By SOPHIA HUO
“At Uni I felt trapped. I felt like I couldn’t do anything so I thought, ‘This is my escape, I’m going. It’s a new adventure, I guess.’ And I’m so glad I did it because if not, I would’ve been stuck at school from 8 AM to 3 PM. But after 3 PM it’s not like you can go home and relax. You have to go home and do your homework for another 3-4 hours or more. Plus on top of that, if you have a test to study for, that takes up literally the rest of your day and night, which leaves you 2 hours of sleep,” former UHS student Lina Ezzeddine said.
On a chilly, cloudy Saturday morning, I sat on a cold metal chair across from an old friend. It had been almost half a year since I had seen Lina.
UHS students, especially juniors, may recognize Lina Ezzeddine because she was a student at the school as a sophomore last year. She no longer attends UHS, however. Many assume she simply moved to another state or school, but she’s still around in Irvine. Ezzeddine currently attends Irvine Valley College (IVC) after graduating last year – two years earlier than her peers in the class of 2017 will graduate.
As her friend, I was shocked she left UHS, and even more shocked to learn that she left to attend college. I kept in touch with her and eventually asked her to hang out and catch up over some coffee. As we sat at the metal tables at a local coffee shop waiting for our drinks, we laughed over some old stories of sophomore year and funny moments we had in our classes. We reminisced about our middle school lives at Rancho San Joaquin Middle School, and Lina noted that her life at that time was about 60% school and 40% relaxation, family and friends.
“I would have the majority of my weekends off, I didn’t feel stressed out and tests weren’t as often,” she said. “I got a B in GATE Humanities though, in 8th grade.”
I argued that B’s hardly mattered in middle school because it didn’t have that much of an impact in high school.
“Yeah, I wish I knew that in middle school. I always thought I needed straight A’s. Right now, I know middle schoolers probably think ‘Oh my gosh, I need to do well in this class,’ but they really don’t have to try that hard,” Ezzeddine said.
We both agreed that young students are getting ready for high school and standardized tests, such as the ACT and SAT, much earlier, sometimes as early as middle school.
“7th grade, though? That’s crazy. In 7th grade, I was worried about how I looked!” I exclaimed.
“Really? In 7th grade, I was worried about health and learning about all the ‘inappropriate’ body parts. I felt like I was like growing up. I thought, ‘I’m in seventh grade! You can’t tell me I’m a kid!’” she replied.
She remembered how she went from taking only one advanced class in middle school to taking almost all honors classes in high school, including Honors Global Perspectives, Honors English and Honors Biology. She would get very stressed because she wasn’t used to taking so many tests.
“It felt like it was a miracle if I didn’t have a test every week,” she said. “At Rancho, there would be maybe 2 tests a semester, but at Uni, it’s at least 3 a week.”
“In middle school, it was so much more relaxed and in high school, it’s like ‘go go go go,’ especially with finals. We’re working ‘til the very end; there’s no slow down. We were always struggling. Even when there were holidays, like minimum days or the day before winter break, we wouldn’t get a break in our classes because there was material to be covered,” Lina continued.
As a result, she felt more rushed in high school than she now does in college, even though the classes she takes last only one semester. “Also, in high school, no teachers really seemed to care about you,” Ezzeddine said. “They just piled stuff on. They don’t realize that you’re taking 5 or 6 or 7 classes.”
“Or they do know and they think that because you chose to take those classes, it’s your responsibility to handle them yourself,” I pointed out. “There’s no pity because apparently as soon as we enter high school, we’re adults and expected to take care of ourselves.”
“We were like 14 or 15, only a year older, but it’s so different,” she responded.
For us, it was a significant change from middle school, where we barely had tests and teachers were more lenient when giving homework. We, and many others like us, were not prepared. High school in the media consists of parties and hanging out with friends while work is in the background. “But in actuality, at UHS, it’s 90% work and 10% family and life,” she said.
The workload Lina had at UHS, like many students’, was extremely intense and had a large effect on her life.
“On days before tests, I wouldn’t go on my phone, watch YouTube videos or watch TV. I shut off everything in my life that was important and just studied all day. I wouldn’t talk to anyone; I’d just go directly upstairs to my room, close the door, get out my papers and study ‘til 9 o’clock at night, and my mom would say ‘You haven’t eaten yet.’ So I’d eat really fast and then continue studying,” she said.
“My life was Uni. I wish it ended on Fridays but it just continued through the weekend. You couldn’t really enjoy anything because it was from one test to the next, one project to the next and one essay to the next.”
Another significant contributing factor to Lina’s decision to graduate early was a health scare halfway through sophomore year. She was absent for a week with a bacterial infection in her throat, which caused her to lose six pounds within that week. “I was dizzy. I literally couldn’t move; I stayed on that couch for a week straight, and I would cry because I would be thinking ‘I have to go to school on Monday. I have to go because I don’t want to fall behind.’ I was so upset,” she said. Her mom insisted that she take a few days off from school, but Lina was reluctant because of a history test she had on that Monday.
Even when her doctor wrote her a note saying she couldn’t go to school for at least 48 hours, she wanted to go to school. “I basically put school before my health because I didn’t want to fall behind.”
I took a sip from my cup before replying, “I feel like everyone does that; you can’t afford to take sick days.”
Lina nodded emphatically and recounted how all her teachers wanted her to make up her tests as soon as she got back from the week she missed. Only one teacher told her that it was okay if she took some time to review the material because he realized all of her other teachers must’ve been making her take her tests as soon as possible.
“It was so refreshing because I finally got that teacher who understood the workload that I had. You’d think that teachers would say, ‘I know you were absent for four days; you must’ve been really sick. Take your time to get better.’ But only one was like that. I was so happy to have him as my teacher.
