Monday, May 9, 2011


It is hard to describe an establishment of true class, not the flashy, garish type, but more of an unobtrusive elegance. This was the atmosphere of Prospects restaurant as our party of 20 Yale alums, ILC staff, parents, sponsors, and Dyana, Matt, and I.

The lilting background music was neither too loud, nor too soft, I don’t remember what it was, but I’m sure it was pleasant. Bubbles of conversation drifted from the main dining area—all polite— contributing  to the gentle ambiance. Waiters with interesting, yet finely groomed, facial hair served us hors d'Ĺ“uvre from polished wood plates as we mingled with our sartorially magnificent group. The appetizers themselves were neatly arranged as well, cut in the most polygonal way a vegetable can possibly be cut, aside dips designed to be complimentary; carried by several waiters weaving in and around us, arriving and departing seamlessly from conversations with only a shadow of a, “freshen your drink sir?” And the food! My God; every single piece of food I ate looked exactly as good as it tasted, and they all looked about as good as this:
Desert course 1 of 3.
For the duration of the night, after some initial schmoozing, I sat between Don Gosney, our behind the scenes ILC coordinator, (no one is exactly sure what his job is, but he seems to get things done.) and Ken Yamaguchi, a Yale alum and president of the Bay Area’s chapter of the Yale alumni association. While Don and I had a long conversation concerning the state of high school history texts and the more unsavory parts of history that they tend to omit or gloss over; such as the dozen or so coups staged by the CIA in Latin America and other countries during the cold war— thank you Texas school board. Ken entertained questions from Austin Long (An ILC alum who will attend Yale in the Fall) and I about life at Yale. These conversations were interspersed with discussions between our table group of nine, as well as speeches by various alums, sponsors, school board members, and my cohort Dyana So.

Between the conversations I had with Don, Ken, and the many other dinner guests; the food, the atmosphere, and the speeches, it was an exceptional night, in the truest sense of the word.

As I think back now, I keep returning to something that Mr. Yamaguchi offhandedly said to Austin, “Ninety percent of the people you meet are going to be exceptional, in one way or another.”

In some ways, I see Ivy League Connection and our sponsor’s investment in the 35 of us as a way of promoting the belief that we have that capacity to be exceptional. In fact, those were more or less the words of Charles Ramsey, the president of our school board, as he described to us why he began this.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Just a Teaser

The 2011 Ivy League Connection cohorts, their chaperones and parents gather for a group photo after being presented to the West Contra Costa Unified School District on May 4th.

Stay tuned for more photos.

Inspirational Dining with "Tigers"

A blue Catherine Regehr for Neiman Marcus dress has been sitting in the back of my closest for a while. I've been waiting for the perfect occasion to wear such an elegant thing but have yet to find the time until tonight.

It was Friday at last. I couldn't wait to get home and prepare for the Yale dinner. The entire week that followed had been quick but tiring. Everyday was either studying for an AP test or the day of an AP test. Now, with three of the four tests under my belt, I was ready to relax and enjoy an extravagant evening at the Prospects Restaurant in San Francisco.

I spent little time mingling on the BART ride to our destination because I was busy collecting my thoughts for the speech I was to make that evening at the dinner. Hunched over a little yellow notepad, I outlined the preliminary answers I had to address the question: "What does the Yale Ivy Scholars Program Mean to You?" So many answers would shout over one another in my mind as I thought over the question extensively that I also asked Tom and Matt what they thought so as to both quiet my detracting thoughts and hear what they had to say. I discovered that even though we share the same enthusiasm for the Grand Strategy class that awaits us this summer, the three of us also had a different but equally admirable take on what this program meant for all of us.

Getting off Embarcadero Station with our large, well-dressed party gave me nostalgia. I saw One Market restaurant up ahead and turning the corner just before the cross walk that led to it, was a symbolic thing for me. That was the restaurant I attended last year as a Cornellian. Now, as a Yalie, I was literally turning the page to another exciting, unwritten chapter of my life and heading down another path of academic rigor and opportunities.

The room Prospects set out for our party was perfect. Large windows stood opposite of the three round tables that waited before us. A woman offered to take our coats and hang them in another room as our main server of the evening asked us for our beverage preferences. I was asked if I wanted champagne or chardonnay twice, but I stuck with coke for legal reasons.

