Students take on success obsession
Bay Area high school papers are cutting ‘toxic’ college destination maps
By John Woolfolk
In the heart of Silicon Valley and shadow of Stanford University, the most coveted edition of Palo Alto High School’s student newspaper has long been the May issue mapping graduating seniors’ college destinations. Harvard. Yale. Georgetown. Dartmouth. And, of course, Stanford.
The student newspaper’s top editors decided to scrap the who’s-going-where college map amid growing worries it was feeding an unhealthy culture obsessed with success. The decision followed the nationwide scandal of rich parents paying to bribe and cheat their progeny into marquee universities — implicating a Stanford coach and more than a dozen Bay Area parents, including two from Palo Alto.
While acknowledging the map aimed to celebrate college-bound seniors’ achievements, editors Ethan Nissim, Kaylie Nguyen, Ujwal Srivastava, Waverly Long and Leyton Ho wrote jointly that “the reality is the map contrib-
utes to the toxic, comparison- driven culture at Paly.”
At a time of rising anxiety over access to college and its promise of economic security, The Campanile’s editors are among a small but growing number of students pushing back against what they feel is relentless pressure to pursue conventional markers of success.
Student editors at other schools from Silicon Valley to the Midwest that had similar college map traditions have taken similar steps in recent years: Palo Alto’s Gunn High School in 2015, San Jose’s Harker School in 2016 and the University of Chicago Laboratory High School this year.
The Chicago student editors also cited the college admissions scandal as a tipping point in the decision, arguing the college placement list “too often becomes a type of scorecard” that “facilitates comparisons of students to one another on the basis of college name alone.”
Teachers, advisers and administrators stressed that in each case the students were the ones who made the decisions to eliminate the college-focused features — with the adults’ full support.
“I have long questioned the intent behind publications of college destinations,” said Palo Alto Unified School District Superintendent Donald B. Austin, who started his own collegiate path at Chula Vista’s Southwestern Community College. “Too much attention is given to the name of the school on a sweatshirt.”
Palo Alto students grow up surrounded by success. The town of 65,000 is home to technology giants Hewlett-Packard and Tesla. Eight out of 10 residents older than 25 are college graduates, the median annual income — $137,000 a year — is more than twice the national average, and the median home is valued at more than $1.7 million.
Palo Alto High students study across the street from Stanford and dodge professors driving $70,000 Tesla electric sedans as they cross the street to a shopping center offering artisan pizza and $13 salads.
But fears of fostering a success-obsessed culture are more than philosophical at Palo Alto schools, still grappling with a rash of teen suicides from 2009 to 2015 that became the subject of a 2018 documentary film. In the film, “The Edge of Success,” recent Gunn graduate Olivia Eck complained that students who don’t get selected at a top university are “made fun of.” Administrators responded with a host of measures, including changes in schedules and homework loads, and adding therapists and a “positive psychology” class.
Across the bay at Oakland High School, the student paper publishes outgoing seniors’ remarks on their goals and plans, which sometimes include where they are going to college. English and journalism teacher Lara Trale said that a toxic comparison-driven culture has “not been a major issue” at the school. Still, she said, “there’s definitely that pressure” on students to succeed.
One senior at Oakland High who did not want to be identified said that when students are asked about college plans, they are “looked at a different way” if their responses are perceived as insufficiently ambitious.
At Palo Alto High, English and journalism teacher Esther Wojcicki — whose daughters are Susan Wojcicki, CEO of You-Tube; Anne Wojcicki, who started 23andMe; and Janet Wojcicki, an anthropologist and associate professor at UC San Francisco — said the college map had been a long-established tradition when she started at Paly 35 years ago.
“Back then, it wasn’t such a big deal,” Esther Wojcicki said. But she and others said that over the years, something changed. Parents would snap up the college map papers and bury their heads in it at graduation ceremonies.
“It’s gotten more intense,” Wojcicki said. “People tend to treat their kids like pets in a pet show.”
At the student paper, The Campanile, editors in recent years grew increasingly uncomfortable with the college map. A few years ago, they rebranded it as “Post-Paly Plans” to include students with “Gap Year” endeavors — work, travel, the Army, a language program in Japan. But they also found a growing number of students refusing to disclose their postgraduation plans.
Then came the bombshell college admissions scandal.
“It was a shock, being so close to home, and how much people cared about a brand name,” editor Nguyen said.
The editors quickly decided to drop “Post-Paly Plans” altogether. Long said, “We all agreed with the detrimental impact that it had.” But they still needed something to fill the page. They decided to let their classmates vent their frustrations with the college competition culture.
Ingrid Paixao called it “extremely toxic.” Hanna Corny lamented the “veil of shame on community college that there shouldn’t be.”
The editors said that for the most part, the response from the community in the week since the edition published has been positive. College boasting still seeps out in other ways — a Tshirt day when students wear the shirts of the colleges they were accepted to, or writing the name of the college on their caps at graduation.
But, as Srivastava put it, “this is a step we can take in the right direction.” Contact John Woolfolk at 408- 920- 5782.
Editors of Palo Alto High School’s student newspaper — from left, Ethan Nissim, Kaylie Nguyen, Waverly Long and Ujwal Srivastava — chose not to include the traditional mapping of graduating seniors’ college destinations in their final edition this year.
KARL MONDON — STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER