The overlooked danger of scholarship success stories

There is a trend of some scholarship awardees becoming academic influencers or so I say, motivating young people to follow the “dare to dream you can be anything” slogan, to be courageous and keep trying until they get a scholarship to pursue a postgraduate study overseas, to believe that anything, just about anything, is possible if they work hard enough. There is a jargon in the local language that spreads faster than dengue fever in rainy season, literally translates into: efforts will never betray the outcomes, which pretty much means that your success is all in your hands. You want it, you work for it, you get it. Oh, how inspiring. Even more heroic when it’s narrated from a zero to hero humble beginning point of view, a poor scavenger kid from Jakku who finds her way to the Force, fires a lightsaber, snaps snaps snaps and is now on her way to become a Jedi. Don’t get me wrong though. I give my outmost respect to people who work hard to achieve their dreams. But turning it into a narrative is, first of all, normalizing inequality and romanticizing systemic poverty – argument for another day – and second of all, here is the thing: it’s touchy feely yes. Inspiring maybe. But it also induces anxiety in this modern life that is already full of anxiety.

There are so many motivators out there who tell you to hustle for your dreams, rather than to rationalize them. The problem with the “you can be anything” idea planted in your head is that you might see no other outcome but success. I’m limiting the discussion to academic success so a typical dream is to get selected as a recipient of a prestigious scholarship to study in a developed country. Set a goal. Aim for the stars. Sky is the limit. Don’t settle. Nothing is impossible. You know the drill. A typical success story like this is often glorious, full of sense of hope, and very very encouraging. If you work as hard as I did, overcome any obstacles as bravely as I did, read as much as I did, basically lead a life as baddass as I did, you can be just like me. Everyone can be just like me. Living a dream as a scholar in a world-class university. Motivating indeed but the truth is, not everybody is going to study in Harvard, not everybody is going study overseas at all. It’s a scholarship selection not a mass exodus. There is a limit in the budget and not everybody is going to make the cut. That’s the truth. And to see no other way than success is dangerous because the vocabulary for those who did not make the cut is the opposite of success: failure. It’s cruel and just wrong. And then what happens if we add a “humble beginning” element into the story. It amplifies the effect. As in, I come from Jakku guys, I was a scavenger, despite all my limitations I have found my way to Force and lifted myself out of poverty. Social mobility at its finest. And part of the underlying message of this is if you have enough resources, you’re luckier and slightly more privileged but you don’t get a scholarship, then there must be something wrong with you, maybe you don’t work just as hard, you don’t put yourself out there just as much. The “you can be anything” idea places a great great emphasis on one’s efforts and neglects the factors that one cannot control. Things happen. Mysterious things happen even more. Sometimes we never know why we find yourself in this path and not the other. So, all this hustle mentality: it’s great and necessary but you have to remember not to build the whole sense of worth upon this ambition. Dream big yes but stay chilled. Be brave yes but don’t be too hard on yourself. Give your best shot but have a little extra compassion because it’s so easy to fall into that self-pity, why-me-Lord, emmo phase, thinking that luck is never on your side, that you are not enough, not as good, et cetera et cetera.

But to call out to popular academic influencers is none of my intention. Their success stories and encouragement are well-intended and, in some cases, needed. Young people need role models. My intention is, calling out to you to take the idea with a grain of salt because subliminal messages can just wash over us again and again and we never realize that they are piling up somewhere at the back of our head, taking its toll in the most unsuspected ways and time. You’d be waking up and knock knock! Who’s that? It’s me anxiety – do you have a minute talk about your failures and self-worth?

I once had a student in one of those intensive English programs designed to prepare students for a postgrad study. That was in 2012 but I remember it clearly because it’s such a curious case. An agreeable young man, a student with special needs. He was clearly struggling, often left behind, couldn’t grasp abstract concepts. The class members were kind enough to help him whenever they could. I gave extra assistance. But at one point it was getting harder to balance between being accommodating and getting my job done. I asked around. It wasn’t clear but rumor said, his family in the suburb was not very well-informed and that they only wanted to help their son to apply for a scholarship to study overseas. He was there for two or three rounds of the same program. I remember sitting there with a colleague thinking, they could’ve used the money for better purposes and in today’s society, given the right circumstances, his difference could become his strength. I also remember thinking that it was unfair to check ‘fail’ on his progress report, but it would’ve been more unfair to check ‘pass’ because that’s clearly a false hope.

