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The F Word

This morning I woke up to three different messages from three high school girls who are much different in every way but currently chasing the same goal: pursuing the UWC scholarship to better their future. I had the honor of getting to know them throughout the process – from reading their applications, interviewing them, giving them advice, etc. and even though I am no stranger to admissions process of this kind, each of them amazes me with what they are capable of and, more importantly, what they aspire to be capable of.

This morning I woke up to three different messages; and one of them was good news. First, congratulations to the lucky candidate who got the spot. You totally deserve the scholarship. This may sound cliché, but most UWCers would tell you this same cliché thing: you are about to have the best two years of your life. I was in your shoe 6 years ago (now to say that out loud makes me feel old): a student from a rural province who didn’t get much chance to learn anything besides academic rigor. I came to UWC unequiped, without knowing how to play any instrument or speak any other language besides my broken English. I came to UWC with all my immaturity and insecurity. Yet, I had something of great value: curiosity. I was willing to learn any instrument my friend teaches me, learn any languages or phrases I could absorb, and was willing to make friends with essentially anyone who feels the same way. With that, UWC changed me and my life, and became certainly the best two years of my life. So, I really hope you will also make the most out of UWC in place of so many others who couldn’t make it!

Now, to my dear friends who didn’t make the cut get the UWC scholarship: please do NOT, in any way, feel that you did not make the cut! Do NOT think about this as if you weren’t good enough for any quality cutoff. Even though we already tried really hard to make UWC not so much of a competition and simply award the scholarship to the right people, because of the limited number, there were always hard decisions to make in the process. However, please remember what some of you told me in the interview when I asked why you deserved this chance: you answered “it’s because I’m different”! Indeed, you all are very, very different individuals whose values can’t be compared and contrasted easily. It is almost impossible to do so. I just hope you take this UWC application experience as a chance to reflect on your own life and values: to get to know yourself, what you are, and what you are not. These reflections will be precious for you in the future, when you apply to US colleges, graduate schools, find jobs, or sometimes, just to know what you are living for.

That said, it’s easy for me to say all that because I’m not the one that received the decision this time. Well, yes and no. It’s true that I’m not applying; and it may seem as if success always comes to me easily. In fact that’s what those who don’t know me always think. When they look at me, they see someone who won a ton of awards, got into PTNK (High school for the gifted HCMC), was awarded the UWC scholarship, got into Princeton, etc. “Everything seems so easy for you” – I heard this many times. It seems like a compliment, but to me, it’s an understatement of all my efforts and ignorance of all my failures. So let me tell you some occasions in which I have failed and felt worthless:

1. I studied computer science briefly and won a 2nd prize national in my 5th grade, and briefly became well known in my province at the time. Then for the next three years (6th, 7th, 8th grade), I either failed to advance to nationals, or failed to get any merits at the national round (twice). Three years of trying is a long time and a lot of efforts, and not getting any result for three years straight pretty much told me I wasn’t cut for programming anymore.

Good thing I didn’t drop programming; otherwise, I won’t have got into PTNK and UWC and Princeton and all that follow. 🙂

2. When I got into Princeton, I really wanted to sing. I really wanted to join an a cappella group, and tried out for 10+ clubs in my freshman year, including the glee club and the musical theater groups. In the 2nd week of my freshman year at Princeton, I received 10+ rejection letters in a week.

Good thing I didn’t stop trying, because in my second year, I got into VTone, my a cappella group, who turned out to be the best group of people I met at Princeton.

3. I was told by a school representative that if I applied to a certain international internship placement, I would get it for sure because there was not much competition. I applied, and got the usual generic “Thank you for applying but…” email some months later. Then I applied to a few more internships that offered placement through Princeton, and got rejected by all. I was very frustrated, and sent my cover letter to some 20 random research institutions I could find on the internet to ask them for an internship, even if they say that they do not have one.

Good thing I did so, because one out of 20 replied.

As you can see, in hindsight, persistence is always the optimal choice. However, when one faces failures, and the future is so uncertain, determining whether to keep going or give up can be difficult.

Well, the key is, try to look at your problems in hindsight!

Keep trying. I wish you all best of lucks!


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