When I was a senior in high school, a documentary film crew showed up to my AP Physics C class. Debbie Lum, the director, announced that she and her team were making a film about the students at Lowell High School. I couldn’t fathom why anyone would be interested in a film about us, but Debbie seemed kind. She’s soft-spoken, had a short bob at the time, and is Chinese American. I had never met a filmmaker, let alone a female Chinese American filmmaker, so I was intrigued. I agreed to be filmed.
It’s been four years since then and Try Harder! has finally been let out into the world. To be a subject in a documentary film is already a rare experience, but to watch the film four years later, to watch others watch the film and be affected by it, and to realize that this film has a life of its own, is truly special. This film has drawn back the curtains on the college admissions process and how it shapes students’ lives, and hopefully, my story and my friends’ stories have taken off the blinders on people’s eyes and helped them glimpse the reality of the expectations that come with the process.
I’ve watched the film several times, spoken on a few panels and read articles that have described me as a “Lady Bird” and a “ruthlessly self-disciplined all-rounder.” All this over the backdrop of graduating from college, arguably a scarier transition than graduating from high school. This film, a snapshot of who I once was through the eyes of someone else (as my friend Shelly put it). This year, a juggling act of multiple post-grad life paths. I can’t help but think about who I am through all of this, what my identity is, if it is anything, how it contradicts itself, changes over time yet stays the same, bends to forces yet remains true.
I spent senior year of high school in a flurry of AP classes, extracurriculars, school events and college applications. Debbie and her team were there in the background to capture many moments, both the mundane and the memorable. They filmed me hitting forehands on the tennis courts, scooping ice cream at Polly Ann’s, getting my ears pierced at Haight Ashbury Tattoo and Piercing with my friend, Wenting, and taking prom pictures with my date, Josh. More soberingly, they were there when I opened most of my college notification emails. In between scoops at Polly Ann’s, I checked email after email from Ivy Leagues, none starting with “Congratulations!”
I have a lot of sympathy for myself at that age. I was chasing after a goal that wasn’t truly mine. Growing up, I remember being able to list most of the Ivy League universities by the time I was in middle school. My parents often mentioned to me rather causally that these were the colleges I would be applying to. For many of the extracurriculars I pursued, I can’t quite remember whether it was out of interest or whether it was because I thought it would boost my chances at admission.
Upon first impression, this is a very shallow way to go about life. When your One Big Goal as a high school student is to get into a good college, it can feel as if your life is a plug-and-chug math equation, where if you add enough AP classes and plug in a few extracurriculars and take it to the “unique experience or extenuating circumstance” power, you end up with an acceptance letter that seems like the right answer. But where do I fit into that equation? Does a jumble of activities and classes add up to an identity? What I realized after watching the film was that my identity at the time was inextricable from the college application process. Perhaps that’s what’s so terrifyingly liberating about graduating from college—there is no “life-after-college application process,” no stereotypical student that you need to be in order to “get into a good life,” and therefore your identity can be whatever you want it to be. Life is just a series of decisions that you make, and the college decision just so happens to be the first Big Decision in many students’ lives, which makes it all the more stressful. It’s a decision that feels tied directly to your identity, since the college you attend for the next few years is now the second thing you share with strangers after you tell them your name. But, just because it’s the first major life decision does not mean it’s the only near, and certainly does not mean it’s the most consequential one.
Although I probably developed imposter syndrome in high school (after becoming the captain of the tennis team despite not being great at tennis but thinking it would look good on my college applications and joining the newspaper not because I was passionate about journalism but because a college counselor my parents were paying unnecessary amounts for told me that I needed something “unique” for an Asian student to put on my resume), I’m actually incredibly grateful for all that I did and all that my parents pushed me to do. I learned about what it means to be a leader as the captain of the tennis team. I rekindled a joy for writing and surrounded myself with passionate, creative students as the news editor for The Lowell. Regardless of whether or not I knew what I was doing, or whether I even fully understood why I was doing what I was doing, I learned. Like harvesting apples, I picked a basket of experiences, some that I enjoyed more than others, and I went back to those that I enjoyed more and continued to pick from those trees. And, I figured out that it’s the harvesting that’s the best part, not the part where you write an application about harvesting a great apple.
While watching my own scenes in Try Harder!, I only had negative judgements to make about myself. While watching the scene where Debbie asked me to tell her the colleges I was applying to and I matter-of-factly respond with a list of all the Ivy Leagues, I thought, “What a pretentious snob.” I don’t know what Alvan, Ian and Rachael had going through their heads when they watched scenes of themselves, but I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we definitely cringed hard. What I soon realized though, was that I was the harshest judge of myself. Sure, I was intense in high school and had big goals, and the articles about the film definitely captured that, but I was the only one judging high-school-Sophia as if she was actually an asshole. Upon sharing this thought with Hanna, a close friend, she dished this piece of wisdom: cringing at who you were four years ago is a sign of growth. Especially if you were in high school four years ago. How can you expect your previous self to meet all of the expectations you have of yourself now? How can you ask your previous self to think and act with the same level of self-awareness that you currently exist with? You should relish in your growth instead and give your younger self grace. And if younger you is the same you as you right now, which it is, that means that you should always give yourself some grace.
All in all, I am incredibly grateful to Debbie and the team for capturing my senior year and for telling this story. Try Harder! manages to cover a lot of ground—it’s a film about striving for unlikely goals, about a stressful life experience, about minorities and their idiosyncratic versions of this experience. I appreciate that I became, in a small way, part of a crescendo of Asian American stories in popular media. I appreciate that high school students can maybe see themselves in my shoes and know that everything will turn out fine. I appreciate that I’ve had such a unique lens through which to reflect on how much I’ve changed over the years and how much I’ve stayed the same.
To echo a letter that I wrote to Lowell students who’ll be watching this film, when I was a senior in high school, I had no clue what I was doing, what my goals were, what was driving me or who I wanted to become, even though I thought I knew. After college, I think I know myself a little bit better now, but in many ways, I still don’t have the answers. And that’s totally ok. These are things we’ll take the rest of our lives to figure out.