“Never Lose Sight of the Importance of Asking Questions”-Kaija Gahm ’15

Kaija Gahm graduated from Newton North in 2015. At North, she participated in the Newton North Envirothon team, a subgroup of science team. After graduating, Gahm took a gap year and is now a junior at Yale University, although she she avoids saying she attends Yale because of the reaction it triggers. Gahm suggests that people express the same attitude of praise regardless of where a student attends school. In addition to speaking about college admissions, Gahm offers general advice on post high school life and reflects on her experience at North.

How would you describe your experience at North? How much did your time there shape you as a person?

Overall, I had a good experience at North. I really liked high school. I had a whole lot of really great teachers, and they encouraged me to ask questions all the time. I went to office hours whenever I could and built my confidence as a learner. I think my ability to connect with teachers has served me very well; in college, there are more students and you really have to advocate for yourself, seek out help from professors and TA’s, take initiative to go to office hours, and be proactive. Nobody’s going to come and check in on you. North’s awesome guidance counselors and dedicated teachers always encouraged me to come talk to them and gave me lots of practice with this sort of self-advocacy.

What were your greatest fears about your post high school life? What were you most looking forward to?

I was most scared of the academic workload in college, which it turns out was way off base. Honestly, college academics are pretty easy after the classes I took at North. I don’t really know what I was most scared of. In general, I was scared of starting at a new school, making new friends, and of all the unknowns. When I was in high school, I basically knew I had to get good grades and get into college. But after college, there are so many options. There’s no longer a single way to measure your success because people take so many different paths. I was nervous about that, and it has turned out to be one of the most challenging parts of college.

What’s the most valuable lesson you learned from North?

The most valuable lesson I learned from North was to always ask questions. Most of the teachers I had at North put a high emphasis on class discussions, getting feedback, and questioning absolutely everything. In college, it’s easy to fall out of the habit of asking questions because there’s so much work and so many big lectures where you don’t get the chance to talk. I hope to never lose sight of the importance of asking questions, and I thank North for that.

Would you say North is sheltered from the real world?

I think North is definitely sheltered from the real world, but college is more so. I feel like I’m living in even more of a bubble at college than I was in high school. Maybe it just feels that way because things have gotten so much worse politically since I graduated high school, but the higher education bubble is real. I don’t know what to recommend with regards to this. A couple years ago, I would have said that this kind of sheltering is a real problem, and we need to do something about it. I still think it’s a problem. But now, a major component of many people’s political beliefs is a hostility for education itself. That “question everything” mentality, which I’ve always thought was a key part of education, regardless of a person’s political beliefs, has now become politicized. So I think that now, more than ever, the “bubble” of North and of colleges is inherent to their very existence. The people at college, by and large, believe in college. So by going to college, you’ll be isolated from people who think otherwise.

Can you elaborate on what you mean when you say that the question everything mentality is politicized?

I mean, quite simply, there are people right now who believe that science is bad that higher education is destroying the country. I’m trying not to get too militantly political here, but climate change denial is one good example. Scientists don’t want climate change. We’re not advocating for climate change to happen. What we’re advocating for is the ability to do unbiased research, regardless of whether the results of that research make us happy or sad, but Trump keeps pulling funding from science, not listening to science advisors, etc. Meanwhile, this: http://www.newsweek.com/republicans-believe-college-education-bad-america-donald-trump-media-fake-news-634474

If a majority of republicans think that college is bad for america, then, you can see how, by attending college and believing in college, you’re sort of inherently siding with one party over another.

So North is a bubble in that sense?

Less so because everyone goes to high school, but not everyone goes to college. But I also think that North is really stratified. So, I took a lot of AP classes, did science team, etc. All my friends were going to college, they were all fighting to have the highest GPA,  and they were all obsessing about resumes and college essays. I’m sure there are plenty of students at North who don’t necessarily want to go to college, or who aren’t as freaked about it as I was, but I think North separates students, so I never really had friends who didn’t want to go to college or who had other plans after graduating.

What advice do you have on college/ post high school life?

You’re going to have to get used to uncertainty. For me, high school felt very stable. I lived with my family, I knew who my friends were, I knew what I’d be doing the next week, the next month and the next year. College is absolutely full of changes, and as someone who really likes routines and gets stressed out by transitions, I have had a lot of trouble adjusting to this. You take new classes each semester. The place you live, and the people you live with keeps changing. You might go to new places or do different things each summer. There’s no consistency. It forces you to define yourself not in relation to the things around you, but by your internal qualities, and that’s a very hard thing to do. It can be stressful. Try to avoid comparing yourself to the people around you: that’s an easy trap to fall into, and it won’t make you any happier.

