A few scenes from my short vacation up to Maine (photo credits to Laura).
It’s late June, and I’m sitting in a coffee shop filled with sweaty young professionals in suits. As I sip my iced coffee and bask in free air conditioning, a friend poses a question to me.
"Don’t you just feel like a kid in a candy store?"
I sit back. I think about it.
I do. I really, really do.
When people ask me what Washington DC is like, I say it’s homogenous. That answer often elicits a puzzled look in reply. It is homogeneous, I repeat so they know they heard correctly, because this city is just filled to the brim with people cut from the exact same mold. They are young, energetic, incredibly motivated, and searching for ways to exert influence to make a difference.
And it’s awesome.
I’ve been in DC for over two months now, and it’s hard to articulate how incredible this city is. I’m star-struck every single day by the history, the celebrity decision-makers, and the things I’m used to seeing on TV. I’m humbled by people’s stories, backgrounds, and ambitions. And I’m driven to keep working hard because I, too, want to make a difference.
I still have a few weeks before I officially move back to New Jersey, but I can already pick out the moments that truly defined my summer in DC. Watching a vote take place in the House gallery. Having drinks and hors d’oeuvres in the IMF. Appreciating the beauty of monuments at night. Watching 4th of July fireworks on the National Mall. Plotting political endeavors at Friday afternoon jazz in the sculpture garden of the National Gallery of Art. Being made fun of by the Assistant Secretary of State as he walks by my cubicle at work.
And that’s just the beginning.
This city is eclectic. The atmosphere is exciting. The people are incredible. But most of all, Washington DC is a place where ambition meets motivation, creating real impact and making a difference.
So yes, in a city where everybody wears a suit and heard that story on NPR this morning, I can’t help but feel like a kid in a candy store. Can you blame me?
My high school is proposing to eliminate two critical English classes from their curriculum (Freshman Honors and Junior AP), and hundreds of students are fighting to stop those changes.
Here my take:
To the Arcadia Unified School District:
My name is Ray Chao, and I am a rising junior at Princeton University and a 2011 graduate of Arcadia High School. I am a product of AUSD from K-12 (Highland Oaks and Foothills pride!), and am very proud of Arcadia for giving me the opportunity to grow, helping me develop intellectual curiosity, and preparing me for life after high school. Arcadia has given many students like me an incredible educational experience.
I am writing this letter in response to proposed policy to eliminate Freshman Honors English and Junior AP English. I am gravely concerned about the future of Arcadia High School and its graduates.
The concerns expressed by the school district are certainly legitimate; many students with “AP Potential” do not enroll in AP classes. There are potentially dozens of students in the Arcadia Unified School District who qualify for, but are missing out on the benefits of the AP program.
Closing this “opportunity gap,” and increasing access to the AP curriculum for all students has become a major goal of Collegeboard, and should be a major goal of AUSD.
But eliminating two crucial Honors and AP courses from our English curriculum is not the right answer.
I know all too well the barriers to entry for the Honors/AP English track. I was rejected from the Honors English track twice in 8th and 9th grade before finally “passing the test” the third time to enter Honors English in my sophomore year.
At the time, the only way I could enter the Honors/AP track was passing a test. How could I pass a test with skills I did not have or had yet to learn? Wasn’t that what the Honors English program is for?
After passing the test on the third try, I succeeded in Honors and AP English classes in my last three years of high school (and Ms. Cordero, Mr. Woodin, and Ms. Lucas can corroborate that).
Arcadia has since reformed their policy. Now, students can qualify for the Honors/AP track in a variety of ways including what Collegeboard recommends as the ideal metric: receiving an “AP Potential” score on the PSAT.
This is a step in the right direction: reducing the barriers to entry so any student who has demonstrated “AP Potential” has the opportunity to take Honors and AP English. This challenges more students, and increases the skills, talents, and intelligence of our graduating classes.
But this is not what AUSD is proposing.
By eliminating Freshman Honors English, AUSD is eliminating one full year of preparation for the hundreds of students currently enrolled in the advanced English track. That means students will be less prepared to write college essays, less prepared for the writing rigor of advanced history courses (that remain in place), and perpetually left one year behind their peers.
Is this the plan our principal says will “prepare students to be more successful in college?”
Secondly, by eliminating Junior AP English, over 25% of the graduating class will leave Arcadia High School lacking an entire year of AP English curriculum. If our administration contends that attempting an AP exam will better prepare a student for college, shouldn’t they be maximizing the opportunities to take AP exams by offering more courses instead of less?
How will this “prepare students to be more successful in college?”
