Academic pressure fosters competitive toxicity

“For a long time, Leland’s toxic and competitive environment caused me to bear a large burden of stress on my shoulders. I defined myself by my grades, to the point where A’s were little victories, B’s were failures and C’s—well at that point, I considered myself an ultimate disaster. It took a whole year of communicating my feelings to friends, family and a counselor, to help me separate myself from the idea that grades and high-tier colleges made up who I was. Instead, I started ignoring the peer pressure around me, and focused on what I really wanted: to be happy,” Senior Isha Savant said. In the midst of the Silicon Valley lay some of the most competitive and hyper achieving high schools in the nation—this school included. With exceptional colleges such as Stanford and UC Berkeley and large multi-million dollar high-tech companies in their backyard,students are pressured to chase ideal educational and career opportunities that lay just beyond their reach. The first step to self-demeaning stress? Peer pressure. “The environment here is stressful because everyone targets the same exact achievements, which seem to be the ‘ideal’ without finding their own path. Throughout high school I felt pressured to do the same, even though I’m not a strong academic type, and more of a creative person. It took me until this year to realize that things that I’m passionate about and make me happy are not the same as what make others happy—and that applies to colleges as well—the colleges that everyone else targets may not be the best for my personal work ethic and personality. When I removed myself from the mindset of basing my success by comparing myself to other people, I appreciated my strengths and threw myself into art and dance, which are things I actually love. ” Senior Alisa Lee said. The crowded AP classes, honors classes and competition to be the best in sports while being in charge of clubs, community service and other extracurriculars are just some examples of how the school specifically fosters very high-achieving students that influence each other to keep doing more, when they see someone successful with a lot of advanced classes or extracurriculars. However, peer pressure is only one component of the stressful environment. According to The Mercury News the colleges’ entrance requirements add to the stress by creating high standards that force students to add more to their plates than they usually would, especially when the students define themselves on getting into a top-tier college. After the Palo Alto high school suicide cluster starting in 2009, Denise Pope, a counselor for the Palo Alto Unified School District talked to New York Times. “I hear students tell me that if I do not get into X, Y, Z college, I will wind up flipping burgers at McDonald’s,”Pope said. According to The Mercury News the trouble is, even when schools are able to remove this idea of high-tier colleges and the best grades being the only road to success from parents and students, the next year when a new class of students and parents comes in, they have to start all over again. It’s hard to remove this ingrained ideal from the school’s mind, so students continue to think that once they get into that one college, they will get to relax. The pressure that exists at Leland from the work now, play later mindset still follows many past high school. “When I left the school, I had to re-evaluate what really mattered: grades or happiness. The school is so focused on looking to the future, that we forget to prioritize the present and strike a balance. Slowly but surely I am

beginning to take care of myself before anything else. However, the work now, play later mindset still exists in college, because students define themselves by their achievements, which starts with doing well at school,” an unnamed Berkeley attendee and graduate of the school’s 2018 class said. As stated by NBC Bay Area, another part of the problem exists in the fact that many schools do not teach students life-skills that will help them deal with stress in the long-term and instead offer short term solutions. “Many students don’t know how to manage their time well, or know how to balance academics and fun, which causes them to be stressed,” Senior Solaine Zhao said. Although the school organizes bring pets to school days, mental healthcare spirit weeks and clubs, only a minority of the 1800 students partake in these activities. Teachers attempt to counsel their students on being relaxed and at times cut down the amount of homework they have. However, the school fails to offer many long-term solutions to the majority, such as teaching time-management and balancing work and play, in classes. Nevertheless, the school does provide one long-term solution to counter the rising levels of depression, anxiety and stress-related mental health issues—counseling services from experienced therapists. Yet, according to students like Senior Ayesha Gokhale, many parents (especially first-generation American parents) have difficulty addressing children’s mental health. “The stigma against mental healthcare and therapy exists in first-generation parents, because of the differences in mental health culture. For my parents, who were raised in India, they were taught that serious mental health issues were ‘made-up’ and less necessary to deal with than academics. This mindset gets passed down from generation to generation to the point when mental disorders are not talked about—which shows why many students at the school as well keep quiet and suppress their mental health for favor of their grades and achievements.”Even with the school’s attempts at alleviating stress, the ingrained toxic and competitive environment at the school is too deep-rooted in the community to be fixed by a few changes. In the end, many students find their own ways of coping and separating themselves from the stress at school. “To overcome stress, I exercise or channel my stress into doing work that I enjoy, and try to see the optimistic side of things,” Junior Mary Gillis said. “When I feel overwhelmed by the stress at Leland, I immerse myself in art and theatre, because expressing myself is what keeps me grounded and happy. Channeling your anxieties and troubles into art is, for me, the healthiest way to manage it. In all honesty, students put too much emphasis on insignificant parts of life, such as grades and high school, because in reality, this is all a very small part of the big picture. A life full of opportunity still awaits you outside of the school.” Senior Katlyn Barbaccia said.