#fakenews on the College Application

 

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In 1981, 26-year-old Janet Cooke won a Pulitzer Prize for a ground-breaking story about an 8-year-old Heroin addict. The Prize was hastily returned after The Washington Post found the story to be nearly completely fabricated. Cooke disappeared from the public eye.

In 1998, 26-year-old Stephen Glass published a story about a young hacker at a tech company. His editor at The New Republic suspected the tech company did not exist. He called a company executive’s number provided by Glass, and later discovered that the executive was actually Glass’s brother. Glass’s career fell apart.

In 2003, 27-year-old Jayson Blair was fired from the New York Times for plagiarism and fabrication. He had crafted entirely fictional scenes in his articles, lied about his location, and lifted quotes from other sources. Blair exited the journalism industry for good.

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These cases, among countless others, are examples of what we would now call #fakenews—or in other words, plagiarism, fabrication and misrepresentation: three cardinal sins according to The Center for Ethics in Journalism. Though legal repercussions are murkier to shell out, it’s clear that these three professionals’ careers were ruined. Their affinity for substituting fiction as truth costed them their public trustworthiness. If they had not been caught, what lies would they still be spinning now, when it seems the market for sensational stories is bigger than ever?

Taking a look back now, the journalism world has reached a unanimous decision: what these reporters did was ethically wrong and ultimately inexcusable. But these problems are increasingly not unique to journalism. Recently, the three cardinal sins have popped up elsewhere: college applications.

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Photo Credit Courtesy of The Politico, Huffington Post, & Washington Post

The only barrier standing between a student and resume inflation is a moral one. It’s a well-known fact that college admissions officers go through hundreds of files a day, and spend very little time on each app (Wall Street Journal reports 8 minutes or less). The odds of an officer bothering to verify a student’s accomplishments are low; the only other possible “tells” are if the student’s teacher recommendations don’t match his shining resume, or if his English grades are suspiciously low for someone with a killer college essay. With the increasingly intense competition to get into elite schools, the temptation for students to plagiarize on personal essays, fabricate accomplishments, and purposely misrepresent themselves on the college application is bigger than ever.

Like the journalism industry, there have been notables who were caught red-handed and taken to court for their crimes—Adam Wheeler’s web of deception for Harvard, and Akash Maharaj’s falsified application information for Yale. However, for every Cooke or Wheeler brought to the spotlight, plenty more fabricators hide in the woodworks.

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One emerged recently when she requested to connect with me on LinkedIn. I was very impressed with this high schooler’s resume—a founder of a global organization, a TedX speaker, an advocate for minorities and women’s voices—when I stumbled across a portion of her resume that seemed suspiciously similar to mine. There are not that many “award-winning teen celebrity journalists” in the industry—I would know, as one myself. Suddenly her one-on-one interviews with the likes of Malala, Gal Gadot, Oprah, Emma Watson, and other kick-ass women seemed more than fishy, especially since there was not a single photo of her with these stars.

After poking around her website and two respected media outlets that she posted her interviews on, I discovered that her “exclusive” interviews–posted since August–were transcripts of video interviews by other journalists. She inserted herself into situations she was never present at, citing specific details like a star smiling at her. This wasn’t the mere mistake of mis-citing—she had gone to the effort of transcribing videos (which is a time-consuming thing, trust me) and building websites, email addresses, and twitter accounts. She was also getting validated on her LinkedIn with over 2,000 followers, with some viewers (some real, some fake that she had created) posting affirming comments on her blog posts. She even used a young actress’s red carpet photos as her profile picture—this was catfishing at the college admissions level, and my resume had fallen victim. As someone who received acceptances from all 8 Ivy League universities, I suspected sooner or later students would try to model their college resumes after mine—but I never thought it would be so blatant or calculated.

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I notified the outlets and they took down her articles. Later, she reached out to me and initially defended her actions. I was convinced she was a high school junior preparing for the college application process, so when I found out she was only a freshman, a burgeoning journalist writing for her school newspaper, I was shocked. How much pressure was she under to create a fake LinkedIn and 25-30 fake interview articles at the age of 14 for the sake of an application she would complete three years later? Did her parents know my name, and say to her, “You should be more like Cassandra” as Asian parents are oft to compare their kids? Did she justify her falsified resume and “proof” of her work over and over again to herself, that she actually believed she had done nothing morally wrong?

