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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My College Application Story

College Applications. The source of every high schooler’s worry, stress, and sleeplessness – until you’re a spring semester senior of course! I’m here to share my story through this harrowing process in hopes of perhaps providing you with some information about the process or at least about the reality of rejections and the rollercoaster of emotions experienced. This is not intended to be any form of substantial logistical advice towards approaching applications

First things first, I knew for certain I wanted to be a Computer Science major and let every college know of this fact. This helped narrow my selection of schools as I aimed to apply to top ranking CS schools along with a mix of high acceptance rate public schools that had a good CS program and that I would be happy at in the event that all my reach schools options fell through.

My personal assessment of my application was that I had average/slightly below test scores for reach schools, a rigorous curriculum with many APs and university classes, ok/decent essays, and strong extracurricular activities spanning leadership, activism, community service, and academics.

The best decision I ever made and one that I recommend all rising seniors to do is apply as many schools Early Action as possible. Me, being to very non committal person that I am, never considered doing Early Decision to any school. Instead, I applied to six public schools EA per my counselor’s recommendation. Not only did this force me to stop procrastinating and get started on writing apps early, but it also made me eligible for merit scholarship opportunities otherwise unavailable during RD applications and provided me so much comfort from December to March when I had already gotten into at least a single college. I ended up getting into five of my EA schools including Georgia Tech, ranked #8 in CS. Having that in my back pocket so to say as the rejections started to roll was an incredible stress-reducer. I also applied to Princeton Restrictive EA. I still to this day have no idea what possessed me to do this seeing as how I didn’t like the school and was adamantly against the idea of remaining in New Jersey for another four years. Nevertheless, that happened and I regret it, but it is what it is.

Around this time my schedule was packed with college interviews. I had six of them: Princeton, MIT, Cornell, UPenn, CMU, and Duke. My first interview was with Princeton and it was absolutely disastrous. It was extremely short, boring, and unengaging. CMU and UPenn went ok. MIT and Cornell went well. Duke was my last interview and I thought it went amazing. I loved my interviewer, she was so kind, helpful, and curious about learning about me. We even derailed from typical interview questions for a bit to discuss trying to resolve instances of compromising morality in friendships and it was such a great time.

My top choices going into the application process were Tier 1: MIT, Stanford and Tier 2: Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, UPenn. Realistically, I would be extremely fortunate to get into any one of these schools, but naturally, that didn’t stop me from hoping and wishing. In January, I received my deferred decision from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign which really was a reach school for CS majors regardless of it’s 60%+ general acceptance rate, but it drastically knocked my expectations down a peg. I thought to myself, if I couldn’t even get into a public school like UIUC, what chance did I have at the Ivies and other top privates? Leading up to March decision dates, I knew I had to keep my expectations in check to avoid any real heartbreak, so I kept telling myself I would not get into anywhere, would talk about how the application process is such a lottery, and would banter with friends about getting rejected everywhere. As increasingly many people asked me what my top choice school was, I learned to modify my answer from being “MIT and Stanford” to “whichever school accepts me” as kind of a cop-out answer but also a truthful one as there was no point in idolizing a school that would not end up accepting me.

MIT ruined my pi-day. It was my #1 choice school and they slammed me with my first rejection. It hurt. I ended up moping around the rest of the evening with my other friend who also got rejected. Still feeling pretty down the next day, I opened up my inbox to find an email from Cornell. Instinctually, I clicked on it and was shocked and confused. I spent the next twenty minutes googling “likely letters” before finally arriving at the realization that I had gotten into Cornell. Long gone were the memories of MIT as I rode my Cornell high all the way through my Rice waitlist, USC rejection, and Ivy Day twelve days later when I was officially offered admission to Cornell. The single acceptance made me completely unfazed by my other ivy decisions. I got into Duke a day later much to my surprising seeing as how I decided to start my Duke application two days before it was due, but the excitement didn’t last long because I had so much built up anxiety and stress leading up to Stanford decision day. It especially doesn’t help when you’re quite literally surrounded by the Stanford buzz that comes from attending Stanford Online High School. I got waitlisted. With a yield rate of 80%, the dreams of the school that I had held on to for 4 years shattered. That night I wallowed in my sorrows in the darkness of my room while scrolling through Cornell memes on my computer to console myself. To be perfectly honest, I had kind of forgotten about Carnegie Mellon. It had always flown under my radar, it didn’t have the flashiness of an Ivy/Stanford/MIT even though I knew they were a tied for #1 CS school. It’s crazy how it worked out that my last college decision was my Carnegie Mellon acceptance the next day, which pulled me out of my Stanford slump just as with Cornell and MIT respectively. Looking back, I’m so incredibly blessed with the acceptances that I got and the fact that I even had tough choices between so many top schools. I have no real regrets about how my applications went and I now like to think of the schools that I got rejected/waitlisted by as simply not good fits for me even if I had thought at the time that they would be.

