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一开始进行“头脑风暴”时，导师们便察觉到James在人文学科方面很有天赋。由于缺乏接触和了解，他的理工科（STEM科目）相对较弱，但我们并未让他就此放弃相应科目，而是鼓励他继续学习、拓宽视野、发掘自己感兴趣的领域。James听取了我们的意见，于2014年的暑期参加了布朗大学的夏校（Summer@Brown），选修了不少有趣的课程，譬如“流体力学”（Fluid Mechanics）和“音乐中的物理学”（The Physics of Music）等等。这些课程都与他的兴趣高度结合——他当时就读于香港久负盛名的老牌英式走读男校圣保罗书院（St. Paul’s College），在校管弦乐团担任首席小提琴手，也是校合唱团的男高音。
而在我认识他之前，也就是2013年的暑期，他已经参加过为期两周的“剑桥科学课程”（Cambridge Science Programme），主攻力学。James还挺喜欢课堂上讲的东西，时常兴奋地和身边的人分享他所听到的科学“八卦”。然而，尽管已经体味到了理工科的神秘与魅力，在夏校课程结束时，James还是认为，对于他来说，这些科目只可远观而不可亵学焉。
排除了理工科专业后，一切归零，我们重新在人文学科上开启hard模式。2015年夏天，James再次来到布朗大学，修读“政治思想的力量”（The Power of Political Ideas）。这个课程由一系列关于政治哲学的研讨会组成，节奏甚快。在课堂上，James需要和来自世界各地的同学们就一些政治哲学大师（包括托马斯·霍布斯、约翰·洛克和爱德蒙·伯克等）的著作进行辩论，并共同探讨自由主义、共产主义和虚无主义等——他觉得这些关于政治意识形态框架的理论知识非常有用，尤其是在课堂辩论和之后的历史研究作业中。总之，James对这个课程赞不绝口！然而，尽管学科内容引人入胜、发人深思，但相应论著的文字总是特别抽象、晦涩，这让James踌躇不决——他也不确定自己能不能读好这一科。
陷入两难的James变得越来越功利，一切唯目的是图。要想帮助James早日战胜那些抓心挠肺的“蚂蚁”兵团（所谓“蚂蚁”，即“自动产生的负面思想”，Automatic Negative Thoughts，缩写为ANTs），我们必须使出三个连环招。第一招是“唤醒”——共同验证这些负面思想所引发的各种感受，令James看清这些感受所导致的行为，以及这些行为对思想的反作用。这个由思想、感受和行为组成的三角循环一旦形成，我们便能使出第二招 “挑战”——对这些负面思想进行评估，对“蚂蚁”发起挑战，让James认识到这些无中生有的“蚂蚁”是多么虚幻而荒唐。最后一招是“转化”——协助James将之前这个旧循环转化为一个更健康的、可持续的、“蚂蚁”无法继续繁殖的新循环。
于是，我开始搜罗美国顶尖的辩论夏令营。为了避免James的抵触情绪，我不得不去迎合他的思维方式，告诉他申请这些夏令营完全是出于对其实用价值的考虑——这段经历能给他的大学申请材料增添亮点。我们最后选择了斯坦福国家法医学研究所（Stanford National Forensic Institute），因其项目水准高，灵活度也高，方便James安排时间（布莱顿春季学期结束得晚，暑假要7月1日才开始）。
于是，2016的夏天，James参加了该研究所的初阶课程“核心政策”（Core Policy）和“议会制”（Parliamentary）。在经历了一整个月高强度的演讲训练和辩论巡回赛之后，James看起来比之前要开心许多。更重要的是，他不再妄自菲薄，而是变得胸有成竹，并开始期待着回到布莱顿和同学们在辩论场上一决高下。令大家感到意外和欣喜的是，James在开学之后多次参与了学校的“高年级辩论巡回赛”（Senior House Debating Tournaments），随后又代表学校参加英国全国性的“科夫少年辩论大赛”（Colfe's U16 Debating Competition），并打入“杰出辩手” 15强。James从此信心大增。
2017年夏天，James来到纽黑文参加耶鲁大学的“耶鲁青年国际学者项目”（Yale Young Global Scholars），他选择了“政治、法律与经济”（Politics, Law and Economics）方向。在此期间，他与同学们就网络安全、国际海洋法、文化相对论等一系列问题进行了辩论。在课程结业设计中，他探讨了法国禁止穆斯林在公共场所佩戴头巾的合法性问题。这次丰富的调研经历使James对人文学科中的“跨文化比较研究”产生了浓厚兴趣，并进一步坚定了他弃理从文的决心。
上12年级时（英国A-Level课程总共两年，即12及13年级），一个偶然的机会让James明确了自己的专业志向。教了他三年历史和两年辩论的那位老师，将他领入了“历史编纂学”（专门研究史书编写的学问）这一奇妙的新世界。James 对此无比着迷，灵感迸发，立即开展了两项研究，一是克伦威尔时代的英国与英国内战的起因，一是法国大革命的文化起源。James对人文研究抱有如此真切的兴趣与渴望着实令人欣喜，于是我们建议他不要参加当年的夏校，而把全部精力投入到这两个研究项目中，争取将成果写成论文并发表在学术期刊上（理想目标是《康科德评论》，The Concord Review，一个专门刊登全球中学生历史研究成果的顶尖学术性季刊），或至少入围某个历史方面的比赛。
