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Jewish Journal

Staying empathetic is a challenge during the race for college

By Laura Donney, Tribe Contributor

September 3, 2008 | 10:56 pm

I believe myself to be a compassionate person. I say this, of course, with an immense amount of supporting evidence. You know in Westerns, when the cowboys battle it out on the frontier, riding their horses? Well, when a man gets shot and both he and his horse tumble to the ground, I panic for the safety of the horse (I don't wish the cowboy dead or anything, but he's fighting of his own volition). The point is, I find myself inherently empathetic.

But there is a new tension between my inherent self, and my impacted self. I am referring to what is simply known as the college process.

My junior year just ended, and instead of experiencing an expected euphoric sense of relief, my summer seems to have been only interim between school sessions. I've been picking colleges to apply to and interning so much that even I'm starting to resent the idea of volunteering.

Meeting with private advisers and going to college fairs have provoked in me a desire to go far away and make a fortune in chocolate or something else that doesn't need a degree. But it is in these panics that I've had these revelations: I realized that I have become so consumed by my own college process that I have forgotten about those kids who have absolutely no idea what they should be doing, not because they are apathetic or disinterested, not because they wouldn't go the extra mile if they had the opportunity, but because they don't have the opportunity.

Because school-hired college counselors are often overburdened, poorer students aren't informed about the very basics of getting accepted into a university. Countless numbers of students simply print and fill out an application, not knowing they should have been on yearbook, or worked at a soup kitchen or taken two opposite subjects for the SAT subject tests.

What this ignites in me, these unfair expectations that so many are unaware of, is a new drive to succeed in my own college process. If I can get where I need to be, I can change the very process that got me there (my inherent self). But then again, can I afford to sympathize with other peers (my impacted self)?

In order to be decently competitive among the surplus of determined students -- especially this year, when more college applications then ever before will be filed -- I cannot think about others. It's as if to function at all adequately in preparation for college, I must be ruthless, desensitized and immune to any kind of empathy I'm tempted to embrace.

Even if college is a place of unity and togetherness, it has turned high school into a vast arena of self-concern and self-involvement.

It's even infiltrating my personal life. I go to a friend's house, I lie on her bed and we take turns venting about why we won't get accepted into where we'd like, but I listen only so I can be listened to; now the empathy that was once abundant isn't even active for my friends. Then the next night, I go to MILK, and over sundaes -- a perhaps most underrated distraction from all the academic turmoil of the times -- I again reflect on newly received report cards that completely alter dreams and expectations. One day's mail drastically shifts previously planned goals. But that's just the way it works.

From day to day, from each score to the next score, I mold and bend to be practical and realistic as I try to avoid dimming any dreams that have been long lit by fantasies and college brochures. So even in the brief moments where I guilt-trip myself -- because when I look at it relatively, I have it good -- it doesn't take long for me to jump back into the "but what about me?" boat. After all, everyone is competition.

It's something strange to look down at a standardized answer sheet, and see you, what you have become over the last 17 years, as nothing more than little penciled-in bubbles. It's something strange to be constantly scanned like a barcode when you're trying to depart on what should be the most human and growing experience that is life.

Yet, I will not stray from the college process. I will not dismiss what I am beginning to so wholeheartedly resent, because even as I trek through this systematic and mechanical pilgrimage to the glowing beacon that is a university, I am learning something. I am learning what I can handle. I am learning my priorities and my limits and my self-expectations, and how I have trouble dealing with them all, but indeed, I do deal. And I think what I will take most from this process (aside from an acceptance letter), is the vow to never be so self-involved again.

So, here I come young steed, soon my empathy will again be yours for the taking.

Laura Donney this week became a senior at Hamilton High School.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the September issue is Aug. 15; deadline for the October issue is Sept. 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

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