Class of 2021: Alumni reflect on their transition to various colleges

December 18, 2021 — by Christina Chang and Arnav Swamy

Following a remote senior year amidst the pandemic, SHS Class of 2021 alumni detail their transition into college. With some schools offering fully in-person courses and others still in a hybrid learning format, four alumni discuss their unique experiences, the college learning curve and advice they would give to high schoolers navigating college life.

 

UCLA: Mithil Chakraborty finds a new sense of academic and social freedom

Three evenings a week, 2021 alumnus Mithil Chakraborty leaps over his fellow dancers before exploding into a fiery Bollywood hip hop fusion dance, perfectly in sync with the rhythm of intense Bollywood music. He is a member of UCLA’s Nashaa dance team and has been rehearsing tirelessly in preparation for upcoming competitions.

Clubs like Nashaa were only one of many attributes that Chakraborty found compelling about the school. The research opportunities, student body, location and ample catalog of courses in UCLA enticed him above all other schools.

I was primarily interested in California schools, and UCLA was at the top of that list. It was pretty much UCLA or nothing,” he said.

UCLA classes run in a hybrid format, which Chakraborty appreciates since it helped him ease into the college environment instead of being flooded with so many opportunities at once.

Ever since his first day of college on Sept. 23, Chakraborty said he felt a new sense of freedom, especially after being “caged in his room” because of the pandemic as a senior in high school.

“I know it’s cliché, but being able to choose the courses you want and participating in clubs that simply interest you instead of feeling obligated to do them is great,” he said. “I get to split my time and energy any way I like.”

Chakraborty noticed that there is a tradeoff for such flexibility and choice: The influx of academic options initially overwhelmed him and forced him to strategize how he approaches his freedom in a practical way.

After considering his options, Chakraborty opted to pursue a bioengineering track and is venturing into research and development opportunities in biotech companies. Chakraborty is also interested in pursuing an entrepreneurship or music minor. His goal behind course selection is to avoid “simply doing busy work” like at SHS and actually delve into his interests.

Right off the bat, he noticed how rapidly college coursework accelerated, especially for difficult STEM majors such as the bioengineering one he picked. Every other week, he had an exam and found that the fast pace of quarters demanded a juggling of his academic and social life. 

Despite the rigorous academics, Chakraborty noticed that cliques that revolved around studying instead of interacting are far less functional in college than in SHS and has learned to avoid them to thrive in school. 

“For me, it’s important to be friends with who I want,” he said. “It just helps me maximize my time, since I realized in SHS that I was interacting with people on the basis of school and not common interest.”

His focus on individual excellence has translated seamlessly into the extracurricular activities that Chakraborty enjoys. As an avid musician, dancer and business enthusiast, he has chosen to join clubs like Nashaa and UCLA’s entrepreneurship club to nurture his interest in these fields. While still a freshman, he is eyeing future leadership positions.

“UCLA’s clubs are great for fostering already big interests. Joining these clubs gives you a new community with something in common to fall back on,” Chakraborty said. “I hope to lead and grow our dance team in the future.” 

Amid the flood of new faces for him at UCLA, clubs have served as a conduit for connections. As a self-described sociable and expressive person, he found it easy to dive into various clubs and feel at home.

“High school is naive in the sense that it places importance on trivial things like social hierarchy and courses,” he said. “To me, college is to properly fulfill your social and academic interests instead of simply repeating high school again.”

 

Stanford: Francesca Fernandes learns to find balance between social and academic life 

When 2021 alumna Francesca Fernandes attended Stanford University’s orientation, she finally realized just what her next four years had in store. She strode into her first day of Stanford in full swing on Sept. 20, which opted to function completely in person. 

Fernandes has renewed appreciation of what used to be normal school.

“I definitely prefer in-person learning. It’s so much more interactive and I can connect to the material more easily,” Fernandes said.

She noted that college is much more individually demanding and free-flowing; she has to stay diligent with her time management.

“College requires you to have a lot more control over yourself in the sense that you can do whatever you want, so it’s imperative to prioritize and plan accordingly,” she said. “Attending class isn’t a requirement and the notion of a bedtime isn’t enforced, so it’s easy to slip with how much time you think you have.”

Fernandes plans to major in physics but is also interested in an array of artistic genres, notably performance. 

As a prolific performer and formerly an instrumental figure in SHS’s theater program, Fernandes is extremely happy that theater at Stanford is in-person.