I’ll discuss in a following post about how I ended up deciding between my acceptances, but here is my full set of college decisions:

Accepted

  • Carnegie Mellon University School of Computer Science* (RD)
  • Cornell University* [Hunter R. Rawlings III Cornell Presidential Research Scholars] (RD)
  • Duke University* (RD)
  • Georgia Tech** [Stamps President’s Scholarship Semifinalist] (EA)
  • Purdue University*** [Honors] (EA)
  • Rutgers University*** [Honors] (EA)
  • University of Maryland – College Park*** [Honors] (EA)
  • University of Wisconsin – Madison*** [Honors] (EA)

Waitlisted

  • Columbia University* (RD)
  • Rice University* (RD)
  • Stanford University*(RD)
  • University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign* (EA)
  • University of Pennsylvania* (RD)

Rejected

  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology* (RD)
  • Princeton University* (EA)
  • University of Southern California* (RD)

Reach*  Possible**  Likely*

Our Moral Responsibility to Diverse Friendships

Analysis of Choosing Our Friends: Moral Partiality and the Value of Diversity by Sara Goering written for my senior year Advance Topics in Philosophy class:

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In her work on Choosing Our Friends: Moral Partiality and the Value of Diversity, Sara Goering argues that many societal and moral goods come out of the diversification of friendships (401). In this paper, I will argue that we have a personal and societal responsibility to pursue diverse friendships with others of different ethnicities, backgrounds, and perspectives because of the intellectual and moral growth they induce. True moral failure does not arise out of unsuccessfully seeking diverse friends, but the absolute rejection of diverse friendships and intolerance for others with different personal views.

In a society of various political view, ethical beliefs, ideas, and experiences, we have a responsibility not only to ourselves, but the rest of our shared community to gain new knowledge towards self-improvement. Diverse friendships are the most powerful vehicle for this by first and foremost revealing our internal biases (401). As individuals, we have a natural inclination to show favoritism towards experiences we engage with, also believing that we are and justified in doing so. Having close friendships with those who have vastly different backgrounds forces us to confront these biases head on and actively question the justification for our beliefs, rather than remaining intellectually stagnant by reinforcing shared perspectives in similar friendships. Even in the instances where our beliefs are in fact valid, the process of being challenged by other perspectives and having to reevaluate our ideas through discourse with close friends is incredibly powerful towards refining and developing support for our beliefs. These beliefs that we refer to are not merely debating one’s preference for one type of candy over another. Instead, they primarily center on challenging moral perspectives and actions. In this way, diverse friendships successfully further a core value in Aristotle’s perfect friendship by holding friends to mutual moral improvements through ongoing discussions and evaluations that would be impossible in the friendship of two individuals with identical moral perspectives and ideas.

One concern that emerges however is the seemingly nonsensical expectation of diverse individuals to become friends in the face of severe or even uncompromisable differences. Indeed, we must set limits on the maximal amount of diversity possible in a friendship if we are to consider it a responsibility. Individuals on opposing ends of a spectrum when it comes to politics or ethics are capable of becoming friends. However, the nonnegotiable required commonality between two individuals must be shared respect for the other person and their own beliefs as well as a shared pursuit to grow in individual moral goodness. Under these conditions, a Christian and an Atheist can comfortably befriend one another despite their disparity in religious beliefs given demonstrated respect for the other’s perspective, but an abolitionist should have no expectations to pursue a diverse friendship with a KKK member who no intention to develop morally (405).

The degree to which not befriending a friend is a moral failure ultimately depends on the assumption that morality consists of seeking moral self-improvement and morally true beliefs. While this ethical theory is not universally shared and can be considered as a personal responsibility, instances of true  moral failure  include completely shutting oneself off from any and all diverse friendship or purely treating friendships as a means to an end as this implies that one is incapable of respecting people and people with different perspectives, a form of discrimination and a clear violation of our commonly accepted social ethical standards.

Goering, Sara. “Choosing Our Friends: Moral Partiality and the Value of Diversity.” Sara Goering, Choosing Our Friends: Moral Partiality and the Value of Diversity – PhilPapers, 1 Jan. 1970, philpapers.org/rec/GOECOF