Student Story: Leah Messing

Leah was a speaker at the 2009 Challenge Success Fall Conference

Last year, I sat in this very room completely awed by three students who expressed how Challenge Success had changed their lives. I admired their bravery, independence, and determination to make choices that enhanced their individual physical and emotional wellbeing. By sharing their personal journeys with Challenge Success, they provided a fresh, new perspective very much needed by students and parents connected to the 21st century American education system. Today, I stand on this stage feeling honored to share the ways in which this incredible program has shaped my life and personal goals, and also privileged to have the opportunity to touch all of you the way I was touched just one year ago.

After spending four years at a very academically competitive public high school, I found it astonishing how every action in many teenagers’ lives revolves around one common goal: college acceptance. While in one sense I admire my generation’s persistence and diligence, the intense competition has become ludicrous – so much so that it has caused a shift in the education system.

I have seen a lot of unhealthy competition, including cheating, eating disorders, and anxiety disorders, as a result of the immense pressure to be accepted into a top university. It should be no surprise, then, that while sitting on my couch during December of 2007, my heart almost skipped a beat as I listened to Denise Pope on CNN. I immediately connected with her message: because of an immense amount of pressure to attend top universities, kids are “doing school” and not learning in school. She described that kids have become robotic: spitting out information for a test and forgetting it later, walking into high school with their “hook” or “niche” all planned out, and taking classes because they look good rather than because they possess the desire to become engaged in the subject matter. I have seen too much of this, and once it was confirmed that this is a national issue, I knew I must involve myself immediately in this bold movement.

After contacting Denise via email, I brought the idea of assembling a Challenge Success team to a counselor at school. It was a blessing to have such an enthusiastic faculty member by my side throughout the entire process. We were met with much resistance by other parents and faculty members in our high school community, but rather than letting that stop us, we went full force with a year long awareness campaign so that parents and other faculty members understood the true motives of Challenge Success. I spoke with several other students that I personally trained at the Honor Council’s first ever Integrity Day about defining success in qualitative rather than quantitative ways, organized presentations for parents in the local community, wrote brochures explaining of the program for the teachers, and held discussions about how Challenge Success ties into Jewish values at my Hebrew School. Challenge Success’s universal values apply to people of any age whether you speak to the parent of a first grader or a high school senior.

Because of the presence of diversity at my high school, the opportunities to be involved in a variety of unique clubs and organizations seemed endless. Transitioning from a small private school, I felt enormous enthusiasm about finding my passion through these limitless possibilities. I joined the school newspaper to pursue my interest in writing, but was disappointed to find that the main interest of the paper was competing for editor positions for college applications rather than reporting important issues to other students. I became President of National Honor Society to instill passion in others about promoting academic service, but was disappointed to find the main interest of the members was to just sign in and leave for the attendance credit. Students were not ashamed to tell me that their parents forced them to join National Honor Society because it looks good on college applications. As a President with genuine ambition to bring the club to new heights, I was devastated about the apathy. Due to the lack of passion in my peers, it seemed impossible to have meaningful experiences through extracurricular involvement.

From the start of my freshman year, I promised myself that I would never sacrifice my creativity and character for a college acceptance letter. I only took classes that were manageable and that would keep my mental health in a good state. I only joined clubs that attracted my interest, and participated in extra curricular activities that I felt were worth my time. My refusal to stretch myself too thin created tension in my household, and even among my peers. Once, during my sophomore year, my mother told me not to come crying to her when I didn’t get into college, because I refused to do extracurricular activities that looked good on a resume, but seemed meaningless to me. I could tell that some of my peers from school looked down on me for taking 3 AP courses per year, instead of 5 or 6 per year. My original college counselor, who I quit working with, picked schools for me based on my SAT score rather than the schools that seemed like a good fit. She told me that acceptance to my schools of choice would be impossible without a higher SAT score. AlI of this negative energy made me feel isolated, but I somehow managed to hold my own, because I believed in myself, and I believed in my character.

I remember walking into my high school guidance counselor’s office before senior year and learning that if I did not fit an art credit into my schedule that I would not graduate. There were two choices. I could enroll in AP Art History, which has a maximum of six points and a rigorous workload, or enroll in a regular level art course which has a maximum of four points and minimal homework. My guidance counselor informed me that enrolling in any other art course besides the AP Art History would knock me out of the top five percent of my class and into the top ten percent. Basically, I could stress myself out in Art History and wear a gold collar at graduation, or be good to myself and wear a silver collar at graduation. Due to my lack of interest in Art History and Challenge Success’s impact on my academic perspective, I decided to enroll in regular level photography. To my surprise, I developed a love for photography and a more sophisticated eye that makes ordinary objects seem beautiful and artistic because of how my eye frames them—a perspective that will last forever. If I could make the decision over again I wouldn’t change a thing. I would trade in the gold collar for a more sophisticated visual perspective any day. What color collar one wears on his or her graduation day is of little significance. The significance lies in the milestone and the right of passage to a new journey.

The college admissions process was a journey that I would rather not go back to, but I will for the sake of my story. Kids at my school began building their resumes in ninth grade, taking as many AP classes as possible even if the classes were subjects they had no interest in and required cheating to get through. Elections for clubs were treacherous, because holding officer positions were of the utmost importance for one’s resume. Homework was copied everywhere I looked, because thinking for oneself requires too much time and effort. Character, passion, integrity, creativity, and genuineness had slipped right through my generation’s fingers.

I am proud to say that my top three choices for schools accepted me, contrary to my old college counselor’s prediction. The decision between Emory University, Brandeis University, and Barnard College seemed difficult, but came easy to me because I found the right “fit.”

I ask you all to become involved in Challenge Success in your local communities. Run student and parent awareness programs, talk to the faculty at a local high school, and work on having any of the Challenge Success founders speak at your local school. This program can be run at any age, as the push towards unrealistic achievement starts very young, and can be extremely detrimental to a child’s physical and emotional well being. To all the students here tonight: stay true to yourself and don’t stretch yourself too thin for a college acceptance. Maintaining your mental health and sustaining your passion for tasks inside and outside of the classroom is of the utmost importance for a successful life. Parents: please don’t push unrealistic achievement on your children. Don’t measure their success by grades or awards, but by their integrity and character.

The effect of society’s high expectations and pressures on my generation is scary. Kids are depressed, anxious, sleep deprived, and in some cases suicidal. They respond to stress by drinking to excess, using drugs, cutting themselves, and throwing up their food. Even the kids with the best grades engage in this kind of unhealthy behavior. I ask you to please become involved in Challenge Success so we can all fight for this change together.

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