“Zoom performances don’t capture the same energy and collaboration between members that in-person rehearsals and performances do,” she said. “The audience is able to see the full color and effort that went into production.”  

Fernandes’s artistic drive is supported primarily through her dormitory and roommates, who share a deep appreciation for a multitude of different artistic forms. While she found that adjusting to Stanford’s social culture was initially difficult and lonely, she forged a strong friendship with her roommates through this common affinity. 

“Seeing everyone’s respective art practice and their passion is really inspiring and creates a very vibrant group identity,” she said. 

Even so, Fernandes often feels pressured by impostor syndrome, especially while assimilating to a top-notch school like Stanford. She is learning to branch out of this mold and meet others on campus. 

“Everyone is super friendly and willing to work together, and seeing how much passion everyone has for their craft is truly inspiring,” Fernandes said.  

She firmly believes that learning to form a social life is a class in and of itself. As such, she has chosen to take a moderate course load in her first quarter to settle in with friends.

Her friend group frequently plans events, whether it be attending school football games or simply exploring Palo Alto. She finds that the best social time is simply talking in her dorm late at night.

“If you’re too busy consistently grinding back-breaking problem sets to hang out, you’ll lose a solid friendship base, which you’ll need later on in college to tackle hard classes and relax,” Fernandes said. “College is a new experience; it’s important to have a support structure instead of diving into it blindfolded.”

 

UC Berkeley: Rohan Kumar reflects time-management techniques in response to academic rigor

 As an electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) major, Kumar scrolled in awe through the UC Berkeley website during course shopping season. 

“There’s so many classes — I spent two days just trying to decide which classes I might take,” Kumar said. “I think I’m probably not even going to be done with all the interesting classes by the time I’m a senior.”

Of the five classes Kumar is taking, two are fully online; two are in a hybrid model with online lectures and in-person discussions and labs; and one is fully in-person. 

Kumar said that while he likes how in-person classes force him to attend lectures, pay attention and allow him to ask questions, he prefers online lectures for their flexibility, especially when he is tight on time. 

In terms of grading policies, he’s found that professors teaching courses covering basic foundational concepts often grade harder, while those covering more specific, complicated topics have graded more leniently, as students would not take those classes if they lacked a genuine interest in it.

Kumar added that the biggest challenges he’s faced in college thus far are midterms. While he was able to cram for high school exams, he’s had to study more for college midterms that have proven to be much more difficult with heavier grade weightage.

Although Kumar still uses Google Spreadsheets to track his schedule as he did in high school, he has also begun using Google Calendar, which he said has become a necessity for college life.

“[In college] your classes are at completely random times, and they could be interspersed throughout the day. So you’d go there, you’d come back home, then go out later for a different class,” Kumar said. “So, I have a calendar full of everything I need to go to and all my meetings. I didn’t need that in high school, but now in college you really need a calendar to stay on top of things.”

In terms of coursework, he typically completes each week’s homework over the weekend, giving him more free time to explore his interests outside of class curriculums. 

Kumar created a folder on his browser bookmark bar with a collection of website and textbook links, and he goes through them to “just watch a couple of videos or read a little bit” whenever he’s bored.

With more free time in college, Kumar has chosen to focus on learning more about the subjects that interest him. He even decided to say goodbye to his Cararra fans on the YouTube channel he made in high school, as his college activities have taken priority.

Regarding his social life, Kumar said he doesn’t go to any of the school-organized events. Instead, he often goes to his friends’ dorms to hang out and pursue activities like hiking and rock climbing.

Kumar lives in an apartment with his older brother, Class of 2018 alumnus Rahul Kumar. He’s kept in touch with many friends from high school and alumni who are now attending Berkeley, like Class of 2021 alumnus Oliver Ye and his friends. 

Reflecting on his high school experiences, he said the competitive environment at SHS prepared him well for college academically. He described that he “went from a Saratoga environment to another Saratoga environment,” as both schools stress academic rigor.

“In general, it was really good to have that competitive nature,” Kumar said. “I know not many people will agree with me, but I think going to Berkeley doing EECS, the [Berkeley environment] is simply a step up competitively from SHS. It’s nothing new.”

However, Kumar acknowledged that the competitive environment at SHS pressured him to “do a ton of clubs and just get involved in as much stuff as possible.” By his senior year of high school, Kumar held an officer position for five SHS clubs, was a president for Science Bowl and Redwood Middle School’s math club as well as being a top editor for The Falcon. 

