Spoiled with Options

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Alief and friends at graduation
My friend group graduating in style. Six countries and Six U.S. states are represented in this picture.

Deciding where to go to college is a tough decision; it’s deciding where to spend the next four years of your life, what kind of network you’d like to make, as well as what you want to focus your studies on. Some people are lucky to find themselves spoiled with options, but some are not. In this article, Alief tells the story of how he spent his gapyear, and how that helped him figure out who he really is and expand his college options.

“I don’t know… I guess,” I stuttered. 

My advisor narrowed her eyes at me, clasped her hands, before gently shaking her head. She smirked and mumbled, “Huh, you’re so spoiled with options.”

I was frantic, confused by what she meant. I had never been spoilt with options. Too many options were never in my dictionary, and in fact, no options at all hit closer to home. Take five years ago. During my senior year of high school, my naive seventeen year old self was so blinded by the dream of coming to the United States, the fantasyland of the brave and the free, a nation that sounded more like a daydream than a reality. Day by day, I woke up as if my footsteps were inching closer to the picturesque college-brochure yard: all its glorious and sacred gothic buildings and highly prestigious bowtie-wearing faculty. I was confident. I thought I was good enough: flying colors on my transcript, decent SAT scores, international-level achievements, and some leadership activities. In the end though, I felt like a fool to have believed in this dream. 

That year I applied to twenty schools, rejected by eighteen and waitlisted by two. When I received my final letter, I secretly thought it was the one sweet acceptance I needed and had been waiting for. But I was soon brought back into reality as the letter began with “Dear Alief, we regret…”. Just like that. I was completely lost; no school to go to, my mental health was in scrambles, and an overconfidence that had burned down into self-pity in merely seconds. Moreover, if I learned anything from crying and wallowing in chocolate chip ice cream for ten straight days was that my stubbornness never wore out. Although at the end of that year I received an acceptance to a local university and to a university in Singapore to study biology, I turned them both down for the chance of redemption. Stubbornness: 1. Logic and Dignity: 0. One more year, I thought.

During the gap year, my goal was straightforward and totally cheesy: to figure out who I really was. Plus, I wanted to game up, and I had it all somewhat planned out. I volunteered and started a local fundraiser. It failed after realizing how hard it was to beg for money. I read a lot—or at least enough for me to master English at an American high school level. Now and then, I updated my Facebook status in English, misspelling words and creating a scene of grandiose grammatical dispute among my nosy social media friends. I retook the standardized tests, improving my scores by the slightest bit. Most importantly however, I learned all the small little surprises I never knew about myself: how much I loved to spend time with kids, how I enjoyed philosophy more than politics, and how I actually valued my family and home more than I had thought. At that time, I had zero responsibility to school, to the clubs I joined in for the resume building, or to my unhealthy ambitions. I felt, for the first time, vulnerable. I took off all the adjectives in front of my name and set myself at peace with all my shortcomings and failures.

During the gap year, I spent some time with Komunitas Jendela where I taught undeserving kids math and English. Never had I imagined the stubborn, impatient, and indifferent side of me was complemented by a much better side: the side that worked well with cheerful and hyperactive ten year olds. Besides, I started learning French through Duolingo and by reading some French newspapers, pushing back the thought that I never needed to learn any language other than English. By the second week of butchering French words, I had already fallen deeply in love with the diverse Francophone world. My pretentious group of friends persuaded me to pick up Nietzsche. His philosophy baffled me at first but gradually enlightened me. The more I read philosophy—from the classical white men to the more nuanced Eastern philosophers—the more I questioned the belief I had about everything, from religion to science. Through the great books, I learned to incorporate logic into whatever stance I had. Then, I traveled. I explored parts of Bandung I had never seen and then went back home to visit parts of West Sumatra which were still a mystery. I could go on forever, but the idea was clear: I took my time. With no rush, I became aware of my surroundings and of my own self, and along the way I discovered novelties not only in the places and in other people but also in my own person. 

So, I reapplied. Although I was the same person, I had a different knowledge of who I was. As a result, my application looked different, and so did the result. I was accepted to a few schools but easily fell in love with Carleton, the school I eventually attended. Carleton is a liberal arts college situated in a small town in rural Minnesota–a town whose motto, unapologetically yet appropriately so, consists of college, cows, and contentment. Carls are praised for their open-mindedness, eagerness for learning, equality-driven values, and laid-back attitude. It was apparent since my first contact with a Carl that the school, along with its people, would provide me with a unique education that is both intellectually fulfilling but purposefully humbling. 

Acceptance from Carleton
An e-mail I received after my admission to Carleton (couldn’t find my original acceptance letter). At that time I thought it was pretty cool that somebody personally reached out to me.

Shortly, at Carleton, I grew up, finding out that the American dream was not really like what I thought it would be. It was messier and more … complex. However, I survived, with most of the credits due to the gap year I took. That year prepared me for the four years of a roller coaster journey which demanded as much sweat and tears as the willingness to learn. Without the twelve months of relearning and unlearning the world and myself, I wouldn’t have been here in my current position—spoiled with quite more options to learn even more. Because now, with a newly found confidence, I believe that I am good enough and that I deserve something not because of the adjectives but because of the quality I have as a whole person. 

“I will be ready at some point though,” I shrugged.

“Well, good luck with that. It seems like you already know which one you like better though,” my advisor reassured me.

“You have too much faith in me,” I said.

“Not just me. They also have faith in you, which is why they’re spoiling you with the options.”

I quickly nodded and swiftly curved a smile on my lips. Lucky me, I thought. I am spoiled.

Carleton Combinatorial Theory class
I am somewhere in the picture. This picture was taken when our Combinatorial Theory class had an outdoor class because of the surprisingly “warm” April weather we had back in 2017. (taken by Carleton College Mathematics and Statistics Dept.)
Carleton in the winter
Carleton in the winter. It’s pretty but it’s freezing–wear layers. (I didn’t take this; this is taken from Carleton College facebook page).
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Alief is an incoming PhD student in evolutionary biology at Harvard University, where he will study evolutionary dynamics using experimental techniques. He graduated from Carleton College with a BA degree in biology and mathematics. In his free time, he enjoys reading the classics, running long distance, choreographing jazz and contemporary dance, watching early 2000's TV shows, and learning new languages.