访校后，James再次来到纽黑文。在接下来的四周里，他白天与我一起讨论、起草和修改大学申请文书，晚上则埋头分析一手档案资料，研读经典历史著作，以便往他的历史研究报告中增添更多有力的事实论据。后来，在耶鲁历史系讲师和布莱顿历史老师的双重指导下，James和我一起对关于法国革命的那篇研究报告进行了润色，并将其改成一篇行文严谨、格式规范的学术论文。就在哥大ED截止日期前不久，这篇论文入围剑桥大学三一学院的“罗伯森历史奖”（Robson History Prize）并获得评委的高度评价——这为James顺利申请到理想的大学又增添了一枚沉甸甸的砝码。今年一月中旬，James被三一学院录取，想必这篇论文也起到了举足轻重的作用（事实上，James通过UCAS系统申请的五所英国大学全都录取了他）。
“Columbia’s ED decisions just came out!” someone announced in the WeChat group.
Restless, Dad “hacked” into James’ Gmail account to check on his status while James was cruising halfway between Kazakhstan and Mongolia on his flight back to Hong Kong for winter break.
So, somehow, we all learned of James’admission result before he did.
He got in.
To be sure, I was relieved. But before uncorking the champagne bottle, there’s something else more urgent I wanted totell him. So I hastily composed the following message; sent it to his family WeChat group and @’ed him:
“Dear James, you know there are many students in this world who are amazingly talented, and are able to accomplish age-defying feats that make our eyes pop, jaws drop, or otherwise render us feeling inadequate and insecure (trust me, we've all been there). But remember, you are great not just because you have good grades and glowing commendations from teachers, but because you are good – you have a good heart that's sensitive to the many injustices and inequalities in this world that attempt to harden us and make us cynical. It’s easy to assume a “us vs. the establishment” mentality in this day and age. But you know what, that’s the fastest way to feel small and powerlessness, and a sure ticket to sap learning and life of fervor and joy.
Over the past few years, I hope we have managed to help you to see the value in staying hopeful and resilient, in driving away that gnawing and dispiriting sense of self-doubt, and in protecting that nascent intellectual thirst and creative spark so you can finally be a force of goodness in this world to light aflame that precious glint in others. I know the journey to get here is long and never easy, but the warmth of your personality, your openness to new ideas, and your grace under pressure (in spite of your face breakouts)have made this journey fun and worthy of all the drudgery.