In college, he said, extracurriculars are not as important as they were in high school. He is currently in iGEM Club which focuses on synthetic bio, is an academic intern and computer science mentor for his peers.

“I think it’s good that I didn’t get involved in too many extracurriculars; that’s a mistake I made in high school,” Kumar said. “Now that I’m in college, I’m going to be a bit more careful with which extracurricular I get myself into and just try to do stuff that I’m interested in.”

 

Harvard: Kaitlyn Tsai approaches vast array of social opportunities with thought and care

2021 alumna Kaitlyn Tsai’s mind raced as she sped to an AirBNB on the outskirts of Boston on a late September evening. She was headed to her first board retreat with Harvard’s Asian American Women’s Association (AAWA), where she would discuss Asian American identity on campus with fellow female Asian students.

“It was honestly incredible; I truly felt like I had found a home here. I had found people who are people and not just high-functioning robots,” she said.

Tsai is currently serving as AAWA’s freshman delegate on the organization’s Dialogue Committee, which hosts discussion events to engage the community in addressing issues affecting Asian American women at the school. 

Moving from the so-called Saratoga bubble to Harvard with people stemming from every academic corner and all over the world presented Tsai with a dizzying array of academic and social opportunities. 

Although Harvard does not allow students to declare majors until their sophomore year, Tsai hopes to concentrate in government with a secondary in psychology. The school’s course policy for freshmen allows Tsai the time to fully scope what the college has in store for her.

“In freshman year, you’re only allowed to take four classes, with each one being around 75 minutes long,” she said. “We only meet a few times a week, so I suddenly had to manage so much time on my plate. Understanding how I want to partition it among everything I wanted to do was a new challenge.”

Tsai’s classes are all in person, and she said she is fortunate to be able to finally attend school without relying on a screen.

“Physically sitting down in a lecture hall makes the material far more engaging than Zoom. Just being around faces instead of black squares with names on them makes me want to learn,” Tsai said.

Tsai has chosen to participate in multiple extracurriculars with her newfound time. She found it particularly difficult to shake off the high school mentality to commit herself to every activity available. 

One of the biggest challenges Tsai encountered when entering Harvard was experiencing burnout from overloading her schedule. 

“In late September, classes and clubs began to pick up and I was starting to get burned out. I had to realize that dropping some activities does not translate to me being a failure,” Tsai said.

She noted that at Harvard, impostor syndrome constantly makes students feel like they don’t belong, and thus pressured to prove that they do, which cultivates an environment in which students are high-achieving yet insecure. Tsai is working to create a balanced schedule by dropping activities that aren’t as meaningful to her. 

“I’m learning to be kind to myself; placing my wellbeing first allows the rest of my activities and plans to fall into place,” Tsai said. “Students should challenge themselves but know their limits and allow themselves room to breathe.”

As Tsai finishes her first semester, she said she gained a better grasp of what she wanted to spend her time on. She currently serves on AAWA, the Institute of Politics’ Education Policy program (which is commissioned by Mental Health America to do research on mental health screenings this year), and works at Harvard’s Lamont Library, among other activities. As a former editor of The Falcon, she hopes to continue to pursue her passion in journalism through her position as a reporter on Harvard’s student magazine, Fifteen Minutes.

Tsai has been working to put aside the cutthroat competitive mindset prevalent in SHS, and said that the competition at Harvard is far different than what she experienced here. 

“At Harvard, everyone is extremely motivated and independent toward their own goals,” Tsai said. “The notion of competition is much healthier here since everyone is charting down a different path, so you feel far more supported by your peers.”

Though she is aiming to detach certain mindsets she learned in high school, Tsai is thankful for many of the skills she gained. For example, she has noticed the importance of English skills in her coursework and found that the English curriculum, especially English 11 Honors with Amy Keys has proven invaluable.

Tsai also feels that the rigor of SHS courses translated well to Harvard. 

However, with the last 14 months of her high school years remote, Tsai believes that she has room to grow socially. She is careful to expand her social life slowly rather than diving headlong into such a new environment like college.

“I prefer sitting in the back and observing things like who I live with and getting to know the moment. That’s something that doesn’t really just happen in two months of college,” she said. 

Tsai is close with her roommates and has been venturing into clubs to expand a social circle based on common interests. Ultimately, she feels that it is best for her to operate relatively alone in the first phase of college. 

“I’m hoping for college to teach me who I am as an individual. There’s a learning curve both academically and socially and understanding how to hurdle bad experiences and enjoy good ones will take time,” Tsai said. 

 

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