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Johnson: Don’t let academic success determine self worth

Naomi Johnson, Columnist

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There was a significant portion of my life during which I would have had no problem with this statement: My academic success determines my self-worth.

This dysfunctional and somewhat irrational statement was something that I believed wholeheartedly. Ever since I could understand words, my parents emphasized the value of education and the need to succeed within an academic framework. As a 10-year-old, I listened very patiently to my mother when she listed off the reasons I needed to cultivate a willingness to learn and how my academic success would validate all of the sacrifices that she and my dad made when they immigrated to America from South Korea. Without fail, my mother would then punctuate these lectures with the need to become a medical doctor because that occupation would not only confirm my hard work, but also her hard work. I listened. And I absorbed everything.

I never questioned my mother when it came to my career. What reasons did I have to confront her ideas of success? After listening to nearly two decades of lectures from my mom that highlighted the need to become a doctor, I did not consider my mother’s expectations pressure, and I also developed a natural association between my value as a student and as a daughter and my academic performance.

I did everything in my power to steer myself toward a career in medicine. I participated in science fairs in middle school. Of the 10 Advanced Placement classes I took in high school, half of them were either math or science, even though by this time I had already developed a love for the humanities and social sciences.

I brushed my preferences aside because I thought they didn’t matter. What else could be more important than fulfilling the goals that I had internalized throughout the years?

Interestingly, as a second-generation Korean-American, my experience in relation to “my” initial career goals is not unique. In 1993, the University of California at Berkeley’s Eun-Young Kim interviewed second-generation Korean-American undergraduate students to understand the reasons behind the career and major choices these students made. Kim concluded that strong cultural ideals of success within Korean-American communities, centered around “prestige” and financial security, translated to very narrow parental definitions of success that in turn affected the students’ career goals. Of course, this is not to generalize every Korean-American student’s experience at universities, but it is comforting — in a strange way — to know I was not alone.

It wasn’t until I had arrived at Northwestern as a pre-medical student and had started taking the chemistry sequence that I realized something was wrong. In fact, by the end of the Chemistry-172 sequence, which felt like my personal punishment for not getting a 5 on the AP exam, I felt deflated. And again, I brushed my general sense of malaise aside.

But I could not ignore my visceral reactions for long. I felt myself becoming complacent in classes that were supposed to matter to me, and at the end of each science class, I could not recognize myself as a student. It took a great deal of introspection for me to finally understand that I had avoided just that: introspection. I realized I had never seriously considered a career other than one in medicine. It would be easy to blame my upbringing, but I was just as responsible in my insistence to pursue one thing because of fear. I feared choices. The pre-med path was so clear and straightforward. It took an entire academic year for me to realize that the straightforward pre-med path I held so dearly had become my greatest academic burden. And it took longer for me to finally understand I was pursuing the pre-med path for all of the wrong reasons.

There seems to be a running joke that most people leave the pre-med life because the academic commitment became too hard. In my case, however, it was more difficult for me to leave the pre-med path and become a history major because for the first time in my life, I made a decision not for my family or my family’s expectations, but for myself. It was a clear but difficult decision.

Still, I am grateful for the prolonged process that led me to this point because I no longer believe academics determine self-worth. That transition in thinking is enough to convince me everything, including my decision to leave the pre-med life, was worthwhile.

Naomi Johnson is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be reached at If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to