It has been an absolute pleasure working with you, and frankly, quite an honor to be able to bear witness to your lows, your small triumphs, your episodic bouts of frustrations and petty irresponsiveness, which sometimes made me grit my teeth... But the amazing thing is I never grew impatient with you. Cuz I knew deep down that you just needed an anchor, a sanctuary, someone more sure-footed to give you guidance, and oftentimes, to just be there as a nonjudgmental listener to hear you vent and cry. But your fiercely insistent pursuit of what you want – what your heart tugs at you, though not without backsteps and second-guesses – is what eventually pulled you through.
Congrats again! Let us all acknowledge and celebrate all you've worked hard towards sofar with the wonderfully joyous news this admission letter brings. Safe flight, and we'll catch up once you land in HK.”
As you can probably intuit by now, James is an academically capable, intellectually curious, and emotionally mature student. But the journey to get here is far from a smooth sail.
For the purpose of this article, I’ll save you the bore by skipping the stats and the more technical aspect of his application (if interested, be sure to listen to a recorded online forum here where James and his dad candidly shared their thoughts on his application). To be sure, these external qualifications, though useful, barely scratch the surface and ultimately fail to do justice to the personal growth and transformations James has undergone. In its stead, however, I’d like to offer my two cents on the James I know.
So, let me rewind.
When I first met James almost four years ago in Shenzhen, aside from the funny way he articulated his Mandarin words, the habitual halting pauses between each enunciation, and the distinct British lilt of his spoken English together gave away his Hong Kong private school upbringing, he was a likable kid – respectful yet a bit uptight, cerebral but extremely critical. But unbeknownst to me back then, under all that suave demeanor hid a heart that was deeply insecure, as I later found out.
“What an odd combination!” I thought to myself.
Professionally, these seemingly contradictory characteristic traits presented a curious and challenging case waiting to be dissected, unraveled , and analyzed – a bit too irresistible for a green counselor wanting to prove himself. But personally, his tense feeling of at once being pulled in different directions by external forces and paralyzed by his self-imposed sky-high expectations felt strangely familiar. Looking back, I now know that my initial affinity for and easy rapport with James are but me catching glimpses of my younger self in a similar state – another self-conscious teenager on a lone rove to find his place in this world, still unformed and decidedly unmoored.
Early on, James’ natural bent for the humanities was obvious through our brainstorming sessions, though we didn’t immediately write off the sciences given his relative lack of exposure to the field, so we encouraged him to explore widely. And off he went to take such interesting courses as Fluid Mechanics and The Physics of Music (by then he was already the first violinist at St. Paul’s College, the prestigious Anglian all-boy day school in his native HK, where he also sang in its choir as a tenor. So the course was particularly pertinent.) at the Summer@Brown program back in 2014 following a two-week stint spent investigating various physical forces through the Cambridge Science Programme the summer prior. He liked what he saw and was excited to share the cool scientific factoids he had picked up. But by the summer’s end, James had come to an important conclusion that, for all its mystique and allure, the STEM field was better admired from afar.
Now that the hard sciences were out of the way, we zeroed in on the humanities and went at it, hard. In summer 2015, James went back to Brown a second time for The Power of Political Ideas, a fast-paced political philosophy seminar course where he debated the writings of famous philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Edmund Burke with students from different corners of the world – a welcome respite from the ethnically homogeneous Brighton College in the UK and the years at St. Paul’s College – and pondered over Liberalism, Communism, and Nihilism – political ideological frameworks he still finds of great use, especially in debate and his history research projects later on. In a nutshell, James loved the course! However, even though the ideas were thought-provoking and compellingly fascinating, he found the texts too turgid and abstruse, and worried whether he’d be able to succeed in the subject had he gone along with it.
