“Do What You Want”: HKIS Alumni on College Life, Advice for Seniors
April 26, 2020
It’s that time of year: seniors have begun to think about transitioning to college and juniors have begun to think about applying. In light of this, Junto asked recent HKIS graduates (many of them ex-Junto editors) about their experiences in the transition from adolescence to adulthood and their advice for those who are just beginning this process.
The General Transition
At HKIS, we are exposed to a single slice of the world’s diversity. The transition has made many aware of how broad the possibilities are. “Meeting people from a diversity of backgrounds—whether socioeconomic, racial/ethnic, geographical, or others—has broadened my worldview and perspective to a significant extent,” said Jonathan Chung, University of Chicago ’22 (studying Sociology and Philosophy).
Gracie Chung, University of California Berkeley ’23 (studying Applied Mathematics), noted the importance of school size in this transition. She explained that the sheer size—35 times that of HKIS—meant more opportunities such as internships and competitions to learn and grow. “I’ve met people from all walks of life who share their unique perspectives, which, I think and hope have made me more appreciative of those differences.”
The sudden transition may also come as a shock, however. Gracie, pictured left with Kaylin Chong (University of Oxford ’23 studying Biological Sciences), also acknowledged the negatives of such a huge student body: “I’ve become more grateful for the club opportunities I had in high school since you can really join any club you want to, whereas at Berkeley, for some clubs, joining is pretty competitive and the application process is extensive precisely because the student body is so huge.”
Likewise, Jonathan explained that although his experiences broadened his perspective, the culture shock, specifically the “heightened awareness of race”, took some getting used to. “People use it more to classify and attribute characteristics to people . . . I felt like an “Asian” or “yellow” person for the first time. For example, I met someone who lived in the same house as we did . . . She asked what my (white) roommate and I were thinking of majoring in, and I told her that I was thinking of something in the social sciences and that he was thinking of physics. She was like, ‘you guys defy expectations’, and it’s sort of like, what does that mean.”
He was also quick to point out the positives, however: “Learning about their backgrounds has given me insight into places very different from Hong Kong (especially the South Side of Hong Kong) and expanded my concept of the world.”
Jonathan Chung (U of Chicago ’22) and his peers
Many alumni felt that the academic adjustment from HKIS was not too difficult. Amanda Liang, University of Rochester ’21 (studying interdepartmental humanities, a major she created), pictured right, explained that HKIS prepares students well for university-level rigor, especially in STEM areas. “Math is quite similar, just a little bit more free. Depending on the university, course, and professor, you can stop even showing up to lectures and teach yourself the material.”
Jacinta Chen, Pomona College ’21 (studying Politics and History), agreed, especially given the small class sizes at Pomona. “Since I participated in a range of activities and took challenging courses while at HKIS, I found the transition to Pomona quite seamless.”
Many alumni praised the different styles of learning; Jacinta especially liked Pomona’s collaborative environment. “Sometimes, I felt like HKIS was too competitive. However, students in college are here to learn and help each other learn, whether it’s by working through problem sets together at mentor sessions, giving each other feedback on essays, or continuing classroom discussions in the dining hall.” The immersive college experience has given Jacinta and her peers a sense of togetherness, as all live, eat, and study in the same places.
Most highlighted the professors and courses themselves—although demanding, professors mostly had a genuine love for teaching their subject. Jacinta spoke of her experience taking a seminar called The First Crusade: Monks of War. “The class was really challenging, with more reading than I had ever received in high school and the writing assignments were quite demanding,” she said. “That said . . . since the class was quite fun and we all bonded with our professor, a couple of my friends from the class and I will meet our professor for lunch in the dining hall roughly once per month and he has since invited us to his house for dinner three times.”
The transition to a free and independent academic lifestyle may prove difficult for some. Jong Min Choi, University of Pennsylvania ’23 (studying Computer Science), said, “There’s definitely a lot more flexibility, with no record of attendance. It boils down to whether you are really motivated and what you want to take out of college life.”
Kaylin, pictured left with Jong Min, agreed. “You are responsible for getting your work done, laundry and cooking your own food. It means you have to really stay on top of things and manage your time well.” Kaylin also stressed the importance of interest in the area of study. “At least in the UK, you are only studying one subject and so you do a deep dive into that where I think if you are not as passionate or interested in the subject, it can be very difficult.”