I have personally experienced the disparity between Honors and regular English classes, and the solution is not to put all students in the same classroom. The “quality of learning” in a classroom is more dependent on the quality of teaching. I will also tell you from personal experience that there is a disparity in the quality of teaching between regular and Honors/AP courses, perpetuated by the fact that some teachers often teach only Honors/AP. While many Honors/AP teachers do teach regular courses, perhaps having all teachers in a department teach a mix of regular and Honors/AP courses can alleviate this problem.
Perhaps a better solution to reduce the “opportunity gap” in the AUSD is to reduce the barrier to entry for the Honors/AP track, and make available resources for students who enter “late” to “catch up” to their peers. Obviously, “catch-up resources” are not the same as an entire year of an Honors English class, but this does reduce the incentive for people to stay in regular English courses because they feel too far behind their peers in Honors/AP.
Ultimately, reducing the “opportunity gap” is an important goal for all schools in America to consider, Arcadia included. While I do sympathize with the administration’s viewpoints and concerns, I do think that their solution to making the AP program more equitable will ultimately leave Arcadia High worse off. If we want to make Honors/AP more accessible, we should instead provide additional opportunities for people to take Honors and AP courses, such as making it easier to enroll in the advanced track and providing resources through a summer program or online curriculum for students entering the track late to catch up.
To adequately prepare students to be successful in college, we should NOT be eliminating two critical courses from the curriculum. This is a step backwards, and will lead Arcadia in the wrong direction.
It’s been over four months since I’ve officially written a post on this blog. Where did the time go?
Let’s start with January…
January at Princeton means finals, but I was able to squeeze in one fun thing…
One of my best friends snagged two tickets to the Inauguration. How could I turn down such a priceless opportunity? It wasn’t easy to stand in a crazy crowd for nearly 12 hours (with no restroom in sight), but I have to say that the Inauguration was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.
In the middle of Obama’s Inaugural Address, I realized that it was Obama’s 2008 campaign that sparked my initial interest in politics. There I was, four years later, just a few hundred yards from him.
It’s funny how things turn out. It feels like it was just 2008, I had just entered high school, and thought I was going to be a doctor or something. Now it’s 2013, I’m studying public policy 3,000 miles away from home, and hoping to establish a future career in public service. It was Obama who got me fired up about politics, and I haven’t looked back since.
I wonder what the next five years will bring?
As soon as finals ended, my best friends and I flew down to San Juan, Puerto Rico for a week-long vacation.
No readings, no deadlines, no meetings. Just the sun, the beach, and some good ol’ mofongo.
It was an amazing vacation :)
Second semester started off with a bang with bicker for Princeton eating clubs…
I am now a member of Tower!
The following weekend I flew out to UC Berkeley. I coach a high school speech and debate team, and my students were competing at a huge competition that weekend.
It was such a nice change of pace- California never changes!
The last weekend of February was regionals for mock trial- basically our big “playoff” competition that starts the national qualifying process.
The weekend was not free of drama, but we came together in the end, had a great weekend in Boston, and performed well. It’s been a great season, and we are already looking forward to next year.
And after a week of midterms…spring break!
Laura and I spent the first four days relaxing in Rockport, Maine…
…and then flew to my home in LA for the remainder of our break.
As soon as we returned to school, we were rudely forced back into our busy lives.
For the last 10 months, I have been planning an event for Whig-Clio with Chen Guangcheng. A lot of my energy during the week was directed at putting the event together, and making sure it ran smoothly on the day of. Luckily, all the pieces came together well, and 250ish people came out to his lecture!
One of the highlights, though, was walking around campus with him and his family after the day’s festivities, and playing with his kids (and practicing my Chinese). It’s funny to see how even celebrities have very normal lives.
Most of my April was spent working on Ban the Box NJ, but we’re going to save that entire story for another post…
And all of a sudden, it’s May! Which means Houseparties..
The first night is formals…
The second night is semiformals…
And the third day is lawnparties!
After a weekend of fun that really seemed like a marathon, we are now in the middle of reading period preparing for finals. This year, I don’t have a really crazy schedule (luckily), so I’ve finally had time to sit down and write this post!
Wait, summer vacation starts in less than 2 weeks?
Insert mid-college crisis here.
I came across this incredibly interesting article in The Atlantic recently about attitudes, life, and happiness that I found incredibly interesting and impactful. Take a look:
In September 1942, Viktor Frankl, a prominent Jewish psychiatrist and neurologist in Vienna, was arrested and transported to a Nazi concentration camp with his wife and parents. Three years later, when his camp was liberated, most of his family, including his pregnant wife, had perished — but he, prisoner number 119104, had lived. In his bestselling 1946 book, Man’s Search for Meaning, which he wrote in nine days about his experiences in the camps, Frankl concluded that the difference between those who had lived and those who had died came down to one thing: Meaning, an insight he came to early in life. When he was a high school student, one of his science teachers declared to the class, “Life is nothing more than a combustion process, a process of oxidation.” Frankl jumped out of his chair and responded, “Sir, if this is so, then what can be the meaning of life?”