Apparently, there was no easy answer to that. So, while James ruminated on that realization, our intellectual exploration continued unabated. But this time, we decided to take a break from the subject-oriented summer courses; and instead, work on improving James’ polemics skills, which were really just a proxy for his general self-esteem, or lack thereof in actuality – a chronic malaise that had been dogging James ever since he developed a false “inferiority complex” in the pressure-cooker environment that is Hong Kong’s elite private secondary school scene, and to a lesser extent, the independent schools in the UK to boot where the culture is harsh on people who don’t seem to possess “raw talents” in things and de-emphasizes the role of hard work. This heady combination easily makes students easy to grow withdrawn or become overly self-conscious when showcasing their crafts. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was true of James as well, one upshot of which is that James was only confident displaying his skills after he had reached an extremely high level of proficiency.
Worse still, the situation was aggravated by what I'd like to call his built-in “threat generator”, through the lens of which James tended to magnify non-existing threats and eventually formed the habit of brooding over past mistakes, essentially engaging in what behavioral psychologists term “catastrophizing”. All of which further mired him in an emotional quicksand that kneecapped his self-esteem, effectively completing a damning self-fulfilling prophesy that somehow he was not good enough, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, another classic behavior of cognitive distortion known as “mental filtering”. This constant self-doubt led him to confide in me on multiple occasions that he didn’t think he was “unique” enough to stand out amongst his peers and that he wouldn’t have much of a chance at a top US university, which purportedly valued “uniqueness” above all else, at least in his estimation.
A corollary of this deep-seated sense of insecurity is that James started to treat his peers as “frenamies”, who in his eyes, were ambushing for any chance to upstage him and his hard-earned achievements. Inevitably, it became a barrier to meaningful emotional connections between him and his classmates.
One of the big ways these unjustified perceptions manifested themselves was through debate. Brighton College, in spite of being one of the most progressive independent schools in England known for cultivating a wholesome and friendly environment, still prides itself on having a long and lustrous debate tradition. As such, it is no overstatement that a membership in the debate team is oftentimes seen as a badge of honor that many ambitious pupils covet. And James was no exception.
All the same, the irony was clear and the uphill steep. The art of polemics is necessarily an adversarial activity whose undertone of aggression is hard to miss, and was hard for James to absorb (which was principally why he shied away from more“combative” sports in primary school and never got serious with taekwondo years later). Understandably, James was intimidated, given his troubled history and well-established baggage with competition and what it had done to his self-esteem.
Caught between a rock and a hard place, James grew increasingly utilitarian and goal-oriented. To help him face down his own demons and break the cycle of his Automatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs), the first step was to validate the feelings these ANTs brought up (note that there’s a big difference between validation and verification, and we’re not endorsing their veracity here) and help him see his behaviors that result from those feelings and how they were feeding back to his ANTs. Once this triangular loop of thought, feeling, and behavior was established, we could then evaluate and challenge those ANTs to help him realize how absurd and unfounded they actually were before transitioning to a different, healthier, and more sustainable loop that didn’t end in ANTs.
Specifically, I knew getting James to become better at public speaking and debate would accrue for him those precious confidence points, thus paving the way for his breaking up of the old loop and later joining the debate club at Brighton– a crucial observable fact that will help cement the creation of the new loop and shift his frame of mind. For this reason, I vetted a list of top US summer debate camps and had to appeal to teleological reasoning to convince James to apply on the ground of the program’s ostensible utility in his college admissions. In the end, we picked the Stanford National Forensic Institute for its caliber and program flexibility that best accommodated James’ unusually late summer schedule (Brighton’s summer break starts on July 1st).
James ended up going to both its beginner’s Core Policy and Parliamentary programs in 2016. A month later, he emerged from a whirlwind of intense speech practices and debate tournaments happier, more self-assured, and most importantly, stopped disqualifying the positives he saw in himself. He was now ready to go back to Brighton to debate at a comparable level as his peers. Subsequently and to our pleasant surprise, James went on to participate in many Senior House DebatingTournaments at Brighton, and later represented the school at the Colfe’s U16 Debating Competition, a national debate competition in the UK, where he was named the Top 15 Speakers. As a result, James’ confidence level got a major boost.