As the remaining guests made their way to Prospects, the majority of us stood around to continue mingling. The guests Mr. Ramsey and Ms. Kronenberg invited for dinner were a perfect bunch. Ms. Kaplan, Ms. Kahn, and Ms. Kim continue to be supportive and encouraging figures for not just me, but also for all the other diamond-in-the-rough students from our district. They never grow tired of telling students that the sky's limitless, and I admire their hopeful outlook for the students in our district. I was also glad to have Austin Long join us for dinner; many students from our high school look up to him for his accomplishments and leadership and they couldn't be more proud of his acceptance into Yale. Having Mr. Long there was great as well because it gave my mother, who was more comfortable speaking in Cantonese, a chance to engage in more conversation that evening. Mrs. Pepa, some of the interviewers from the panel responsible for choosing us Yalies for the ILC, some of the sponsors, and some local Yale alums were also invited to perfect our wonderful dining experience.

The three tables were divided accordingly to Tom, Matt, and I. At my table sat Ms. Kronenberg, Mr. Lindsay, Mr. Elis, Ms. Kim, my mother, Alexis, and Mrs. Pepa. They were great to dine with and a large portion of why I found this dinner to be so fun and unforgettable was because of the conversations I shared with them. Mr. Lindsay described to us a perfect "Yale moment" he once experienced back when he was a student there. The snow had just finished falling, a full moon was out on a clear night, and the world around him was absolutely quiet and still when he chanced to step out one night to witness it. I can still see that breathtaking image in my mind and hope that, even though I won't see snow in the summer, I'll also get to have a "Yale moment" of my own as well.

Alexis was the local alumni at our table. She graduated from Yale as an English major in 2006 and is now working in the Bay Area for Google. A large part to the casualness and fun in our conversations can be attributed to her. From her experiences at Yale to her moments from her high school days back in her small town, Alexis assures me that after high school, it can only get better and better, especially if you're going to college.

Mr. Elis and Ms. Kim were the two I spoke the most with. Mr. Elis and I remembered each other from the interviews but never had the chance to get better acquainted since then. Ms. Kim, I knew, was a private counselor, and she was the one to talk to if you were in need of any advice or answers regarding your college search. The three of us suddenly found ourselves in a really engaging conversation when I asked Mr. Elis about his job as a publisher.

Mr. Elis briefly mentioned he was a publisher when he commented on Alexis's English degree and that instantly stood out to me. As someone who loves her English classes year after year and have always found writing to be both a fun and powerful skill to possess, I immediately became intrigued with what Mr. Elis's and Alexis's English degrees have gotten them. For Mr. Elis, it was a career as a publisher. I was so curious to learn more about that profession that I just had to ask. And since that question left my mouth, the conversations as the table just kicked off naturally.

Although I love English, I cannot say with confidence that that was the direction I plan to pursue in life. The fast approach of junior year's end is a transitioning point for me. One foot is stepping into the application process for college while the other is still firmly grounded on high school and completing all my requirements to graduate. When one is in an awkward position such as this, it is easy to find yourself daydreaming about the future in order to ignore all the hard work needed to get there - at least for a moment.

Therefore, whenever I can get someone to share with me details of their profession, I always perk up with interest. This is especially true when those that are sharing are just as happy to share as they are are about the work they they do. For Mr. Elis, the self-taught publisher, that was the case. The desire for Mr. Elis to print books had its origins back in his Berkeley high school days when he was an active participant of his school's daily newspaper.The love that developed there never left him and was finally carried out after college when he bought his very own printing press. After many years of being self-taught and not being afraid to ask questions, Mr. Elis's business grew and to this day, over a 1000 book titles were printed under him. The life of a publisher is an exciting one. Not only do you take part in creating something as classic and treasured as a good 'ol book, you also get to meet so many authors along the way. At the end of his story, Mr. Elis does not hesitate to assure me that there is no need to have a fear of asking questions especially to avoid embarrassment and that, as long as you work hard for what you love, success will find you.

Ms. Kim was as intrigued by Mr. Elis as I was. She contributed to this conversation often and every time, it was of great insight and valuable information. With Ms. Kim, I found a lot of common ground. Both of us were immigrants who arrived to the states at the age of 5. We also share a love for learning; the philosophy that the college experience was really what you make of it and not what the school is known for; and the love for Harper Lee's classic, To Kill a Mockingbird.

