By Vincent Hsia, 18, Santa Monica College
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Illustration by Shengul Bajrami, 17, University HS

On Graduation Day, 2000, I did not feel like going. My mom woke me up by vacuuming outside my bedroom door. I got the message. She had made me lay out my shirt, slacks, and tie the day before. When we got to school, my mom made me pose in the grass outside. I had to smile. It was important to my mom that it be a happy occasion. I just wanted to get out. For me, the graduation was bitter, the end of a big disappointment.

The spring of my senior year, my first three college letters had been acceptances. I got in to University of Arizona, UC Santa Cruz and UC Riverside. I just knew positive letters from more prestigious colleges were on their way. I was not the best student at my school, but I felt qualified—I had gotten 1370 on my SAT1, 730 on Math IIC, and my GPA was 3.4. Beyond that, I had many honors classes and extracurricular activities going for me. Others around me expected me to do well, and I was confident.

In April last year, I began to call home every afternoon, right before tennis practice. One day I asked, "Hey Ma, did I get any mail today?"

My mom replied, "Yeah, there are a couple letters for you … " My heart sank. I could tell by the disappointment in her voice that the letters were thin. Rejections. Without saying goodbye, I hung up the phone.

The dread letters rolled in

Over the next few weeks, I was rejected from all my first-choice colleges—Cornell, NYU, University of Chicago, Columbia, UCLA and UC Berkeley. The second-rung schools that I got into were not acceptable for the proud son of a proud Asian woman. As the only son, I have all my mother’s hope on my shoulders. She brought me to the United States from Taiwan to get a good education. She suffered through financial troubles, the language problems and other hardships for my sake. Getting into a good college is what I had worked for—what we had worked for. Now, instead of bragging about me like she had done before, she didn’t talk about me at all.

As I looked around, I realized all my friends fell below their expectations. A friend of mine received 1410 on the SATs and a 3.75 GPA. He wanted to go to UCLA so bad that it was all he wanted. He had to settle for UC San Diego, the only school he got into. Another friend who received 1390, a 760 in SAT2 Physics and other very impressive scores, only got into UC Irvine, his back-up school. All our parents were angry with us. There was a story going around that one guy had to kneel on the living room floor while his dad beat him with a cane.

At school, I tried to put up a front, but I didn’t care anymore. I started ditching more. I stopped doing my homework. I stopped going to tennis: I didn’t want all those smart guys on the team to ask me what happened.

When I skipped the Calculus BC AP test, which had taken me a year to prepare for, my mom did not even get mad. She did not get mad at my D in AP Biology either. She knew it didn’t matter anymore because I had already failed.

I started blanking out for hours at a time. I would just sit and wonder what happened and what would happen. My friends and I were afraid. What were we going to do?

It was community college for me

It’s hard to explain why I decided to go to Santa Monica College. My mom hated the idea—she had told me that if I ended up at a community college, I could forget about a car. I’d be riding a bicycle. But to me, it was a fresh start. It would give me another chance to redeem myself—to be a proper son.

I had no idea how much it would take out of me. As the fall semester started, I took English 1, Calculus A, U.S. History and Chemistry 10—pretty much the same classes I took in high school. It wasn’t about education anymore, it was just about getting the grade, because I had already learned all that stuff before. I can’t take upper level classes because they won’t transfer.

To make matters worse, my friends were having the full college experience, going to other states, living in dorms, going to campus parties, staying up all night, taking classes in their majors. They were having the time of their lives, while I was at home with my mom. I’d just go to campus, do my thing and get out. If anyone asked me a question I told them I didn’t speak English.

One night I got home from class at 10:30 p.m. I had a lab report and a test due the next morning. I lay on the floor, feeling overwhelmed. I had tried so hard before, and it wasn’t enough. Now I had to give even more. I broke down crying—I felt I couldn’t do it. But I had to pull myself together—I had to leave for college at 6:45 a.m. the next day. It took me four or five hours to finish the assignments, leaving me just a few hours sleep.

Going to community college is a punishment. Every day, I remind myself that I chose to be here. Community college is my second chance. I try to remember good things about the school—the transfer programs that heighten your chance of being accepted, such as the honor programs, which give you special consideration for UCLA and other top schools. Some of the classmates are very smart and friendly. Some people are there not because they did not make it into good colleges, but because they are trying to save money. One thing I learned from community college is that, I can get a good education no matter where I go, as long as I have the will to learn.

Nowadays, when people ask me where I go, I tell them UCLA, Cal Tech, or Pomona. Once in a while I tell the truth, if they seem nice. Yeah, it is horrible that I ended up in community college, but it is not like my life has ended. I am young. I still have time. I am shooting to transfer to USC, UCLA or maybe University of Chicago. If the second time around doesn’t work out, Plan B is to go to a Cal State. Plan C is to forget college and do my own thing. This has a certain appeal but it unfortunately involves being disowned. My best choice is still going to college.