By Bianca Gallegos, 18, Santa Monica College
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Bianca Gallegos never though her senior year would be so tough.

Since ninth grade I’ve always been doing a million things, but my senior year at Marshall High School, I kind of went crazy.

It started with the course load. I took three Advanced Placement classes—government, calculus and English literature. And I was a teacher’s assistant for an AP Spanish class. I also took a physics class at a community college. I had gotten a mix of As, Bs and Cs the previous year, so I was confident I could handle it.

At the same time, I was involved in all the extracurriculars I loved. I competed with nine students and was voted onto the Leadership Council. My girls varsity cross-country coach named me captain. I reactivated my school’s Latino club and became the president. I also was in the science club and the continental club, a group that performs community service. On Saturdays, I went to L.A. Youth, where I learned to be a reporter.

Everything at school seemed to be going great; I got Bs on my first few tests. By doing all these things, I was sure that I would get into a UC or some other great college.

One day my friend said, "Oh my gosh, I’m taking AP Government!" She was worried because she had never taken an AP class before. But when I told her my schedule, she shook her head and told me, "You’re not going to make it. You’re crazy."

I giggled.

"I’ll be fine," I said. I was convinced that if I managed my time wisely, I could do it all.

With all those commitments I was always on the phone, talking to Leadership members, calling radio stations, contacting a museum for a visit or reminding someone about an upcoming activity. My stepdad told me that while he heard me on the phone organizing everything, he never saw me studying.

"When do you study?" he asked me.

"You can be the president of everything, but if you don’t have good grades, you’re not going anywhere," my mom reminded me.

"OK, I’ll study right now," I said. But I was so busy that I couldn’t focus. My grades started to slide, but I figured I just wasn’t getting the hang of things yet.

When I saw my midterm progress report, my Bs had dropped to two Ds and an F. My heart beat so fast—was I going to be a bum? How could I get into college with those grades? How could I make something of myself? I was overwhelmed, and I hid my report card (mostly from myself).

So after that I decided I would always finish my homework before school the next day. I stayed up until 1:30 or 2 a.m. and woke up at 5 to study. My little sister asked me, "Bianca, do you sleep?"

"Be quiet, I have to study," I told her.

I had no time for anything

At school I didn’t have time to eat. I had some club meeting during lunch every day. During lunch I also tried to squeeze in calculus tutoring, asking for my transcripts for college scholarship applications, organizing activities or finishing reading for a test. My friends started teasing me, asking if I thought I was too good to hang out with them anymore, but I just didn’t have time for a social life.

In mid-October my parents came to Parents Night to talk to my teachers.

I had a cross-country meet that day at 1 p.m. It was my best race of the season—I came in first on my team and sixth overall. But I didn’t have time to celebrate, because right after the meet, I had to sell tostadas at Parents Night to raise money for the Latino club.

Unfortunately that turned into a disaster. The other members flaked on helping with the tostadas so the chicken spoiled, and my parents learned about my academic struggles.

It was very quiet in the car on the way home. My parents were disappointed that I was doing so poorly in school. I was overwhelmed and needed a break, but instead I had to stay up late doing homework.

That weekend, my parents confronted me about my grades while I was organizing my assignments. They asked me why they were so bad. My mom told me she felt like a bad mother. My stepdad asked if there was anything he could do. My parents told me that I was failing my AP Government class and that the teacher had told them that I was biting off more than I could chew.

"I just need more time. I am going to try harder and I’m going to stay after practice for tutoring," I told them.

But you’re already trying hard, my stepdad said. He was worried because he saw me so busy and stressed out.

My stepdad told me I had to quit everything.

QUIT?! I thought he was joking. I was the president of the Latino club—how could I resign? I was the captain of the cross-country team. What kind of example would I be setting if I quit? And how could I give up my leadership position—it was very hard to get it, and it was a great honor. I was doing things I loved to do!

What about your physics class? My mom asked.

Oh no, I can’t quit that, I explained, because it counted as an AP class and it looked really good to colleges.

Well, you have to quit something, they told me. You need those grades to get into college.

I’m pretty stubborn, but they convinced me. I decided to leave the continental club and the science club, where I was just a member. I dropped my physics class, which I was failing anyway. Hardest of all, I stepped down from Leadership. I really liked it but it was so time-consuming it was bringing down my grades.

But even though I dropped a few activities and my stress decreased, I was still incredibly busy. Determined to bring up my grades, I stayed up until 2:30 or 3 a.m, but the material just didn’t sink in. I was getting so tired. During lunch I had no time to eat. I had to ask my friends for help with assignments and also work on college applications. And I also served as a college peer counselor helping my friends with their applications. Occasionally, I squeezed in a brief chat with friends.

‘This is going to get harder’

One day during third period calculus class, our teacher said, "You guys, this is only the beginning and it’s just going to get harder. Pay attention because this is very important. If you don’t understand this, you won’t understand the next part."

Everyone in the class sighed. I began to feel sick. I felt sweaty and my stomach hurt. I was trying to catch up in all of my classes and now I had to learn more super-difficult stuff. My teacher continued to explain but it was all gibberish to me. I took a deep breath and put my head down. When I lifted my head I started to feel dizzy. I just ignored it and thought it would go away but it just got worse.