Time management seems easier for alumni who are studying in their area of passion. “If it’s work that interests you I think it’s perfectly manageable,” said Jong Min. “See it as: your eventual goal and future is aided by taking these courses.” This may be different in universities with a core curriculum and a lot of mandatory requirements. Juniors in the college search process are advised to consider what suits them best. It may be that you wish to explore a wide breadth of study or pursue a defined academic area.
Freedom in Self-Discovery
In light of their varied experiences, what would alumni have told themselves at the start of their freshman year? Amanda summed up the prevailing sentiment: “Do what you want!”
Amanda first studied engineering at Rochester. “I had zero motivation to do any of the homework and I was like, ah, probably shouldn’t do this for the rest of my life.” She switched to mathematics, then business, then, having not found what she was looking for, she created her own major (an option at Rochester) that stretched across the disciplines of legal studies, anthropology, history, politics, and rhetoric. She explained it like this: “How the theories and arguments interface with the world, how is it that we create arguments and words and use different kinds of media to shape ideology.”
Amanda interned in the summer of her freshman year for a disability rights attorney and also has experience as a research intern for the court, which helped her to define where her passion lay. “There’s a difference between what you think you want and what you actually want,” she said. “You have to think about what kind of college experience you want to have, learn, engage with critically.”
Jong Min (pictured right at Penn) had a similar experience in the beginning of his college career. “In high school I had a fixed path—go to classes, do extracurriculars—but once in college I felt I didn’t know where I wanted to be in 5 years because the pathways are so broad. It’s okay to feel lost and explore.” He applied to Penn as a chemistry and materials science major, but switched after he had a good experience with a computer science course and programming clubs. “The regret I have is that I didn’t switch quickly enough because I entered Penn with this mindset of, I should probably stick with this for four years. I had to load up on CS courses this semester.”
Relationships with Professors
Another thing alumni wish they knew in freshman year is how to ask for help from professors. Jacinta has had a good relationship with her professors, who are “really generous with their time.” “Oftentimes, I will attend office hours for help with an assignment and will end up talking to my professors about my life in Hong Kong and as a student-athlete at Pomona. My professors will also share fun stories about their own lives, families, and pets!” She has also turned to them for advice regarding internships and post-graduation opportunities.
Jacinta Chen (Pomona ’21) and her tennis teammates
Amanda stressed that students shouldn’t be afraid to be proactive in building connections with professors. “I had a professor in my freshman writing class; I still talk to her weekly as a junior. I’ve met her kids and her wife!” She explained that these relationships are possible because there is less of an age barrier than in high school.
Although they may come more naturally, Amanda explained that students should be the one to initiate relationships. “One professor used to be a Supreme Court clerk and was one of my professors in political science . . . The only reason he knows my name is because I go to office hours. Over time you start showing up and they’ll start remembering things about you, like the paper that you almost got an A- on but actually got a B+, little things.” On this note, she advises students to take seminar courses regardless of major, because smaller class sizes enable professors to understand how students personally think and work. She also has been able to connect with professors through extracurriculars; for example, she traveled with her philosophy research group to a research conference and bonded with her mentees on the trip.
Finally, many touched on the importance of building consistent habits and routines. Kaylin said she wished she knew “that I would be needing to meal prep and cook my own lunch every week! I think I would have then used the time over the summer to brush up on my cooking skills.”
Amanda had a similar experience: “In the beginning I literally ate rice and whatever thing I could fry every day! . . . Building routine and habits is a skill I never learned in high school. I don’t think I turned in a formative in my senior year that wasn’t in class.” She eventually realized, though, that her education was her responsibility. “I’m not getting educated for my parents and my professors, I’m doing it for me. Not doing an assignment is just me missing out on a chunk of knowledge.”
For example, Jonathan has managed to build habits such as “mentally designating spaces” where he would only study to separate his academic and social life. Kaylin plans ahead and prioritizes events and plans ahead of time so that she can do her work accordingly.
Students should bear all this in mind, but shouldn’t let it worry them, said Gracie. “I wish I’d known not to worry so much because I find that people really rise to the occasion. Especially since you don’t have someone taking care of you, and you know that, I think that encourages you to push yourself to be the best version of yourself because you have nothing to fall back on.”
A last note to HKIS students, from Jacinta: “I would tell my first- and second-year self to enjoy each day and worry less about the future! The next four years ahead of you in college are going to be the best four years of your life.”