Monday, October 20, 2008

The "IB Effect"

Looking forward to my future beyond college, I think it's important to remember the things that got me to my first day as a scared freshman at William and Mary. I want to define the things I've learned, and the things I've accomplished so that I may be better prepared to use those learning experiences in the future both in job interviews and at jobs, in new relationships and in life.

In high school, I was a hard-working student. Until my junior year, however, my focus was not on receiving that perfect A+ (although they mattered to me, grades were never something I allowed myself to stress out over), but on obtaining as much knowledge as I possibly could. I grew up in a wealthy area; wealthy not only in the material success of my family and those around me, but Fairfax, Virginia has a wealth of resources. The people who live there are successful and knowledgeable. I had great teachers. My goal through high school was to make the most of the resources that had been put before me. I was curious about life, and overwhelmed with the uncertainty of what I'd do with mine. I used the skills that I had developed up until that time, and I talked to teachers and students around me. I talked with counselors and my friends' parents about their lives and how and why they'd gotten to where they were. I absorbed everything I could. I learned to listen.

By the end of my sophomore year, I still didn't have a clue what I wanted to do with my life. I knew that I wanted to go to college, and that doing so would afford me a little more time to think about it and continue my "research". In trying to leave as many options open as I possibly could, I decided to challenge myself by entering the IB program. I wanted to make myself the best candidate as a college freshman when the time came to apply to schools, so I took on a heavy workload. Entering the IB diploma program was one of the best decisions I think I've ever made. I truly challenged myself. I learned a lot. In comparison with the AP classes I took alongside IB, these classes were designed to increase cultural awareness, to teach critical thinking, build study skills, and most importantly, to make high school students extremely aware of the world that exists outside of their close clique of friends, the walls of their high schools, their town, their country, their continent, even outside of their planet, or universe. When you're 17 or 18 years old, it's hard to rationally think past Friday night. IB teaches students to realize that they can make positive, long-term changes in their communities and in their world. In order to receive an IB diploma upon graduation, students must have completed 150 hours of community service, and written about the personal effect each hour had upon them. Playing the piano for a local assisted living community brought joy both to the residents there and to me. Working to help clean the grounds of my elementary school made me appreciate the time I spent there and my youth. Painting murals on the walls of an area pre-school brought me closer with a colleague and put a smile on my face to see the enjoyment the children who attended school there got from my work. Weeding the gardens at a church near my home made me aware of the diversity that lies within religion and the love and hope that is constantly surrounding us. Without hesitation, I can say that the most valuable of the hours that I put into my IB diploma came from CAS hours, and specifically those devoted to counseling at vacation bible school. Most of the people I worked alongside in the program were complete strangers when I began. I learned about their characters, about their lives, about their passions, and I shared mine with them. I was surrounded by children, and though it's cliche and said far too often, it remains the truth: "kids say the darndest things." Although I've never been very religious, the experience of completing my CAS hours made me a more spiritual person and fed the flame of religious curiosity that I'd already had.

In addition to CAS hours, IB required that I complete an "extended essay", in my "spare time" on a subject of my choosing. The process of writing the paper was to be guided by an advisor, also of my choosing, preferably within the most relevant department for the subject of my essay. The subject of my paper was The Effect of Protest Music During the Vietnam War, and I "carefully" selected my teacher of IB Math Studies as my advisor. Maybe it wasn't the best selection of an advisor, but since I was already close with all the music teachers in the state (or so it had sometimes seemed), and with my history teacher, I chose to make this an opportunity to discover something new about the teacher of a subject which I knew would never be my favorite. While learning about the Vietnam War and the impact of Crosby, Stills and Nash's political activism, I learned that math teachers can have interesting lives, even if their passion for their subject cannot be transferred unto me. I learned that what I choose to do right when I finish school may not be the path that I will continue on for the rest of my life. I learned that everything I learned throughout my life could be a potential conversation piece. I learned that the challenges that I had chosen for myself were merely stepping stones to the next challenge I would take. I learned that a career was not the destination I sought out, but the means to live a contented life, and another challenging stepping stone to take me to my next challenge.

I've never been more stressed out about an exam since my final IB exams. Even once I reached college, exams were never so daunting as at the end of my high school career. It makes such a difference to know your grader, to have a personal relationship with the teacher who will be reading and evaluating your thoughts on what you've learned. IB does not afford its students that luxury. All IB exams (both written and oral) are mailed away for grading, often to other countries, mostly to ensure fairness among students. After working so hard and stressing out way too much, it's agonizing to wait for those scores to be sent home. It's also incredibly gratifying to receive the scores and to know that you earned every point, and that there was no bias because a grader may have or have not "liked" you. I learned to be patient. I learned that to achieve great and gratifying things, I needed to work hard, and that by working hard, the pay off would be that much sweeter.

When people ask me why I chose to do IB versus AP, I cannot answer for my 16-year old self, who was the actual decider of that action. All I can respond is that if I could, I would never go back and re-do it, substituting AP for IB. The program was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life thus far. I worked hard, and although I suffered sometimes because of it, I also grew through that suffering. They say, "what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger." I don't know if this is true always, but in this case, it most definitely is true. It was tough, but it didn't kill me, and I am a stronger, more mature, well-educated 21-year old today because of it. That's the "IB Effect".

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