Who’s to blame here? Youtubers and Instagrammers? That would be irrelevant because it’s 2012. The media were there but they’re not as massive as today. But that’s exactly my point. Even when such a motivation was only delivered in workshops and social events, maybe supported by word of mouth god knows what other means, the academic hegemony had an impact. With the promise of “anyone can be just like me”, it can somehow mislead people into delusion.

But take my message also with caution. Because this, by no means, is to discourage any souls. There is no doubt that people find inspiration. There is no doubt that the motivation is well-intended. It’s just the other edge of the sword, the zero to hero seasoning that might leave people asking what’s wrong with them and why can’t they be just as successful, that might be misleading because it rules out success drivers other than hustle and hard work, such as aptitude, the benefactor’s priorities (e.g. field of study, geographic areas, gender etc.), social-relational responsibilities, gender biases, a sudden change of policy or even a sheer of luck. There is a bit of danger in that jargon: the efforts will not betray the outcome, whatever that means honestly. The student in my class, he put his very best efforts and the progress report betrayed him big time. Let’s imagine what influencers might be saying say to console him, get up and try harder?

Inspirational success stories project the idea that it is within the reach of your hands to be just like them, a successful scholarship awardee. If you have the same adversities as they did, low level of English, low socio-economic background, low whatever, but you’re not securing funding by overcoming such adversities then maybe you don’t try hard enough or you’re just mediocre and not destined for greatness. It can be quite damaging thinking about it that way. We are told that we are all free to succeed but in reality, most of us will not get very far. And although there are various reasons for failure, most people blame their mediocrity because once again, it’s all in your hands, it’s all in the hustle. But what if you actually have done everything? But still. And what if we think about it this way. Us humans we need narration to make sense of it all, including our sense of self. That’s how we have autobiographical memory to feel that we live in and experience time in a linear manner, from beginning to end. Past experiences, among other things, define who we are. And as much as autobiographical memory constructs and reconstructs identity, the identity can also reconstruct the memory, especially if it’s played again and again. And a success story, just like history, is written by a victor so of course it’s all about the hustle. Why would anyone be saying “Oh I don’t know really, maybe I just got lucky” because that will not sell. It’s not motivational at all. It’s not a success story if it doesn’t sound pompous and glorious. And if you see it with a bit of criticality, it’s not bad it’s not good it’s just human nature.

So, I’m saying this to you who got a bit weary. There is no need to feel anxious and inadequate. You’re enough. You’re one hell of a person, a son, a daughter, a friend, a professional, a believer, a lover, a living breathing human being. You’re valid with or without scholarship. And when the outcomes betray the efforts, or the efforts betray nonsensical jargon whatever, breathe in and breathe out and don’t judge yourselves so quickly. Besides, much of the encouragement to study overseas it just for the sake of studying overseas. It’s almost like studying itself is the ultimate goal instead of the vehicle to reach the destination. So, what’s actually the destination? You need to ask yourself this question before jumping on the bandwagon. And maybe there are other instruments of success, like acceptance and peace. And if you’re reading this I bet you’re not at that euphoria stage anymore. To Ivy League you must go, a degree you must have. You might have done IELTS, might be rewriting your essays or just taking a break from all the craze and feeling a little jaded. It’s all right. Quoting master Yoda, train yourself to let go of everything your fear to lose. In this war, a danger there is, of losing who we are. So just relax. Drink water. Ride the bike. Climb the mountain. Go home and binge watch Star Wars. Evaluate the plan and rationalize the dreams, then try again another day. Or better yet, board the Millennium Falcon, fly to the galaxy far far way and live your life because there is a lot more to it than trying to become a Jedi.