By Sophia Wu
(Editor Note: Four years ago, Sophia Wu put her life as a high school senior pursuing admission into the country’s most prestigious colleges under the microscope. She agreed to allow a camera crew to document her senior year for Try Harder, a film by Debbie Lum making its broadcast premier on May 2 on PBS. Here’s what she thinks four years later)
When I was a senior in high school, a documentary film crew showed up at my AP Physics C class. Debbie Lum, the director, announced that she and her team were making a film about students at Lowell High School. I couldn’t fathom why anyone would be interested in a film about us, but Debbie seemed kind and soft-spoken. I remember she had a short bob at the time. I had never met a filmmaker, let alone a female Chinese American filmmaker, so I was intrigued. I agreed to be filmed.
It’s been four years since then, and Try Harder! has finally been let out into the world. To be a subject in a documentary film is a rare enough experience, but to watch the finished film four years later, to watch others watch the film and be affected by it, and to find out the film has taken on a life of its own, is truly special. Try Harder! has drawn back the curtain on the college admissions process and how it shapes students’ lives, and hopefully my and my friends’ stories have helped people glimpse the reality that come with that process.
I’ve watched the film several times, spoken on a few panels, and read articles that have described me as a “Lady Bird” and a “ruthlessly self-disciplined all-rounder.” I did all these things against the backdrop of graduating from college, arguably a scarier transition than graduating from high school. To see this film, a snapshot of who I once was through the eyes of someone else (as my friend Shelly put it), in this year, while juggling multiple post-grad life paths, I can’t help but think about what my identity is, if it is anything, and how it contradicts itself by changing over time, yet somehow remaining the same.
I spent my senior year in high school in a haze of club commitments, AP classes, school events, and college applications. Debbie and her team were there in the background to capture many moments, both mundane and memorable. They filmed me hitting forehands on the tennis courts, scooping ice cream at Polly Ann’s, getting my ears pierced at Haight Ashbury Tattoo and Piercing with my friend Wenting, and taking prom pictures with my date, Josh. More sobering, they were there when I opened most of my college notification emails. In between scoops at Polly Ann’s, I checked email after email from the Ivy League, and none of them started with “Congratulations!”
I have a lot of sympathy for myself at that age. I was chasing after a goal that wasn’t truly mine. Growing up, I remember being able to list most of the Ivy League universities by the time I was in middle school. My parents often mentioned to me rather casually that these were the colleges I would be applying to. I can’t quite remember whether it was out of passion that I pursued my extracurriculars, or whether it was because I thought they would boost my college-admission chances.
On first impression, this is a very shallow way to go about life. When your One Big Goal as a high school student is to get into a good college, it can feel as if your life is a plug-and-chug math equation, where if you add enough AP classes, throw in a few extracurriculars, and take it all to the “unique experience or extenuating circumstance” power, you end up with an acceptance letter that seems like the right answer. But where do I fit into that equation? Does a jumble of activities add up to an identity? What I realized after watching Try Harder! was that my identity at the time was inextricable from the college-application process itself. Perhaps that’s what’s so terrifying and liberating about graduating from college: there is no “life-after-college application process,” no stereotypical student that you need to be in order to “get into a good life,” and therefore your identity can be whatever you want it to be. Life is just a series of decisions that you make, and the decision of which college to go to just so happens to be the first Big Decision in many students’ lives, which makes it all the more stressful.
Although I probably developed imposter syndrome in high school after becoming the captain of the tennis team, despite not being great at tennis but thinking it would look good on my college applications, and joining the newspaper, not because I was passionate about journalism but because a college counselor my parents paid for told me that I needed something “unique for an Asian student” to put on my resume, I’m actually incredibly grateful for all that I did and all that my parents pushed me to do. I learned about what it means to be a leader as the captain of the tennis team. I rekindled a joy for writing and surrounded myself with impassioned, creative students as the news editor for The Lowell. Regardless of whether or not I knew what I was doing, or whether I even fully understood why I was doing what I was doing, I learned. Like harvesting apples, I picked a basket of experiences, some that I enjoyed more than others, and I went back to those that I enjoyed more. I figured out that it’s the harvesting that’s the best part, not the part where you write on an application that you harvested a great apple.
