The Last 4 Years: Reflecting on My Stanford Online High School Education

I guess it’s officially official now. I’ve graduated high school.

I can’t help but reflect back on these last four years as I close this chapter of my life. Well actually, I’ve been reflecting ever since I started at Stanford Online High School (OHS): every time some new stranger asked me why I chose online schooling, every time I contemplated my lack of in-person friends and a “normal social life,” every time I sat alone for hours on end in front of my computer studying, and every time I discussed with my fellow OHS classmates the merits and downsides of OHS. So really, I’ve been reflecting on my high school experience and choices for quite some time now and my thoughts have been ever evolving. They are likely to change again after I go to college or 10 years from now, but I’m here to give you my current day thoughts, a week post-graduation. I’ll be focusing on the intangibles rather than the readily apparent facts of challenging university courses, college prep, curriculum flexibility, etc. and other obvious marketing items that can already be found on the OHS website.

OHS has made me a better person today than I think my local public school could have.

How do I know this? Well, I can’t definitively know this until one day we develop a method of communicating with our alternate selfs living in a parallel universe, but I do have confidence in making this claim by contemplating my personal growth these past four years and the ways in which my unique online school circumstances enabled or contributed towards it.

Intellectual Passion – At OHS, there’s a common notion that gifted students who have a passion for learning attend and are accepted into the school. I think a more accurate statement would be that OHS accepts students who have the potential to achieve these attributes and helps guide them to develop in this way. As a freshman, I most definitely was not “gifted” nor did I have a passion for learning or any particular subject for that matter, which I presume to be a fairly ordinary experience for 14-year-olds. I attribute my significant departure from this perspective to the OHS school environment, the instructors, the curriculum, and the constant confrontation with challenging ideas and thought-provoking material, pushing me to think bigger and deeper that gradually transitioned me these last four years from a simply studious freshman into a senior who loves to think about and question complex ethical, philosophical, mathematical, and literary ideas beyond just the classroom. For example, one of the most important things my sophomore English teacher taught me was to give greater meaning to my writing beyond basic summarizing by applying the question of “So what, why does this matter?” to every claim, idea, and thesis I wanted to make. It’s a skill so fundamentally relevant in all subject matters that I’m still constantly trying to apply it post-MWA to everything I think or consider in order to derive a deeper understanding. The added immersive experience of being surrounded by a group of teens discussing the philosophical implications that friendships have on upholding moral standards or the patterns of Foucault’s systemically flawed panoptic institution in our current society is one that constantly pushed me to consider complex ideas, arguments, and questions and that I doubt I could have found anywhere except at OHS.

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Developing Personal Identity – The measly two years I was enrolled in public school, in 1st and 4th grade, I was a very distracted student. The nature of an excess of closeness that arises from interacting with classmates every single day contributes to social distractions, drama, and peer pressure of which I succumbed to even in my short time in such a school environment. At OHS, this never happened. There were not nearly enough social groups for there to be any social tension or drama to detract from my focus on my studies. Additionally, with the expansive space of the internet separating me from all my classmates, I never felt intimidated or pressured into sharing an idea or an opinion identical to my peers or friends. Rather, I felt liberated in having so much freedom to explore and establish confidence in my identity, my self-awareness, my ideas, my thoughts, my likes and dislikes without having to confront any peer or group pressures to adhere to a certain ideal, defined perspective predetermined by society. At the same time, I was not limited to living inside a vacuum, since my online interaction with students of vastly different perspectives, nationalities, races, and religions broadened my horizons to the variety of ideas and thoughts that I could consider, adopt, reject, or tweak. This unique feature of balancing a space for developing personal identity and individuality, during what many consider to be the impressionable teen years, while given wide exposure to assorted perspectives at OHS is another that I believe contributed greatly to my personal growth over the course of my high school years.

OHS may have worked out for me, but it’s definitely not for everyone.

Great, so now that I’ve said such wonderful things about my experience at OHS, you might be thinking to yourself, “Wow, I wish I could have had a school experience like that.” Well… the truth is, you might also hate such a type of schooling.

Nonexistent Social Life – For starters, the social life at OHS is pretty nonexistent – take it from a former Student Body President. As hard as we try as a school to develop community spirit and social events, at the end of the day, it’s still extremely paltry and subpar to anything you’ll have at a regular brick and mortar school. Personally, I never found this a major issue, but I know that the vast majority of other students at OHS do. I was always quite content with going several days of never leaving the house, never going to parties, being alone with my computer studying for 16 hours a day, 7 days a week, and having 3-4 good friends that I only ever talked to online but never in person, acknowledging that these were the choices I was deliberately making for my education. It’s not so much that normal socialization or a social life does not appeal to me, as I very much enjoy talking and interacting with others, but more so that I’ve learned that I can also be content without the buzz of frequent in-person human interaction. My OHS friends tell me I am an abnormality for feeling this way so take what you will from that.  As I reference above, spending time alone with yourself gives you a lot of noiseless time to think, which I quite enjoy, but I also recognize that many others would be appalled at such solitude.

Low Self-Esteem – OHS obliterated my self confidence freshman year until I managed to slowly rebuild it over time. In my time at OHS, I’ve come across middle-school students in my multivariable class, philosophical phenoms who articulates their every point with such poise, Olympic-level training athletes, students curing cancer or solving poverty in their research internship on the side. Ask any students at OHS and they’re likely to tell you that more than one time or another they’ve felt bad about themselves, inferior, unworthy, etc after being thrown into such a high achieving environment. I too have experienced these symptoms of low self-esteem these last years. The same feature of separation from peers that I referenced as beneficial towards developing identity simultaneously fails to humanize individuals at OHS because of the lack of visibility to recognize the prior preparation, lack of sleep, commitment to hard work, parental support, etc behind another student’s success. However, it’s like they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Over time I learned to cope with esteem issues and regain confidence through an understanding of my own self-worth, acknowledgement of the uncontrollable variables, and focus on self-improvement in areas I did have control over without using others as a point of comparison to measure personal success. I’m grateful to OHS for providing this environment surrounded by amazing, talented, high achieving students that forced me to confront the experience of having low self-esteem early on in high school because it instills me with confidence that my transition into college with the same or higher caliber students will be smoother. With that being said, the reality for many students is that they never regain their confidence throughout the duration of their time at such a high pressure environment such as OHS and I think this is one of the greatest under-addressed tragedies of the school.

As much as I learned from OHS these four years, I’m so ready to move on.

One of my college interviewers this fall asked a really interesting question, “Would you ever consider doing online college?” My answer was along the lines of “Absolutely NOT.” I answered so emphatically because, despite my generally positive experience at OHS, one that I certainly don’t regret, I feel that I’ve nearly exhausted all the benefits that online schooling has to offer while there remain so many experiences to discover in a traditional schooling system. What will I learn from interacting with others day in and day out in person? How will my perspectives change when I am able to consistently collaborate with other students? What upsides or challenges will arise from direct and dynamic communication apart from no more lag and tech problems? I have so many questions, so many unexplored experiences to learn from, and so many expanded opportunities for personal growth and development that I can’t wait to take on this new adventure that is college. Still, I have OHS to thank greatly for preparing and enabling me, both academically and personally, to take on this next journey and these next four years.

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