Some more light hearted advice: learn to cook, do your laundry, etc.! If you haven’t learned these things yet, college is a great time to start doing “adult” things.

Is college as great as you thought it would be?

I don’t know if I thought it would be great. I had mixed feelings, but I just assumed I would go, and never questioned it. College has a lot of ups and downs. Coping with all the transitions, navigating social life, and thinking about what I want to do next in my life has been a lot harder and a lot more stressful than I thought it would be, but I’ve also really enjoyed all the classes that I’ve gotten to take, the research I’m doing, all the people I’ve met, and activities I’ve gotten involved in, so it’s definitely a mixed bag.

Did you ever feel like what you were doing  in high school was more of an ends to means as in getting into the most prestigious school?

Absolutely, I did. I did my best to enjoy my high school classes, and I mostly did, but ultimately I was taking them because I was expected to, and I did feel that pressure.

Do you think it was worth the stress, like you got into Yale?

There’s the catch. I got into Yale and that felt like a huge accomplishment when it happened, but I don’t really know why I chose Yale. I went there because it was the most prestigious school I got into. People like to ask why I decided to go to Yale, and I’ve always tried to come up with a better answer than that because at the time, I wasn’t saying to myself “I’ll go to the most prestigious school I get into!” But ultimately that’s what I did, and I’m absolutely not convinced that it’s better than another school would have been. Yale is a great school, but there are a lot of great schools, and there are plenty of things that I don’t like about Yale. It’s not paradise, so I’d say no, the stress wasn’t worth it. The work I put in was absolutely worth it. I’m glad I cared so much about my classes. I’m glad I engaged with my teachers, but just to get into Yale? No. If you’re only caring about your classes in order to get into college, and if that were taken away, you wouldn’t care at all, then no, it’s not worth the stress. Also, after getting into college, people stop caring where you go. I was at a summer program with a bunch of students from around the country and five or six of them go to schools that I had never heard of, like small liberal arts colleges, state universities, etc, and they’re just as smart as me. They’re awesome. I think at North there’s this feeling that if you don’t get into an Ivy, you’re not as smart or you’re not as good, and everyone tells you that isn’t true, but people still believe it, and it just is not true.

What are your tips for kids deciding on where to apply to school? What would you say to people to get them to stop obsessing over getting into prestigious schools because I think a lot of kids in our school can relate to how you felt?

I’m not sure what’s the right way to choose. I guess pay attention to your gut more than what people tell you to. Meet students at the school. Think about whether they seem like people you could be friends with. If you can’t visit there, which I understand that many people can’t, try to talk to someone on the phone from the school. I think counselors give good advice, but students just have trouble listening to it. Know that if you don’t get in, it doesn’t make you a failure. There’s a ton of randomness in the admissions system anyway, so you could be totally qualified and not get in. Like, one of my best friends at North didn’t get in to Yale. Her grades were as good as mine, she did more extracurriculars than I did, she was an amazing writer so I’m sure her essays were great. She’s smarter than I am, I’m sure. Why did I get in and she didn’t? I have no idea, probably some weird lottery thing. It’s hard because I know it feels so so so important to high school students, but I promise, once you start college it really just ceases to matter, and people stop with the stupid comparisons.

For a lot of people getting into a good school is validation of their work, what do you think makes people get so caught into this college process?

Well, I think that especially at a school like North and in a town like Newton, there’s a huge amount of pressure coming from lots of different sources. Parents are a huge one, and even if your parents don’t put pressure on you, your friends’ parents might, or your teachers, or your counselors, or your friends themselves, but I don’t want to blame anyone here. I’m not saying parents are the reason kids are stressed. I think everyone gets caught in this, and it becomes self-reinforcing. There’s a general cultural message that you hear all the time which is that you have to get into a good school and no matter how much you try to escape that, everyone and everything around you says that. Here’s an interesting thing: I tend to avoid saying that I go to Yale. I don’t avoid it deliberately but I’ve caught myself avoiding it because the most common response I get is “oh, wow, you must be sooo smart”or “oh wow good for you,” which makes me really uncomfortable because the implicit assumption there is that if I didn’t go to Yale, they’d be thinking of me as less smart. That’s really squicky. Every time someone tells me “you must be smart, you go to Yale,” it’s another voice adding to that culture of “you have to get into the top school.”

If we wanted to put a positive spin on it, we could start saying that to everyone. Someone would say “I go to [insert college that’s not super famous]” and the response would be “oh wow, good for you.”

By Hannah Liu

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