If You Don’t Have a Spark, You Can’t Shine
There’s still time to make up for my sins. Or at least that’s what I tell myself before I go to sleep. I was young and I was doing the best that I could, because nobody ever asked anything more of me.
As I enter into a new phase of my growth, I think back on my participation in an admission process and find myself desperately hoping that, in the end, I did more good than harm.
I think about the messages that I was tasked with conveying and the ones that I unwittingly helped to perpetuate. Early in my career, I worked to break down specific stereotypes of USC, but, looking back, I sort of wonder if I was focused on the wrong objectives all along. Listening to faculty and other intelligent discussion about what skills are needed in college students today, I can’t help but think that we’re shooting ourselves in the collective foot by not really taking stock of the effects of our practices. This is not to suggest that there isn’t merit to the system that’s currently in place—it does its job in a number of different ways—but this also does not mean that it can’t be better.
I currently wonder about the more diffuse skills of creativity, remix, critical thinking, and how all of these intersect with media use by youth. I think about the charges of apathy and disengagement and how games, comics, and play can complicate the equation. I consider how the root of “academic inquiry” lies in a sense of joy that is systematically squeezed out of the grooming process—even though we know that this is what we need, does admission systematically work against the cultivation of the sentiment in youth? Instead of teaching students that their energies and passions are valued, do we irreparably damage youth by forcing them into a range of approved activities? Admittedly, the scope of what we recognize is broadening, but we will always be behind students. How powerful could it be to tell a student that he or she, exactly as he/she is, is valued? But also to challenge that student, saying that it’s not enough to stay there? To teach youth that they have a responsibility to use their passions to reshape the world? We talk about authenticity and genuineness with our applicants, and I can’t help but think that we’re going about it all wrong: if we valued who they already were, they wouldn’t feel the need to tell us what we want to hear. If we can reshape the discussion surrounding admission and get students to go after these things but also think critically about them, we can change the type of applicant who sits in our classrooms.
In some ways, you want to tell kids to just soar and so much of what we do as admission officers seems to work against that. We teach youth, whether we realize it or not, that the safe bet is valued (and sure, it’s safe for a reason) but not to think about why it’s valued in the first place and if there are in fact alternative routes to reach the same destination.
For me, the disconnect centers around the notion that kids aren’t given the tools to think about the things that they already do for fun in a critical manner. There’s certainly nothing wrong with traditional or established activities—and these should be encouraged as well—but I do think that we need to radically rethink the process by which our youth are developing skills that will prepare them for college and beyond. There’s something powerful inherent in really looking at what youth are already into—how they spend their time naturally—and using that; there’s something to the idea that showing students how their actions can serve as scaffolding for other things that we value.
While I doubt that any admission person would ever place a large amount of value in a student who competitively stacks cups, I would argue that there’s some skill in that and the trick is to flip that into something. In this process, we have to be partners with students: youth need to be able to articulate what such an activity means to them and we have to be receptive to that. Because, at the end of the day, admission officers are people and who can’t get on board with the simple joy that comes from something like that? Cup stacking might not be our favorite thing in the world, but we’ve all known that expression of joy (at least I hope so) and teaching a student how to parlay that sense of exuberance is what’s going to get him or her to the next level.
Ultimately, I want more kids to be unafraid to express some of that unadulterated passion on the application because knowing that, for possibly one second in your life, you simply shined is something so powerful. The trick is teaching kids humility and that their light isn’t better than or more special than anyone else’s…but if you don’t have a spark, you can’t shine.