I would not call it a pastime, nor would I call it a job, but one the regular duties I’ve taken on in recent years is helping Chinese and Chinese American teenagers apply to college. After Manyu and I guided Clare through the process, and after our friends Stefan and Shu did the same with their two sons, several Chinese friends, both in Asia and in the United States, asked the four of us if we could do the same for their kids. Since my retirement, we have helped about a dozen students determine which schools were good fits and then walked them through the application process.

Last Saturday Manyu and I drove to the nearby town of Holman to speak to Vincent, a high school senior who has his heart set on the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We met in a side room of his parents’ Chinese carryout restaurant. The parents spend nearly every waking hour at the restaurant, so if we want to talk to them, that’s where we have to go. We were meeting because Vincent had taken the ACT exam for a second time and improved his score by five points. Five points is a significant jump. Manyu and I wanted to explain to Vincent and his parents that not only had Vincent significantly improved his chances of being accepted to Madison, but he’d also expanded his options to the point where he might want to consider a few other schools as well.

I explained the situation to Vincent in English, and Manyu repeated the key points to the parents in Mandarin. While Manyu was speaking to the parents, I stepped away to talk with Vincent’s younger brother William. William is a sophomore in high school. He is two years away from seriously thinking about college, but I occasionally talk to him about high school and about his non-academic interests. One of those interests is creative writing, and recently he sent me samples of his fiction. 

I asked William whether he wanted honest feedback on his writing. When he said that he did, I said, “I have two, maybe three general comments to make. One is positive, one is slightly negative, and one is just an observation.

“One, you are an exceptional writer. In some ways, you already are better than I am – and I’m a published author. You definitely have talent. Two, when I read your writing, I can tell I am reading a young, inexperienced writer. Some of the prose is over the top, and sometimes you over-explain. In my opinion, you use clunky adjectives and adverbs when the main nouns and verbs speak for themselves. Three, I think you should consider creative writing when you evaluate potential colleges. Specifically, you might want to attend a small liberal arts college with a good writing program. I think you are that good.”

William replied, “I’ll think about it, but writing is just a hobby. My plan is to follow my brother to Madison and study computer science.”

I never strong armed Clare into a specific college major or a specific career. I was more subtle than that.  Instead I brought her to nature, instilled within her a strong environmental ethic, and then trusted she would find a career or avocation that would help save the planet. That approach was appropriate with Clare, and I decided, on the spot, to do the same with William.  I asked him whether he’d be interested in attending a summer writing camp hosted by a college with a good writing program. If so, I’d help him with the applications to the Iowa Young Writer’s Studio and the Kenyon Young Writer’s Workshop. If he attends a writing camp, someone else can plant the seed. 

Steven Simpson