By Taruna Anil
“It’s so competitive, and everything revolves around getting into the top college. I wish it [were] more about having fun and enjoying high school.”
That quote is from a Bay Area student, speaking on how their high school experience has impacted them. Reading those words may be jarring for those who aren’t from here, but for those who are, it’s all too familiar.
The Bay Area consists of seven counties that surround the San Francisco Bay. Correspondingly, Silicon Valley, also known as the tech capital of the world, refers to cities that serve as a hub for technological innovation, making this area a paradise for techies, but a pressure cooker for students.
By housing large companies like Google and having Stanford next door, there’s always been immense pressure on Bay Area students to succeed. As a Bay Area student, I strived to determine how this stress affects students through an anonymous survey. But even with the many responses I received, it’s difficult to pinpoint where it all started.
The STEM emphasis
“People have laughed at me because I choose to express interest in humanities instead of STEM.”
Since there are so many high tech companies here, many students have a common goal: to be like the greats, the people who changed the 21st century forever. But not every student strives for this.
The arts and humanities have always been overlooked in Bay Area schools. STEM is seen as a lifelong passion, while English and Art are viewed as just necessary credits. I’ve been pushed to pursue the STEM field by almost everyone in my life, yet nobody acted the same with humanities. It discouraged me from expressing my true self to my peers, as I was afraid I wouldn’t get taken seriously.
Pressure in the Asian Community
“[With] the [number] of Asians around here (although I am [Asian] myself), I feel like expectations are much higher.”
As an Indian-American myself, I can attest to the increased amount of pressure in the Asian community. Though it doesn’t apply to everyone, it is rampant. Your relatives overseas expect you to succeed and be better than them. Your parents put pressure on you to take higher-level classes and have perfect grades. Your friends who aren’t subjected to these pressures enjoy the high school experience, while you succumb to everyone else’s expectations.
While our community’s expectations aren’t something we can control, we can choose how we impact others and treat ourselves. We can choose to project our stress onto others or turn that into kindness and encouragement. It’s essential to take care of yourself and your peers who are possibly facing the same difficulties.
“I have always struggled with getting good grades, [test-taking] isn’t something I’m great at, but the people around me would look at my Bs and say, “why do your grades look like that?” It made me feel like my grades defined me and my intelligence, and if I didn’t have straight A's I was immediately not smart.”
“I often feel like I am looked down upon because I am taking a lower level [of] math, and because I am not taking an honors course. I wish people would stop comparing my struggles in a course to theirs because theirs is harder. My struggles are valid too.”
Along with pressure from parents, teachers, and school administrators, a large amount of stress hails from students. Comparing grades, scores, and the difficulty of classes is not uncommon in Silicon Valley schools. We are taught to be the best in our grades, take the most challenging courses, and participate in the most extracurriculars. Having constant stress from every relationship in your life is not healthy.
We can eliminate this together by re-evaluating the way we speak to our peers about school-related endeavors. Instead of asking, “What’d you get on the test?” we need to encourage our community and reassure our friends that no matter what grade shows up in their student portal, they still matter. No number, letter, or opinion can change that.
What’s the Difference?
“Silicon Valley schools gave [so] much pressure on literal children. I was stressed about not having a 3.95 GPA at the end of grade (had a 3.93 because of one B in yearbook [thanks] to missing a deadline) and had literal anxiety attacks as a [fourteen-year-old]. Now at my high school in Austin, [Texas], which is considered relatively good, I’m sitting in the top 10% [of my class] with much better mental health and a couple B’s in English.”
It’s important to note the differences between Bay Area schools and other schools around the country. While students may face similar struggles, the environments can be quite different. Shreya Patwardhan, a sophomore in Austin, Texas, noted this polarization. “In the Bay Area, it’s super academic and [pressure-filled], but I was shocked on the first day last year when all my teachers said [this] is what you need to do to pass.”
Many students here, including myself, cannot begin to comprehend what it’s like to be in a school environment where students didn’t value themselves by their parents, teachers, and peers’ arbitrary opinions. The differences between Patwardhan’s schools is significant because of how we normalize constant stress and anxiety once we're immersed in it for so long.
How can we change?
Finally, I asked Bay Area students what they would change about their schools.
“The pressure of needing to take countless APs and Honors classes really does stress me out sometimes, and I feel like I am a good student, but get defined on how smart I am solely based off of whether or not I take [higher-level] classes.”
“Teaching students that even if they don’t go to an Ivy league or a UC, they’ll still be successful later on in life.”
“Less competitive, more open mental health resources.”
“Having fine arts and electives being taken more seriously, and less about just ‘getting the college credits.’ I want [the] arts to be celebrated as much as STEM and sports are.”
“An environment that doesn't constantly shame you and stress you for being average and not [overachieving].”
Changing the culture of our schools starts with us. Prioritizing your mental health, realizing that scores do not define you, and being kinder to one another can help enact this change. Knowing that we’re all struggling with similar issues helps me see that I have a community to stand beside that’s willing to use their voice to create change. As cliche as it sounds, know that you are never, ever alone.