While watching Try Harder!, specifically the scenes with me in them, I only had negative judgements to make about myself. During the scene where Debbie asked me to tell her the colleges I was applying to and I matter-of-factly respond with a list of all the Ivy Leagues, I thought, “What a pretentious snob.” I don’t know what Alvan, Ian, and Rachael had going through their heads when they watched scenes of themselves, but I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we definitely cringed hard. What I soon realized, though, was that I was the harshest judge of myself. Sure, I was intense in high school, and the articles about the film definitely captured that, but I was probably the only one who thought of high-school Sophia as some kind of asshole. Upon sharing this thought with Hanna, a close friend, she dished this piece of wisdom: cringing at who you were four years ago is a sign of growth, especially if you were in high school four years ago. How can you expect your previous self to meet all of the expectations you have of yourself now? You should relish your growth instead and give your younger self grace, and if younger you is the same you as you right now, which it is, that means that you should always give yourself some grace.
All in all, I am incredibly grateful to Debbie and the team for capturing my senior year and for telling this story. Try Harder! manages to cover a lot of ground: it’s a film about striving for unlikely goals, about a stressful life experience, and about minorities and their idiosyncratic versions of this experience. I appreciate that I became, in a small way, part of a crescendo of Asian American stories in popular media. I appreciate that high school students can maybe see themselves in my story and know that it’ll turn out fine. I appreciate that I’ve had such a unique lens through which to reflect on how much I’ve changed over the years and how much I’ve stayed the same.
To echo a letter that I wrote to Lowell students who will be watching this film: when I was a senior in high school, I had no clue what I was doing, what my goals were, what was driving me, or who I wanted to become, even though I thought I did know. After college, I think I know myself a little bit better, but in many ways, I still don’t have the answers. And that’s totally okay. These are things that will take the rest of our lives to figure out.
(Try Harder! premieres on PBS’s Independent Lens on May 2 at 10/9c (check local listings). It will also be available to stream on the PBS Video App.)
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I’m in my 60’s. As an Asian-American there were always extremely high expectations that could never fully be met. Plus, 50 years later the resurgence of overt racism is a sad state for my country.
I hope that you are happy and doing well in a profession you love.
Sophia, it was an honor to meet the young you on film and to share in that senior year of high school. Hope you have found your path while at UCLA, and want you to know that viewers were on your side.
UCLA! not bad!
I’m glad you chose to be in the ‘Try Harder’ documentary. You were delightful to meet.
Congratulations on your graduation from UCLA. You can always be proud of being an alumna of a top university like UCLA!
Even though it didn’t work out for you, you were also wise to throw your hat in the ring and apply to the Ivies because you were qualified and they are quite generous with financial aid for the students they admit. You were brave and not scared off by their low admission rates.
Wishing you all the best in the future.
Dear Sophia, thank you so much for writing this follow-up article. We watched Try Harder over the Christmas this past year and our son of 14, who normally has not sat with us to watch a movie for a long time, you know being a teenager and everything, did not get up throughout the whole movie, and watched intently and really was incredibly captivated by the characters and their stories. Perhaps he felt like he is pretty much in the same boat, being Asian at a school that is the equivalent of Lowell except it is in the East Coast, and in about 4 years, he will be faced with the same soul crushing process of college application. After I watched the movie, I cried for all the wonderful students who have worked so hard their whole life, gaining intellect, knowledge and wisdom that would be make them a sure-fire IVY League candidate, but only if they were not Asian. I cried for my son… My husband and I often wonder whatever happened to you and the others in the movies, and I was so elated to hear from you in this article. We are truly grateful for your time and your wisdom, and we are very grateful for Debbie Lum to have made a movie that has touched so many and will continue to do so…you have no idea how much this movie has done for kids like my boy. I mean personally I have heard the bias treatment of this sort for a very long time from different parents but to see it documented for the world to know was what it really needed…sometimes I am hoping maybe Debbie Lum can make a sequel featuring all the alums…加油!!!! GO CONQUER THE WORLD NOW!