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Wednesday, September 15, 2010

How To Stumble Out Of The Gate In The Greatest Race Of Your Life

Do a 1510/1600 SAT I, 760/800 Math IIC 750/800 Writing & 690/800 Chemistry SAT II, a GPA which is greater than 4.0 and a litany of extracurricular activities (J.V. swimming freshman & sophomore year, Model U.N. all four years with co-presidency status senior year, and marching/symphonic band all four years with junior drum major status junior year and drum major status senior year) have anything in common for a college applicant in 1997/1998? Maybe, but they still didn't merit electrical engineering admissions to M.I.T., Rice, & Stanford! Although the courses which I took were as challenging as our high school had to offer (i.e. honors courses in math, science, government, & english senior year and an honors science & honors foreign language course junior year) and my applications noted the courses which I took to supplement the education I received at our local public high school (i.e. the courses at the local community college during summers as well as the class at U.C. Berkeley senior year) the case which I made for admission was apparently not compelling enough: Stanford offered outright rejection (another academic who applied for an engineering admission during the early admission period was accepted), M.I.T. offered a spot on the wait-list which became a rejection a few months later, and Rice offered a spot on the wait-list which would require waiting until at least Spring '99 to confirm.

Although things looked bleak at the time (and for a few years thereafter) the "High School Honors Program (HSHP)" admission which I had received to U.C. Berkeley's L&S College late in my junior year provided some measure of security: my application for transfer to the College of Engineering (COE) was approved and I was able to enroll for the Fall '98 semester. The admission to the E.E.C.S. program was quite an honor as U.C. Berkeley's COE had done away with index scores the year before (when E.E.C.S. admission was rumored to have required a 7700/8000 index, the most of any major in the U.C. system) and had a reputation for being one of the best engineering programs in the nation (if not the world). While being a part of my class's freshman experience was a unique experience and valuable (from the perspective of affording an opportunity at social development which tends to be quite significant in American culture) the position in which I began my U.C. Berkeley experience was by no means ideal.

How can one say that having an HSHP admission (which afforded early, i.e. junior year, confirmation of admission) was not ideal? Well, it's not that the HSHP admission itself was not ideal but rather that the circumstances which were concomitant with the honor weren't consistent with what my qualifications had merited; as such, the HSHP admission (arguably) created additional complications with respect to admissions processes. Given my GPA and standardized tests scores the notion that I would not receive a Regents' & Chancellor's Scholarship was unfathomable; nevertheless, such was my fate both before and after appeal of the decision (a staff member in Sproul Hall hinted that preference for female candidates had been shown but my parents chose not to sue when I was told of the same). Also, one would not necessarily assume that involvement with the HSHP would somehow increase one's risk (or even certainty) for suffering a mistake such as AP credits (in my case a semester's worth) not being transferred to the COE but so also was my fate.

Why would such mistakes matter? As it turns out being a Regents' & Chancellor's Scholar entitled one to a few privileges which made the freshman experience just a little bit more livable, namely housing preference (which in my case would have meant not being housed in the dorm complex furthest from campus) as well as class enrollment preference (which wasn't so bad since the AP credit went missing for four semesters thus forcing the disorientation which came with enrolling in the 8AM offering of more than one required course). The course exam database which Regents' & Chancellor's Scholars are able to access might also have come in handy but given the fact that much of my first two years were spent struggling due to not having matching math and physics courses (e.g. Math 53 and Physics 7B) it's not clear what type of a difference such material could have made; after all, struggling with discomfort due to a distaste for dorm food and a schedule which doesn't quite suit one's preference doesn't make for the best precursor to success for the fifteen weeks which typically account for 1/2 of one's grade in a given course.

What type of difference do such experiences make? Ultimately not much, which is to say they don't make a positive impact in any regard. When one's graduation comes against the backdrop of a $1T loss of market capitalization in one's intended sector of employment (i.e. telecom) as well as implosion of a "bubble" in associated sectors (i.e. dot-com's) employability matters and it's very difficult to distinguish one's self to one's professors in upper-division courses when one is struggling to solidify one's foundation & footing.

When did some of these small perturbations in initial conditions finally come to a head? After doing a co-op in Spring '02 (in the hopes of compensating for an abysmal job market and struggling economy), resuming my coursework in Fall '02 and completing my last requirement (E190, technical communications) in the Summer of 2003 I was informed by the dean (after my having sent a letter of appeal) that I would be unable to use the Campus Career Center's On-Campus Recruiting (OCR) facility to find a job. Although fall semester use of OCR had been extended to spring & summer graduates in previous years the dean informed me that a decision had been made to not extend the same courtesy in 2002 due to improvement in the economy. Having to ask the dean to ensure that I received credit for my third attempt at course credit for Math 55 (after a failure to receive a response to the correspondence sent to my advisor before my enrollment posing a question with respect to the same) was simply icing on the U.C. Berkeley cake at that point. The milk (a denied request for a ninth semester) would only turn to sour cream six years later when I audited two upper-division E.E.C.S. courses and realized that success was indeed possible given a measure of circumstance which was amenable.

Where did the experience leave me? Hmmm... probably not at a point which one would call the best stochastic realization of what could have been a very simple process. Being unemployed for 14 months after graduation, getting diagnosed with thyroid cancer three months after being conferred with my degree, and having a transcript stained with letters which looked very different from the ones I had received on my high school transcript just a few years before was not what I had intended for myself. Ultimately finding work with IBM was pretty good... but realizing that I was on the wrong side of a Chinese wall at the research facility which stretched back in time all the way back to when I was barely ineligible to participate in the eXtreme Blue program was not. Getting a chance to attend graduate school at UH Manoa was also pretty good... but having the transcript of the academic experience reflect a regression of my previous experience is not.

Incidentally, since the time I graduated a number of changes have been wrought to the obstacles which I encountered in my experience at U.C. Berkeley:
  • Food at Unit 3 has improved significantly and is now considering premier as far as college dining goes
  • Math 55 is no longer the only discrete mathematics course which can fulfill graduation requirements (a new course, EECS 70, has been created)
  • The COE offers a five-year combined B.S./M.S. E.E.C.S. degree program
  • OCR eligibility has been extended to alumni who enroll in Alumni Advantage
  • My advisor (Linda Segars) retired
Who else should be so lucky?


Edits:

20100916@2205PST - Corrected "How can one say that having an HSHP admission (which afforded early, i.e. junior year confirmation, of admission) was not ideal?" to "How can one say that having an HSHP admission (which afforded early, i.e. junior year, confirmation of admission) was not ideal?
20100916@2205PST - Corrected "Ultimately finding work with IBM was pretty good... but realizing that I was on the wrong side of a Chinese wall at the research facility which stretched all the way back to when I was barely ineligible to participate in the eXtreme Blue program was not." to "Ultimately finding work with IBM was pretty good... but realizing that I was on the wrong side of a Chinese wall at the research facility which stretched back in time all the way to when I was barely ineligible to participate in the eXtreme Blue program was not.
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