Amanda Ripley

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When Your College Roommate is One of the “Smartest Kids in the World”

13th Aug 2013 posted in Education, Resilience

People sometimes ask me if international education rankings really matter. After all, the U.S. has done just fine with a mediocre education system until now. Our economy has other engines that drive growth, despite our challenges.

And that's true. But the world is changing, make no mistake. As more jobs are automated or outsourced, more Americans are finding that they are forced to prove themselves--over and over again, throughout their career. And the competition, even for our most elite students, has upped its game. 

Here is a real-life example of why all of this matters: This summer, I met Elizabeth Carls at the New America Foundation, where she is working as an intern. This woman is impressive. She's getting straight As at Stanford; she is eloquent, curious and driven. 

And yet, when she met her freshman year roommate, a young woman from South Korea, she realized she'd have to work much, much harder to compete on a global scale in the 21st century. Here is her story:

I teetered up the stairs to my new dorm room on my first day of freshman year at Stanford, slightly embarrassed by my three, oversized teal blue suitcases. My mother had lobbied for them by arguing that they’d be impossible to lose in the airport. In my free hand, I clutched a key to Room 209. If I was embarrassed about the suitcases, I was proud of the key. I’d worked hard for it throughout high school, and I expected that it would unlock more than just the door to my dorm room.

My roommate, I was delighted to learn, was from South Korea, and I was also about to learn that kids from South Korea are very smart.

One night that fall, I was struggling to write a research paper in Spanish—the longest assignment I’d ever attempted to research and write in a foreign language. My thesis was not working, and my brain struggled to pick through the clutter of two languages. I sighed and frustration pricked my eyes.

My roommate turned around from her own studies. “Liz, what’s wrong?”

After a pause, I voiced the thought troubling me most. How could school be this hard for me, and yet seemingly effortless for her? This was the hardest year of my scholastic life and, academically at least, she was breezing through at the top of our class.

She turned in her chair, fully facing me. “Liz,” she said, “this is the hardest you’ve ever worked, right?”

I nodded.

“As hard as you are working now, that’s how hard I worked in third grade--to get into the middle school that got me into the high school that got me into Stanford.”

Read the rest of Elizabeth's post here