The food at Prospects was absolutely delicious. The service was good and everyone seemed to enjoy their meals - so much that when time came to eat ice cream sandwiches (our third dessert treat), some of us (yours truly included)just couldn't eat another another bite! I do have more photos of the food that was being served, but to save my readers from drooling all over their keyboards and damaging their computers, I will only tease them with this chocolate cake I had for dessert.

On the Speech and My Gratitude

I wanted to set a special place in my post aside to comment on the speech I made at the dinner on Friday night and express my thanks. I am honored to have been chosen to represent the Yalies - to be offered the chance to speak before such an inspirational group. Ms. Kahn noticed that I had been fidgeting with my yellow notepad earlier on the BART train and reassured me that everything will be alright as long as I speak from the heart. This proved to be easier than I thought because this opportunity - to be able to go to Yale and take a college course over the summer on a full-ride scholarship - was an unbelievable miracle that I did feel very strongly for deep in my heart. Therefore, I abandoned my notes all together, took a deep breath, and dived right into my speech. Although I honestly do not know whether it went as well as some speech competitions I've had in the past or that it was really just a ramble of words, everything I said that night, though I cannot remember all of it, were true to my words and in parallels with the emotions I have towards it.

- - - -

Growing up, I've always jokingly told myself: "Pinole is the most random city you could have ever ended up in." I say this because, as a Chinese immigrant coming from a city of 7 million (Hong Kong), I could have easily found myself growing up in common cities like San Francisco with a large Chinese demographic, or a city like Albany where all my cousins went to school at because of their "better education". My little brother and I are the only ones in our family to continue our education in the West Contra Costa County and I see it as destiny.

A couple of years back, had my parents actually offered me a chance to get an education somewhere else, I could have very well said yes in heartbeat because I was not shy at all when it came to changing schools. Now, with so many memories and triumphs made as a student in this district from first grade to, eventually, senior year, I refuse to leave Pinole Valley even if an all-expenses-paid scholarship to the best private high school in the world was given to me.

Pinole is not some random place that I awkwardly found myself growing up in. It is where I was meant to be and I'm glad I understand that now. I didn't grow up with much as a child and I didn't have "Tiger" parents that refused to accept anything short of perfection. The drive I have towards my education, the reason why I refuse to give up, and the firm belief that one should always take advantage of any given opportunity, began with a teacher that saw me stand out among the rest of my peers. Since then, I've always believed there is nothing more important to a child's life than education.

The Ivy League Connection found me when I was called to the library one sophomore day in December. I remain a proud ambassador for the program and I look forward to being a leader for students in my district when I return from Yale this summer. I want them to see that the world has so much more to offer than what most of them see everyday, that even though we have to work so much harder to get up there, a bright future can still be there, waiting.

Ivy League Connections, I thank you once again for this second opportunity to be an ambassador for my school district. I look forward to New Haven, Connecticut and studying Grand Strategy with students all over the world.

Acknowledgement by the School Board

Lori Nardone, the chaperon for the Yalies this year, gave a wonderful speech to formally introduce us to the School Board this past Wednesday. Although standing before the board as Ms. Nardone explained what our summer course would entail was a brief, it was long enough for me to feel bestowed with great honor.

The other ILC groups were there as well. I've only seen half of them at the blogging session earlier this previous month and have only known the rest through their presence on their respective blogs. Some appeared really nervous, wondering if they were required to speak tonight while others looked cool, calm, and collected. I knew I was excited to be there, despite the nearing AP US History Testing lurking around behind my mind.

My favorite part of the entire evening was hearing from last year's ILC students who will be attending Ivy League colleges this year. I am pleased to say that watching them was especially phenomenal and inspiring since I've met all of them before. It touched me to realized that exactly one year ago, they were filling the same seats this year's ILC students were filling. Now, with senior year almost over for them, they look forward to bright futures as they confront their greatest challenge up to date: college.

Irene Rojas-Caroll impressed me the extensive list of colleges that accepted her (all the schools she applied for approved of her!) I repect her calm and mature attitude towards heading off to college and wish her the best of luck as she heads off to Brown.

