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By Sushama Kirtikar -

“Aai, can I be a bum in New York City? Please!” This was the refrain in our house for months before our daughter’s high school graduation years ago. With the rustle of prom dresses, the flurry of college applications and the screeching panic of Advanced Placement/International Baccalaureate (AP/IB) exams, chaos reigns supreme in an average household in the last semester of high school. This is that time of year.

Why do mothers lose sleep over their child’s upcoming standardized exams? Why do fathers work up a lather over their child’s lackadaisical attitude towards the final lap? Education has been a ubiquitous mantra in majority of Indian American homes. Rightly so, because back home in India, there was a need to do so. An overcrowded system, over-competitive ideology and low employment rate made the crusade for academic success a necessity for survival.

Upon coming to the U.S., it became second nature to pursue similar ideals and establish ourselves as a force to be reckoned with. However, do we simply transplant those ideals onto our progeny here without being aware of psycho-socio-cultural effects? The push for good education now comes in tandem with high expectations of sweeping the competition and coveting the biggest prize. A perfect SAT score, the most elegant essay on college application packets, the loftiest GPA, the most impressive resume of extra-curricular activities, and entrance to the most elite colleges have become mandates. After school programs, Kumon math classes, individual tutors, enrichment camps in the summer at Ivy League colleges are exploding all over.

Cutthroat competition has intensified with the shove and push for college admissions having taken on the energy of a barracuda feeding frenzy. “Newsweek’s” poll of 100 top high schools in the nation flagged three local schools of the Tampa Bay Area and 11 in the state of Florida. These same programs are chock-full of Indian American children. That is quite an accolade for our community. It is reported that ranking was based on the percentage of AP/IB exams taken. True, there is the faint stirring of a small revolution. A dozen renowned schools such as Sandia Preparatory in Albuquerque, N.M., are experimenting with forsaking standardized exams and creating their own signature curriculum. Lest we be lulled into believing they have lowered expectations, we are told those kids might now face mental exhaustion, as well.

Where does that leave parents in the decision-making process of how to guide their child?

Do you nudge them toward traditional or radical curriculums, public or private schools? Either way, the push is towards excellence. Newspapers are peppered with reports of super kids of Indian origin whose achievements boggle the average mind. Whether it is making it to the national spelling bee, being selected as a teen who will change the world or being chosen as Goldman Sachs Global Leaders for 2005, the community of Indian American youth is suffused with trailblazers.

Is there a price to pay for overachievement? Ohio State University Psychology Professor Robert Arkin says, "Overachievers have a tremendous feeling of self-doubt about their abilities coupled with a strong need to prove themselves." A study of 101 college students showed that they tend to feel more stupid and depressed after failures than others. There is great emphasis on people’s opinions, heightening anxiety. There is often avoidance of effort on projects where there is a potential for failure. After reaching their goal, they feel they have to start all over again, proving to themselves and the world they are worth their weight in salt. How exhausting! As we applaude vigorously the brilliant kids taking their bow on stage, let us keep in mind the rigors they have been through. May we all use a bit of caution before we push our next child to bring home a perfect report card.

Sushama Kirtikar, a licensed mental health counselor, can be reached at (813) 264-7114 or (727) 586-0626, or e-mail at

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