Walking home from school with my friend Miriam I felt even dizzier. I tried walking slower but it didn’t help so I stopped and sat on the sidewalk. My head hurt and I felt like vomiting.

"Bianca, you are scaring me," Miriam said. We continued to walk side by side. I held onto her backpack because I couldn’t walk straight. Miriam asked me why I was pulling her backpack. I was so dizzy that I didn’t even realize I was doing that. The walk home took an hour, twice as long as normal. When I finally got home, I did lie down on my bed, but it didn’t help.

I remembered that all I had eaten that day was an apple, so I had a slice of bread, some water and a banana. But that made me throw up. I called my mom at work and told her that I felt sick. She told me to take a nap and added that if the feeling persisted to call her back. I felt really awful the rest of the afternoon but I didn’t call her again because I didn’t want to bother my mom at work. When she got home, she brought me some fruit juice and Gatorade. She and my stepdad were worried.

The next day, I was still sick, but I forced my mom to take me to school. I couldn’t miss the weekly test in my AP Government class. I would get a 40 percent just for showing up, but I’d get a zero if I didn’t take it.

When I took the test I was so dizzy I couldn’t even read the questions. I just marked down the letters A, B, C, D, A, B, C, D… For the essay question I wrote, "Sorry Mrs. Platt, I feel very sick and dizzy. I have to go to the doctor."

When my mom took me to the clinic, the front desk told her it was going to be $40 for the doctor to see me. "I thought it was going to be less," my mom said in a quiet voice. I knew we just didn’t have the money right then. I told my mom not to worry, that it was probably the flu and it would go away soon.

I had never felt so ill

My mom took me home and went back to work. I laid on the bed, dizzy, and noticed that when I closed my eyes, my eyeballs moved by themselves. This had never happened before. What could be wrong with me? I was scared. I had never felt this sick before and I began to cry. I was frustrated with my body, feeling it had let me down.

But then I realized that I had pushed myself to the limit. I promised my body that I would never skip meals even if I had to attend an important meeting or event.

A few days later I went to my school health clinic, which charged only $20 per visit. The doctor took my blood pressure and ran a few tests, but couldn’t find anything wrong. After I told her everything I was going through, she agreed with me that it was just stress. I felt relieved it wasn’t something more serious.

Slowly, I started feeling stronger and the dizziness faded. I made sure I ate every day. I tried to sleep at least four hours every night. But academically, I was in a hole I could not crawl out of.

And of course, I still had to worry about COLLEGE.

I had procrastinated so much on my college essay, that I couldn’t attend the cross-country banquet. They named me most valuable runner for the varsity team and I wasn’t even there to enjoy it. I was so busy that I didn’t pick up my trophy for a month.

I received my report card in late December. Three As in my electives, but two Ds and a C in my academic classes. I knew the colleges would be looking closely at my first-semester grades. Even though I knew the UCs didn’t accept Ds on report cards, I still believed that I had a chance at my dream schools like UC Davis, UC Santa Cruz, UC Riverside or UC Santa Barbara.

I had applied to only those schools because I wouldn’t settle for anything but a UC. I assumed I’d be able to make up those Ds at community college during winter break, but once again I didn’t have enough time.

Rejection letters came rolling in

In the spring, my friend Miriam called me at home and told me that she had gotten her acceptance letter from UC Santa Cruz. She was so happy and I was happy for her, too. Right away I went to her house to see the packet she had gotten.

"Wow, this is a nice campus," I said while looking at the pictures.

The following week I got my first letter. It was from Santa Cruz, but it wasn’t a thick packet like Miriam’s. I got so scared. This was the first rejection letter and Santa Cruz was supposed to be my back-up school. It was so depressing. I walked around, reading the letter, crying. My mom felt bad for me.

It was sinking in. I wasn’t going to get into a UC. When the thin letters kept rolling in, I stopped opening them. Why bother?

By this time I regretted not applying to other universities. I finally realized that I was going to community college. I thought that meant I was going to a school for losers.

But now that I’m going to Santa Monica College, I love it. I see it more as an opportunity to improve my academics and to help me get into other universities.

Looking back on last year, I realize I didn’t know how to prioritize at all. I learned that I have to put my studies first. Grades are the main factor to get into college–extracurriculars come second.

During the summer I interned for state Senator Jack Scott and was asked to continue the internship into the fall. I was excited because only interns they thought had done well were invited back. My first response was an enthusiastic "yes."

But then I had a flashback. I saw everything from my senior year of high school repeating itself during my freshman year of college. I managed to resist their offer.

When I started college at Santa Monica, I missed being part of the cross-country team. Every time I passed by the athletics building I would admire the cross-country picture and some of the athletes. But I know that I have to limit myself to one extracurricular activity–writing for the campus newspaper.

Now at the middle of the semester I’ve been studying a lot, producing two stories a week for the newspaper and going to work. It took a lot of pain and stress but I think I finally learned when to say "yes" and how to say "no."