For most little girls, dreams of happily ever after involve marrying a gorgeous suitor and riding off into the sunset. For me, growing up, happily ever after would come the day I got into a top four-year university. As far back as first grade, I set rigorous academic goals for myself. My paper had to be the one hanging on the wall as an example for other students, my report card had to show straight A’s, and my name had to be at the top of the grading list. Education–and being the best possible student I could be–was the key to success and a happy ending.
This kind of pressure for excellence followed me into my college applications. I was determined to go to an Ivy, and if not that, a small, elite liberal arts college on the East Coast. 13 out of my 16 applications were for schools of exactly that type, and I did everything in my power to make it happen. But as college decisions came back, I didn’t meet my own measure of success–no Ivies and no elite, small liberal arts schools. In fact, the best school I got into was quite the opposite. Because of this, I convinced myself for months that I had failed. My happily ever after was not coming about the way I thought I needed it to.
Now, two years after my college application process started, I attend the University of California, Berkeley, which has recently been declared by Forbes as the best university in the nation. Finding out this news was something I couldn’t wrap my mind around. “I go to the best school IN THE NATION?!” It was like trying to visualize a million people in a row or the size of the galaxy. It’s a concept of such immense privilege that I couldn’t possibly understand it. What I could understand, though, was that now I had objectively met my own measure of success–how does it get better than the best school in the United States? However, knowing my school’s ranking doesn’t make me want to jump up and down, pump my fist in the air and scream “Look Ma! I made it!” My happily ever after hasn’t arrived because of this new title. And honestly, it is so much better that way.
I now feel grateful that I didn’t get into my “dream” school or a place I would have considered more elite when I was applying to schools. It allowed me to come to Cal with a healthy dose of suspicion and cautious optimism. I felt comfortable seeing the school for all its incredible opportunities, alongside its egregious flaws, because I knew that I hadn’t banked my happily ever after on UCB.
Experiencing college in this way made me realize that my younger self’s view of higher education was glorified and highly naive. While college is an incredible opportunity, it’s not going to give you the ooey-gooey feeling that comes at the end of coming of age movies like Ladybird or Booksmart that you’ve always dreamed of. College is an institution, not a one-way ticket to paradise or a replacement for self-validation. It’s hard work and truly only worth what you put into it. While that may seem disappointing, it’s also a reassurance that you can have a meaningful college experience regardless of your school’s ranking by seeking out the opportunities that speak to you and speaking out when your university has unfair policies. Knowing this has allowed me to develop a much more genuine fondness for this place and love for its students and teachers than I would’ve had otherwise.
It’s important to dismantle the narratives around top-tier universities that we all tell ourselves. No amount of #1 rankings will change the fact that there are serious inequities present within every educational institution in this country. Understanding this can help relieve some of that pressure we take into the college admissions process, separate us from lofty goals of perfection and continue to criticize and improve these institutions for future generations.
While I am extremely lucky and grateful to go to the best university in the nation, it’s not because of its ranking or elite nature. Rather, it’s for its silly quirks, passionate student body, and a stunning amount of opportunity that I’ve found here. Berkeley may not be my happily ever after, but I know it’s giving me the tools to build a life of my own.