Balancing Identities

I remember the exact moment when I found out that Princeton had accepted me. It was third period chemistry class, right after lunch, and I was slowly dozing off as my teacher went through the titration lab instructions. 

“This is the Princeton Admissions Office and we wanted to offer you a Likely Letter…”

He kept talking but no words were registering in my brain. Due to Princeton’s elimination of Early Decision a couple years back, “Likely Letters” were given to athletes after review by the Admission Office, and usually equated to an admission ticket six months later. After submitting my application in Sept, I had waited until Dec to receive this call, lingering at my phone and email longer and longer each day. I thought my heart was going to stop. 

By the end of our titration lab, I was getting Princeton jokes left and right. Due to my high spirits and careless fingers, my titration flask was bright pink and my classmates all chimed in “Princeton won’t accept failures!” I laughed along.

But anxiety began to creep in during the follow weeks. I asked myself over and over again: Am I smart enough for Princeton? What if I fail a class? What if I had only gotten in because of swimming? 

I had received strong grades in high school despite sometimes prioritizing swimming over academics. But that was high school, I thought. At Princeton, they’ll find out that I’m not actually smart…In my mind, being smart and being a good athlete were mutually exclusive—no one could possibly be both, right?

This desire to pinpoint my identity and to label myself as an athlete or as a good student was constantly present throughout my Princeton experience. On one hand, I didn’t want to look like the “jock” who had gotten into an exclusive university based solely on having athletic abilities. On the other hand, I was never shy to bring up my “varsity swimmer” status in conversations. This was partly because everyone at Princeton had an activity (or sometimes ten) that they believed defined them, and also partly because, like the majority of other colleges, being a varsity athlete is considered “cool.” 

Throughout my freshman and sophomore years, my academic advisors and upperclassmen friends recommended taking classes in different departments to enjoy the freedom before settling into a major. Sometimes, upperclassmen suggested taking classes that would lead to a decent grade regardless of effort in the “hard-to-fulfill” requirement categories. These classes were notoriously known to be populated by athletes, and were often branded by students with nicknames, such as “Stars for Stoners” for Astronomy and “Rocks for Jocks” for Geology. Thinking that math and physics were too hard for my swimmer’s brain, I took “Stars for Stoners” fulfill my quantitative analysis requirement.

At the end of my sophomore year, I was set on majoring in sociology. I fully enjoyed all the sociology classes that I had taken so far and more importantly, I imagined myself immersing in independent research for the next two years. The sociology department had always had a reputation for its “easy” classes, as well as for having a higher percentage of athletes than other majors. But I knew I had decided on sociology for the right reasons and did not care what my classmates thought. In fact, the day that I went to the sociology building to declare my major, one of my professors told me he was proud of me for not settling for a major that is perceived by our society to lead to either money or a successful job.

Soon after I had settled into the department, a controversial article in Forbes magazine sparked debate on campus. It was written by a perspective Princeton student who believed that “The recruitment of elite athletes from grade school onward is degrading our entire educational system, and it bodes ill…for America’s children and our nation’s future.” He argued that because athletes with lower academic scores are being admitted into better colleges than other students, the best colleges in the nation are not selecting and breeding top academics to compete with the rest of the world. Unsurprisingly, this was received with criticism among my athlete friends at Princeton, who by my knowledge, received average or better-than-average grades than the regular student body. However, some students at Princeton agreed with the article, and cited professors who had complained about the athletes in their classes for bringing down the average grade and for low attendance to lectures. I was outraged. 

Balancing 22 hours of training every week, a full academic load and some sort of social life was not easy. I felt insulted, but at the same time, the anxiety I had experienced upon receiving my Likely Letter returned.What if I wasn’t as smart as the regular students? To add more fuel to the flame, one of my friends implied the only reason I had a decent GPA was because I was a sociology major.

At the congratulatory reception for all varsity athletes during graduation weekend, one of the speeches was given by the track and field athlete who had become infamous during freshman week for saying “irregardless” in a question to the President in front of all 1300 classmates. The kid who had abused his eloquence was the same kid who had consistently earned podium spots at the Ivy League Championships. At that moment, I realized that among the hundreds of recruited athletes sitting alongside me—some graduating with prestigious academic honors, some with illustrious athletic awards, and some in both arenas—most have felt the same desire to identify and categorize themselves by their particular strengths. But as college students, eager to learn and take on the world, we were multi-talented beings, whether it’s in athletics, the arts, or technology. We imagined ourselves and strived to be the Tiger Woods on the golf course and the Einsteins in the classroom, and these social labels of “student,” “athlete,” “artist” felt confining.  

While having defined rules and roles maximizes efficiency and produces results in a field, say running for example, it prohibits the transferring of skills and knowledge that can be used across our multi-faceted life. The leadership skills and disciplined I gained from athletics contributed to my other interests, and it wasn’t until I dismissed my stereotypes of what an athlete or a student should be that I was able to reach for bigger ambitions across my professional and personal life.


Kathy Qu graduated in June of 2013 from Princeton University with a degree in sociology, and now lives in Chicago, working at the National Association of Charter School Authorizers as the Performance Management Fellow.

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