Yue Ming Wang and I share badminton games and the proud position of being able to be a part of the ILC two years in a row. The difference, however, is that she beats me on the badminton court and I have yet to even start my second summer class yet. I've looked up to Yue Ming since I've met her and I know she will make her 4 years at Cornell as exciting as she made it sound in her speech tonight.

Austin Long (Yale c/o '15) speaks before the School Board.

And finally, there's Austin Long. Unlike the other two above, Austin went to my school, Pinole Valley. After seeing him be a leader at our school and working with him in extracurricular, I was not surprised at all when I found out he got accepted to Yale. Although the process of choosing between this school and UC Berkeley boggled his mind a bit, I'm glad he is finally satisfied with his final decision. He's going to do well over there and I'm glad to have some one like him represent our high school with such prestige. Good luck Austin!

ILC students know better than to be late - especially to an important event as tonight. Outside La Vonya DeJean Midde School's auditorium, students and chaperons mingle with one another just before the meeting began.

Pinole Valley High School's principal, Ms. Kahn, addresses the students on important information about the meeting.

Lori Nardone takes a photo of the us Yalies right before we enter the auditorium.

The ILC students going to Columbia this summer are the first to find a seat together.

Kathleen He, Andrew Gonzales, and Erin Miller - the ILC students studying Macroeconomics at Brown - smile for the camera.

Kye Duran, Aiyana Hedeen-Garrett, and Julia Chang pose in a picture with their chaperon and assistant principal at Pinole Valley, Ms. Yolanda Bulls. These three will be heading down to Vanderbilt and studying World Religions.

Matt Lee and Tom Miller. I look forward to spending three weeks on the East Coast with these two plus Lori.

The ILC students attending Brown for the Women in Leadership program stands before the Board as their chaperon introduces them.

The ILC Cornellians being introduced by their chaperon, Ms. Tiffani Neal. This will be Ms. Neal's third year in chaperoning students to Cornell.

Thank you Mr. Ramsey for the wonderful Yale banner! The three of us just had to take a picture with it to commemorate our School Board meeting success.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Prospecting Prospects At Prospect

Last night my fellow cohorts and I went to our first Ivy League Connection dinner at Prospect in the beautiful city of San Francisco.
The evening started out with my father and I rushing over to the El Cerrito Plaza BART station, traffic was looking bad and I definitely did not want to be late to my first Ivy League dinner. Thankfully we arrived right at 5:30 and were not the last ones there.

As we got on BART thoughts were rushing into my mind; what was going to happen at the dinner, how was the food going to be, and of course, what would I gain out of this night. I chit chatted with my fellow cohorts about our upcoming experiences together, and with a fellow ILC alumni, Austin Long, regarding how he felt going to Yale in the fall.

When we arrived at Prospect I honestly still felt a little shy. I didn't go out of my way to talk to as many people as I could, I talked with some parents, my cohorts, and some staff of WCCUSD. However once the tables were set and we were seated, I was ready to spread my wings and become a social butterfly. My main conversationalist was with Christene Geiser, a Yale alumni class of '07. We first talked about the food there, how good it was and what we were going to order. As the conversation wore on and I became increasingly comfortable we started to talk about our own lives and get a real sense of each other. We talked about her experiences at Yale, about Yale itself, and about her life outside of it. At times Dave Olson chimed into our conversation and brought his perspective into whatever we were talking about at the time.

I learned many things from talking to these two Yale Alumni. One, I learned that that Pepe's serves good pizza over in New Haven and that I will love the food there as well. However most importantly I was able to gain a true insight to what Yale is like and what I am going to experience this summer. Every time I asked Christene about what Yale is like she always responded with the word, "amazing." The recurrence of this word kept telling me, "Matt you are going to have the time of your life this summer. This experience truly will be, amazing."

As everybody started to finish up their meals, and special deserts were called out the conversations turned from more about Yale to just friendly conversations. The night was coming to a close and we all started to leave for home.
After we all got back to El Cerrito Plaza one last thing echoed in my mind. Finally it had hit. The whole deal about what the Ivy League Connection is about and what I am getting myself into finally sunk into my head. To gain knowledge and impart it onto others was my duty as an ILC scholar. I truly thank everyone who attended that night for helping me realize this, and especially Mr. Ramsey, Ms. Kronenberg, and Don Gosney for helping me feel welcome into the ILC family.