As he saw in the camps, those who found meaning even in the most horrendous circumstances were far more resilient to suffering than those who did not. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Frankl worked as a therapist in the camps, and in his book, he gives the example of two suicidal inmates he encountered there. Like many others in the camps, these two men were hopeless and thought that there was nothing more to expect from life, nothing to live for. “In both cases,” Frankl writes, “it was a question of getting them to realize that life was still expecting something from them; something in the future was expected of them.” For one man, it was his young child, who was then living in a foreign country. For the other, a scientist, it was a series of books that he needed to finish. Frankl writes:
This uniqueness and singleness which distinguishes each individual and gives a meaning to his existence has a bearing on creative work as much as it does on human love. When the impossibility of replacing a person is realized, it allows the responsibility which a man has for his existence and its continuance to appear in all its magnitude. A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”
In 1991, the Library of Congress and Book-of-the-Month Club listedMan’s Search for Meaning as one of the 10 most influential books in the United States. It has sold millions of copies worldwide. Now, over twenty years later, the book’s ethos — its emphasis on meaning, the value of suffering, and responsibility to something greater than the self — seems to be at odds with our culture, which is more interested in the pursuit of individual happiness than in the search for meaning. “To the European,” Frankl wrote, “it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’”
According to Gallup , the happiness levels of Americans are at a four-year high — as is, it seems, the number of best-selling books with the word “happiness” in their titles. At this writing, Gallup also reports that nearly 60 percent all Americans today feel happy without a lot of stress or worry. On the other hand, according to the Center for Disease Control, about 4 out of 10 Americans have not discovered a satisfying life purpose. Forty percent either do not think their lives have a clear sense of purpose or are neutral about whether their lives have purpose. Nearly a quarter of Americans feel neutral or do not have a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful. Research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life increases overall well-being and life satisfaction, improves mental and physical health, enhances resiliency, enhances self-esteem, and decreases the chances of depression. On top of that, the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research. “It is the very pursuit of happiness,” Frankl knew, “that thwarts happiness.”
This is why some researchers are cautioning against the pursuit of mere happiness. In a new study, which will be published this year in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Positive Psychology, psychological scientists asked nearly 400 Americans aged 18 to 78 whether they thought their lives were meaningful and/or happy. Examining their self-reported attitudes toward meaning, happiness, and many other variables — like stress levels, spending patterns, and having children — over a month-long period, the researchers found that a meaningful life and happy life overlap in certain ways, but are ultimately very different. Leading a happy life, the psychologists found, is associated with being a “taker” while leading a meaningful life corresponds with being a “giver.”
"Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life, in which things go well, needs and desire are easily satisfied, and difficult or taxing entanglements are avoided," the authors write.
How do the happy life and the meaningful life differ? Happiness, they found, is about feeling good. Specifically, the researchers found that people who are happy tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, and they are able to buy the things that they need and want. While not having enough money decreases how happy and meaningful you consider your life to be, it has a much greater impact on happiness. The happy life is also defined by a lack of stress or worry.
Most importantly from a social perspective, the pursuit of happiness is associated with selfish behavior — being, as mentioned, a “taker” rather than a “giver.” The psychologists give an evolutionary explanation for this: happiness is about drive reduction. If you have a need or a desire — like hunger — you satisfy it, and that makes you happy. People become happy, in other words, when they get what they want. Humans, then, are not the only ones who can feel happy. Animals have needs and drives, too, and when those drives are satisfied, animals also feel happy, the researchers point out.
"Happy people get a lot of joy from receiving benefits from others while people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others," explained Kathleen Vohs, one of the authors of the study, in a recent presentation at the University of Pennsylvania. In other words, meaning transcends the self while happiness is all about giving the self what it wants. People who have high meaning in their lives are more likely to help others in need. "If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need," the researchers write.
What sets human beings apart from animals is not the pursuit of happiness, which occurs all across the natural world, but the pursuit of meaning, which is unique to humans, according to Roy Baumeister, the lead researcher of the study and author, with John Tierney, of the recent book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Baumeister, a social psychologists at Florida State University, was named an ISI highly cited scientific researcher in 2003.
The study participants reported deriving meaning from giving a part of themselves away to others and making a sacrifice on behalf of the overall group. In the words of Martin E. P. Seligman, one of the leading psychological scientists alive today, in the meaningful life “you use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.” For instance, having more meaning in one’s life was associated with activities like buying presents for others, taking care of kids, and arguing. People whose lives have high levels of meaning often actively seek meaning out even when they know it will come at the expense of happiness. Because they have invested themselves in something bigger than themselves, they also worry more and have higher levels of stress and anxiety in their lives than happy people. Having children, for example, is associated with the meaningful life and requires self-sacrifice, but it has been famously associated with low happiness among parents, including the ones in this study. In fact, according to Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, research shows that parents are less happy interacting with their children than they are exercising, eating, and watching television.