“I think Uni has that pressure on teachers too. Teachers have to teach at a certain pace and have to make sure they’re giving tests and stuff like that.”
Lina took the California High School Proficiency Exam, the CHSPE, so she could graduate from UHS early. It is held in March and October and includes a math section, English section and an essay. According to her, it was similar to STAR testing in terms of difficulty.
Initially, Lina did not plan to leave high school early. Before 10th grade she wanted to stay and get the “high school experience.” She knew that she wouldn’t be going directly to a four-year university directly after high school because of the competition of getting accepted at the universities she wanted to attend. In addition, Cal States were too far and her family would have been unable to drive her; however, IVC is only five to ten minutes away from her house.
“Even if I did finish through 12th grade, I would have gone to IVC anyway. I thought, if I’m going to end up going there anyway, I might as well go now and then catch up with everyone else when they leave high school after 12th grade, right?” she explained.
Lina started thinking about going early to community college since the beginning of sophomore year because her sister and many of Lina’s friends had graduated early. “I thought ‘Hmm, that’s an idea.’ But in the back of my mind, I wanted to stay until 12th grade and toss papers and toss my graduation hat and all that stuff. But 10th grade rolled around and I felt trapped again. I had that incident where I got really sick. I was so stressed. And that’s when I knew leaving early was probably something I was going to do. So I took the test in March, and I saw how the rest of sophomore year went. I didn’t find a reason to stay, and so my decision became final: I’m leaving.”
“One of my friends who graduated early is now at UCLA now for anthropology, and my other friend is at UCI for neurobiology. Another friend of mine is at Cal State Long Beach for health care administration,” she said. With the assurance that she could still go to good colleges after IVC, she wasn’t as scared to take this path.
Lina also felt that the people at UHS who she should have been able to depend on weren’t reliable, especially in the given environment. “Everyone is just so focused on grades, but it matters more how you feel; it’s not just about your grades. The counselors and teachers mostly just look at your grades and the end result of your work, but the process of getting there can be the worst part. They don’t see what goes behind the grades. I may be doing well in a class, but how am I doing mentally and emotionally?”
“And as students, we’re all in the same boat,” she added. “We’re all stressed out, trying to do our best. There isn’t really much sympathy from students. We’re all caught up in this competitiveness, and that’s ridiculous. So there isn’t really a forgiving environment from both teachers and students.
“You’re just a person among the thousands of people who are stressing too. I felt like Uni was an unrealistic, competitive, unhealthy environment. I just had to get out.“
For students like Lina, it can be disheartening to see so many successful students who are taking multiple, or all, AP and honors classes, along with participation in various extracurriculars. Teachers, counselors, parents and other adults may see those students and think, “If they are capable of doing that, why aren’t you?”
“It’s sometimes as simple as, ‘I don’t get it at the same pace another person can,’” I responded.
Lina added, “A B is above average. Every place other than Uni or Irvine thinks B’s are good. If you don’t have a 4.0 at Uni, you’re stupid. Even if people don’t say that directly to you, you definitely don’t feel good enough.”
“You know what though?” I sighed as I leaned back in my chair, “A lot of people at Uni define themselves and determine their self-worth based on their grades. But honestly, when you’re 80 years old and thinking back on this, I doubt anyone would think ‘I should’ve gotten an A when I got that B. I don’t like my high school experience because I got a B in this one class.’ When you’re older, whether you’re 30, 40 or 80, you’re not going to, at least you shouldn’t, think back to those 4 years and think those were the worst.”
“Do you still remember the pep rallies at Uni?” I asked.
“OCC, OCC, OCC!” Lina yelled and erupted into giggles. “But honestly, the freshmen shouted that to the seniors as if that meant you’re stupid or a failure, but it’s really not like that.
“There’s always this negative connotation with community college. People think you aren’t good enough or you won’t be successful if you go there. But community college is underrated, and it can be a very good environment. I like it. The classes I’m taking are a good representation of what UC or Cal State classes are going to be like. And I can find out what I’m interested in without all the competition from other students. Plus, it’s definitely a lot cheaper.”
Lina acknowledged that people just hearing of the option of graduating early will most likely not be open to it, and she doesn’t expect people to jump on the bandwagon. “It’s scary because it’s new and you don’t know what to expect. This alternative path of high school is sort of taboo because you’re not spending 4 years in high school. People always react to new things with unwillingness. They want to stay in their bubble, and I did too at first. But sometimes…you need to take chances. I took a chance, and it was good for me.”
Finally, I asked her if she had any advice for freshmen or anyone at UHS who feels lost.
“I’m the worst advice giver ever, but…I know right now it seems like high school is everything and getting into a good college is everything, but if you’re consumed too much in the stress or trying to be the best person in your class, you’re going to miss out on life. Just do the best you can with your assignments and work. It doesn’t have to be perfect.”
As for the teachers and staff at UHS, Lina simply asks for a little understanding. “Schoolwork definitely stresses people out but it’s also other stuff like social interactions…pretty much anything. At our age, as teenagers, we’re trying to figure out so many things. We’re trying to figure out our future, who we are. Just day to day, we’re trying to figure out what to do and it helps if we feel like people, especially adults, understand what we’re going through.”
Now, Lina is majoring in business at IVC and plans to finish 2 years here, then transfer to a UC or Cal State and finish 2 years there. Afterwards, depending on her situation, she’ll try to get a masters degree or get a job to support her parents.
She has school four days a week, from Monday to Thursday. With her new free time, Lina likes to bake and spend time with friends and family. Lina has definitely found her niche in college.
“The people here are really nice and dependable. Even though I’m 16 and they’re 18, everyone is really open, and I really like it here.”