YISP at Prospect

This evening our ILC YISP students gathered to join with a few Yale alums from the San Francisco chapter of the Yale Alum Society at Prospect ~ a trendy new restaurant South of Market in San Francisco.

Of course the company was great and meeting the parents of Matt, Dyana and Tom were special but first  I need to discuss the spectacular meal we were served.

I saw some of our guests with the ling cod and they said some great things about it and a few had the steak and said equally good things about it.  I can speak with first hand experience, though, that the duck was the entree to choose tonight.  By itself it would have been heavenly but I was served some truly delicious scallops to whet my appetite and had my palette cleansed afterwards with a chocolate truffle.

Okay--it's time to write a bit about how special the event itself was.

Up to now we've spent a lot of time with interviews, tutorials and the never ending stream of emails from the ILC administrators to our ILC cohorts.  Tonight, though, we got to sit down and meet in a social setting.  We got to talk to each other as fellow human beings without really bringing up any of the administrative rules or suggestions on how to take advantage of this experience.  Tonight we were all just human beings having a good time.

Even though I've gotten to know each of our students pretty well, this evening I got to meet and know their parents and that was something special all unto itself.

Our dinners wouldn't be what they are, though, without a few speeches thrown in.  Our featured speaker this evening was Dyana So from Pinole Valley High.  Every time I'm around Dyana I'm even more impressed.  She has a wonderful ability to speak to us all and make us feel good.  It's hard for me to remember that she's still just a junior in high school.

Our gatherings wouldn't be what they are, though, without our alums.  Tonight we met with our old friend Dave Olson ('86) and our new friend Bill Lindsey ('78).  Making things even more special, though, was meeting Ken Yamaguchi ('92). Alexis Fleckenstien ('07) and Christine Geiser ('07) ~ local Yale alums.  While Bill and Dave could regale us with stories of Yale from the "distant" past, and Ken could tell us what Yale was like  a short while ago, Alexis and Christine had fresh memories about Yale and could tell our cohorts what they can expect when they arrive in a few months.

Topping off the evening was Austin Long (Pinole Valley HS) who will become a Yale Bulldog this Fall.  Congratulations, Austin.

Tune in later and more photos will be posted.  I'm fond of telling our ILCers that words are nice but words with pictures are even nicer.  I need to practice what I preach so I'll be adding photos soon.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The American Dream

The Ivy League Connection is an incredible opportunity. An opportunity that I would go as far to say is the epitome of the “American Dream.” A program that helps people who help themselves by selecting the top students of our District, and encouraging them to expand their horizons and help them meet their full potential. Sounds like some good old-fashioned bootstrap pulling to me. Some might wonder, “Who could ask for anything more?”

However, what I have come to believe is that the American Dream is no longer good enough. The era in which we can afford to let the best and the brightest of us, especially WCCUSD, simply slip away and join the ranks of the upper class is gone. Communities such as ours are continually being harvested by elite universities for the cream of our crop while the rest of our student population is left to curdle. We should be proud of our own who come from humble beginnings to achieve great things, but a rags-to-riches story for a select few of us should not, and cannot be the only thing we as a community should hope for. It is a crime for us to let our District become intellectually, as well as economically, poor by letting our most brilliant students achieve that “American Dream” of going to a good school, making a ton of money in the financial sector, and leaving their community in the dust. How does this serve us?
I have gone through this school district, and I know how hard it is to succeed, and more to the point, how easy it is to fail. Which is why I am inspired to go to a top school, be successful, come back with a phenomenal education, and use it improve the lot of all the students in districts such as ours. I refuse to waste the Ivy League Connection’s investment in me by using it to pursue a more selfish “American Dream.” Instead I hope to use the skills I learn, and combine it with my own perspective to contribute to the goal of raising the baseline of success for students in WCCUSD and similar districts, not widening the gap between them and the Ivy League by using this opportunity to disconnect myself with my community.

This is what I have come up with in response to the question of what I hope to do with my scholarship and the opportunity it affords me. This thesis of mine, that we need a paradigm shift away from the unsustainable “American Dream,” is an aspiration. It is preachy, and a little naive, but it is also an ideal, and I would like to think that any ideal worth having must be thought of as such.