The following year, we had planned for James to apply to a few highly selective summer programs in the humanities to accentuate his academic interest while encouraging him to think about the type of college environment where he’d like to spend his college years. Because US colleges can differ widely in their curricular structure and academic offerings, to say nothing of the diverse campus vibe and ethos. It’s therefore highly advisable that students visit college campuses in person whenever possible, especially relevant to those who come from curricular systems that don’t seamless mess well with that of the US – the A-Level in James’ case for instance.
It’s also worth noting that at this point, James had managed to maintain a spotless transcript with a demonstrably rigorous course selection – taking on 5 A-Level subjects whilst doubling up on Math (the average course load at Brighton was 4), while in the meantime managing to win departmental subject awards here and there, term after term. All of these encouraging developments together with Brighton’s respectable UK college admission track records gave us confidence that an Oxbridge admission was almost a guarantee. Consequently, we modified James’ US school list to reflect this bullish outlook, and Yale was at the very top, as his Dad had always wished.
So James came to us here on Yale’s campus in the summer of 2017 to attend the Politics, Law and Economics track at the Yale Young Global Scholars program where he got to debate a wide range of issues from cyber security to international maritime law to cultural relativism. For his Capstone project, James chose to study the legality of the French ban on Islamic headdresses, an experience James found especially enriching which further solidified his conviction to pursue the humanities through a comparative lens.
Junior year (or Year 12 in A-Level speak) introduced a twist, one that unexpectedly helped sharpen James’ academic interest. James’ history teacher of three years who also happens to double as his debate coach exposed him to the wonderful world of historiographical research. Fascinated and inspired, James quickly undertook two projects, one on Cromwellian England and the causes of the English Civil War, the other on the “cultural origins” of the French Revolution. Delighted at his genuine interest and desire to dip his toes into bona fide humanities research, we decided it best to have James double down on crafting these two pieces in lieu of a summer program with the explicit goal of getting them published (ideally at the Concord Review, the world’s premier quarterly journal dedicated to publishing academic research papers on history by secondary students worldwide) or at least entering into a history-oriented competition.
So, later that summer, we welcomed James back to New Haven after touring the University of Chicago and Columbia at our suggestion. The tour proved instrumental in later swaying James’ mind to apply ED to Columbia College rather than REA Yale College while taking advantage of Chicago’s newly instituted ED II option if it ever came to that. With James now set on Columbia, his dad quickly turned around as well.
For the next four weeks in New Haven, we bounced college essay ideas and worked on drafts during the day while he spent the evening diving into primary sourced archival materials and perusing historical canonical works to add ammunition to his arguments for the history research papers. Eventually, with guidance from a lecturer at Yale’s history department and input from his history teacher back in the UK, we polished the French Revolution essay into a paper that entered into the Robson History Prize at Trinity College of Cambridge University where it ultimately received a high commendation, right before the ED deadline was due – a valuable addition that helped spike up James’ academic profile. Needless to say, the paper also lent support to for his eventual admission to Trinity College in mid-Jan. (In fact, James got into all 5 UK universities he applied to through UCAS).
Relatedly, during school terms in Year 11, James eagerly signed up for the Oral History project, through which he met a Brighton alumna who was among the first girls to attend the school in the 70s. The ensuing interview sprawled into a 3-hour long conversation where each took turns sharing the family history of their storied past – following tales from her childhood as a British expat in Nigeria, the lady reminisced about her struggle of studying to become an architect despite the then-strong gender stereotyping in the field; whereas James recounted his grandpa’s memory of being an ethnic minority in Indonesia who survived the Japanese invasion before immigrating to communist China – experiences that inevitably led James to run into themes of continuity and discontinuity in the historiographical landscape as well as the roles of historians in interpreting and re-constructing the conditions that make historical events conceivable, topics we explored in depth in his UCAS Personal Statement, which was finished with relative ease and efficiency.
However, James’ CommonApp main essay was where his indecisiveness and perfectionist tendencies flared up with a vengeance.