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The Problem With Defining Intelligence Solely Based on Academic Standing
Have you ever been judged on how smart you are? Have you ever been treated differently based on your academic standing? Well, if you have, you have stepped in my shoes, my friend.
Baira Mahes
Medical and Graduate Student
United States
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You put your book bag down and turn on the TV to enjoy some of your favorite cartoons. Then in comes Amma with steaming hot vadas and tea, a typical relaxing day after school. Doesn’t this sound great? Well, this was not always the case for me. My day after school was quite different. Every day I would sit down mindlessly highlighting prep books, trying to solve all the math problems in there within ten minutes, and then running off to tuition class. You might be wondering why? Here is the answer. The Tamil community equates our intelligence based on what institution one attends. If one does not go to a high-ranking school, they are considered not smart, and they will ultimately have an unsuccessful future. Well, this is a problem I faced my whole life.


After middle school, the next big thing was high school. In the Tamil community I grew up in, they had a mentality that depending on what high school you went to determined your whole future. My high school was a local one with a decent reputation but was not considered outstanding or honorable as those that other Tamil kids attended. Although, I felt proud of myself for getting better grades, making friends, and being active in school clubs. I missed that one thing that allowed me to be successful in the Tamil society, I did not go to a top high school, and believe me, I was always made aware that I did not.


Attending any event or class, I had to hold my breath and listen to the disappointing sighs from the Tamil aunties and uncles and comments thrown at me once I said where I go to school. She can’t become a doctor, she won’t go to college, you have too much chellam and need to take more responsibility for yourself. On top of the comments, I got treated quite differently. I was consistently bullied and not included in friend groups or Tamil programs. When I asked why the response I got was, you are not smart since you go to this school.


You might think, I did not take this to heart? False! I began to obsessively study all the time, pulling all-nighters and buying every book I can to help me pass my exams. My health began to degrade. I started getting ulcers and headaches from staying up all night and not eating. Even when Amma will tell me to go to sleep, I will sneak in a flashlight just to do three more questions: thinking that this will get me some recognition that I was smart. All I wanted was to fit in. It was like I had this label stuck on my forehead that I could not get off. Honestly, I kept repeating in my head that I was stupid and stopped being me.


That soon changed. When I first started college, most of my classmates went to those reputable high schools that the Tamil community praised. I became speechless although, they went to those schools, we all still ended up in the same classroom. Here is when it clicked. The Tamil community puts high importance on their children to do and achieve the best. Yes, I do understand that maybe our parents did not have the opportunities we had growing up. However, the mentality of labeling our intelligence based on the schools we go to has to be changed now. The Tamil community needs to start thinking it does not matter where one goes to school, but how one utilizes the opportunities around them and how one sees themselves. We need to stop labeling and start encouraging. Where we go does pave our future choices but does not equate to our success or intelligence. Success is doing what you love, being the person you want to be, and always thinking positively about yourself.


 As a new generation, we can change this way of thinking. How?


Sit down with your parents and explain to them your academic choices. Teach them how to research and let them read and understand what is going on in the current world of academics.


Voice your opinion. One thing that always stops us is the fear that we might disappoint our loved ones. However, put yourselves first. Your happiness is so much more important than prestige from our community. 


Show the Tamil community that academics is just one piece of the puzzle. Talk about how volunteering or your hobbies helped you be where you are in your fields.


Desperate to fit in, I became a girl who felt worthless and who thought she could never achieve anything in her life. Today as I pursue medicine, I knew my past paved my future. Everything that led me to be the person I am today was through my hard work, and recognizing my happiness was more important than the prestige of being smart in the community.


Created By
Baira Mahes
Medical and Graduate Student
United States
My life has been divided into two parts, one where I learned to build my life and the o...
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