I can’t help thinking: “Ah, the way of the immigrant Chinese parent in America persists through the generations! Dish out loads of “constructive” criticism and stand doggedly by the belief in the “American dream” and in the fact that the dream can be built upon a meritocratic system, and ta-da — your hard work will be recognized and you will get what you want.”
But every savvy American, seemingly many UCSF students, and enlightened Asian Americans know that it’s not that straightforward. Work hard and you will gain knowledge and confidence in yourself. But to get exactly what you want? For that, you have to strategize. You have to (loudly) praise yourself. You have to market yourself. You have to knock down doors. You have to raise your voice. You have to network and make connections. This is what’s real in our society, and this is what I begrudgingly tell C.C., while at the same time empathizing with her…
- Yes, it feels strange to call attention to one’s self.
- Yes, it feels wrong to boast and self-aggrandize.
- Yes, it’s just plain weird to call out something personal like “worked at 7-Eleven to help support family” as something notable to write in a college essay or cover letter.
“‘Work to help parents pay the bills’ – I’m not proud of that, no one wants to do that, but all of a sudden that’s supposed to be amazing?’”
I asked this more than once when I was trying to figure out how to present myself to colleges. As the first in my family to go to college, my parents couldn’t give me advice other than “study hard.” Through pure heresay, street smarts, and a tiny bit of h.s. counseling, I learned that for someone who didn’t have the opportunity to take piano and dance lessons, to do volunteer work in Guatemala, or to attend pre-college programs at Yale, my edge over other college applicants would come from the seemingly mundane. I had to learn to be proud of my experiences, believe that I had something special to offfer, and express it to strangers.
I know it’ll be a long time before many of these students are convinced that anything they’ve done or experienced will be interesting to college admissions officers, scholarship committees, or internship recruiters. Over time they’ll get how to play the game and over time they’re going to find a way to reconcile what they need to do in reality with the values their parents taught them. Over time.
The summer h.s. program ended a couple weeks ago. I had an amazing time supporting the kids and seeing them come in day after day at 8:30 a.m. to soak up knowledge about the sciences, health care, and higher ed. The kids were smart, motivated, spunky, sassy, and they affirmed my growing interest in outreach to underrepresented students in health care. The program culminated in a reception dinner where they made health-related presentations to their parents and friends. They made me teary-eyed with pride … so this is what it feels like to be a teacher or parent!