"Partly what we do as human beings is to take care of others and contribute to others. This makes life meaningful but it does not necessarily make us happy," Baumeister told me in an interview.
Meaning is not only about transcending the self, but also about transcending the present moment — which is perhaps the most important finding of the study, according to the researchers. While happiness is an emotion felt in the here and now, it ultimately fades away, just as all emotions do; positive affect and feelings of pleasure are fleeting. The amount of time people report feeling good or bad correlates with happiness but not at all with meaning.
Meaning, on the other hand, is enduring. It connects the past to the present to the future. “Thinking beyond the present moment, into the past or future, was a sign of the relatively meaningful but unhappy life,” the researchers write. “Happiness is not generally found in contemplating the past or future.” That is, people who thought more about the present were happier, but people who spent more time thinking about the future or about past struggles and sufferings felt more meaning in their lives, though they were less happy.
Having negative events happen to you, the study found, decreases your happiness but increases the amount of meaning you have in life. Another study from 2011 confirmed this, finding that people who have meaning in their lives, in the form of a clearly defined purpose, rate their satisfaction with life higher even when they were feeling bad than those who did not have a clearly defined purpose. “If there is meaning in life at all,” Frankl wrote, “then there must be meaning in suffering.”
Which brings us back to Frankl’s life and, specifically, a decisive experience he had before he was sent to the concentration camps. It was an incident that emphasizes the difference between the pursuit of meaning and the pursuit of happiness in life.
In his early adulthood, before he and his family were taken away to the camps, Frankl had established himself as one of the leading psychiatrists in Vienna and the world. As a 16-year-old boy, for example, he struck up a correspondence with Sigmund Freud and one day sent Freud a two-page paper he had written. Freud, impressed by Frankl’s talent, sent the paper to the International Journal of Psychoanalysis for publication. “I hope you don’t object,” Freud wrote the teenager.
While he was in medical school, Frankl distinguished himself even further. Not only did heestablish suicide-prevention centers for teenagers — a precursor to his work in the camps — but he was also developing his signature contribution to the field of clinical psychology: logotherapy, which is meant to help people overcome depression and achieve well-being by finding their unique meaning in life. By 1941, his theories had received international attention and he was working as the chief of neurology at Vienna’s Rothschild Hospital, where he risked his life and career by making false diagnoses of mentally ill patients so that they would not, per Nazi orders, be euthanized.
That was the same year when he had a decision to make, a decision that would change his life. With his career on the rise and the threat of the Nazis looming over him, Frankl had applied for a visa to America, which he was granted in 1941. By then, the Nazis had already started rounding up the Jews and taking them away to concentration camps, focusing on the elderly first. Frankl knew that it would only be time before the Nazis came to take his parents away. He also knew that once they did, he had a responsibility to be there with his parents to help them through the trauma of adjusting to camp life. On the other hand, as a newly married man with his visa in hand, he was tempted to leave for America and flee to safety, where he could distinguish himself even further in his field.
As Anna S. Redsand recounts in her biography of Frankl, he was at a loss for what to do, so he set out for St. Stephan’s Cathedral in Vienna to clear his head. Listening to the organ music, he repeatedly asked himself, “Should I leave my parents behind?… Should I say goodbye and leave them to their fate?” Where did his responsibility lie? He was looking for a “hint from heaven.”
When he returned home, he found it. A piece of marble was lying on the table. His father explained that it was from the rubble of one of the nearby synagogues that the Nazis had destroyed. The marble contained the fragment of one of the Ten Commandments — the one about honoring your father and your mother. With that, Frankl decided to stay in Vienna and forgo whatever opportunities for safety and career advancement awaited him in the United States. He decided to put aside his individual pursuits to serve his family and, later, other inmates in the camps.
The wisdom that Frankl derived from his experiences there, in the middle of unimaginable human suffering, is just as relevant now as it was then: “Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself — be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is.”
Baumeister and his colleagues would agree that the pursuit of meaning is what makes human beings uniquely human. By putting aside our selfish interests to serve someone or something larger than ourselves — by devoting our lives to “giving” rather than “taking” — we are not only expressing our fundamental humanity, but are also acknowledging that that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness.
One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.
My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper -
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives-
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.
All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.
One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.
The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind - our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day’s gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.
Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across cafe tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos dias
in the language my mother taught me - in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.
One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.
One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.
We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always - home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country - all of us -
facing the stars
hope - a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it - together.