One thing was for sure: if I were a weary, exhausted, jaded college admissions officer who spent 8 minutes on her file, I would have no doubt accepted her to my top notch school. She seemed a perfect candidate for an elite university: her resume showed that she was more than qualified, and her work online established her as prolific. It’s scary who she could have went onto become: perhaps a journalist like Cooke, whose resume was inflated; a journalist like Glass, who was the executive editor at UPenn’s student newspaper, or his brother (the fake executive caller) who went to Stanford; or a journalist like Blair, who wrote over 600 articles. I had stumbled across a case that had combined both worlds: a breach of integrity in journalism for the sake of a college application.

Students know it’s ethically wrong to plagiarize, fabricate, and misrepresent themselves by copying off “50 Successful Harvard Application Essays”, adding non-existent awards, or inflating volunteer hours here and there. Yet, it’s one thing to know something; it’s another to let morality outweigh the benefits of getting into an Ivy League. Either way, it’s not worth it. Even if a student doesn’t get caught and manages to slip into the ranks of an elite school, he’ll be struggling with literal imposter syndrome (if the nation’s top achieving high school students already feel this way, how much more for someone who faked his resume?). He’ll feel like his actual work isn’t enough, and will be compelled to lie, cheat, and cut more corners to keep up the fictional reputation of himself. The cycle won’t ever end, even if all that effort is just to maintain his image. After all, The Washington Post reports that Cooke did not fabricate her story “to win a Pulitzer or make a big splash.” She simply wanted to give herself a better shot at the world. Instead, she ended up losing her voice and platform.

Cooke, Glass and Blair might represent the worst of the worst when it comes to a compromise of journalistic ethics; Wheeler and Maharaj may represent the extremes of fabrication on a college application. But with the accessibility of the Internet and the lack of whistle-blowing, self-proclaimed “journalists” and prospective college applicants have a voice to say whatever they want to make themselves look better. The seeds of America’s proclivity towards generating and accepting #fakenews could be sowed in something as commonplace as a college application. It’s up to us not only to call out dishonest journalism, but also to hold ourselves to the same standards—even if it simply means resisting the temptation to fudge our resumes.

 

 

Graphics Courtesy of Cassandra Hsiao, using Canvas.

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DEAR EVAN HANSEN’s Will Roland on Playing Jared, Passion for Acting, & Exiting the Show

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Courtesy of Cassandra Hsiao.

“Dear Evan Hansen’s Jared Kleinman is the mastermind partly responsible for the web of lies Evan Hansen weaves about being friends with his departed classmate, Connor Murphy. Equipped with digital savvy and verbal barbs, Jared provides the levity in the show, allowing audiences to view from a comedic standpoint the absurdity and heartbreak of Evan’s situation. Actor Will Roland shares many things in common with his character-his humor, word play, quick wit-but one thing he thankfully no longer has in common is Jared’s mean streak.

Roland is open about his high-school self, admitting that he used to be a bully. Making people laugh was a talent that he wielded in the wrong way. Playing Jared is a constant reminder of who he might have become, had he not realized his mistakes.

“I often say that Jared is a bizarre-o universe Will Roland,” said Roland. “I very well could have become this very repressed self-hating bully.”

Thankfully, Roland turned his life around when he had a serious sit-down with a mentor who ran his school’s theater department. Instead of punishing him, however, she did something unexpected…”

 

Read the rest of my piece, first published on BroadwayWorld.com!

YOU ARE ENOUGH – an Original Yale University Production

 

ECC (1).jpgI wrote an article for a production I’m in at Yale University, a one-act festival written by a Yale sophomore! Acting in this show has been an immense joy these last couple weeks.

My favorite quote I collected for this article is below:

When asked the challenges of working with actors playing four-year-olds, stage manager Isaac Swift replied, “It’s no different from working with normal actors.”

Read the rest of my piece, first published on BroadwayWorld.com!

LOBBY HERO Review on Broadway

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“Life moves in circles.

This sort of cliche isn’t the message of Lobby Hero-rather, the play in itself is emblematic of the spirit of zeitgeist, the kind where unintended artistic choices turn out to be eerily prescient.

This operates on the superficial, humorous level, where Michael Cera and Chris Evans meet again following their original encounter in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. They seem to be destined for their roles here-it is as if they are playing slightly more grown­up versions of their Scott Pilgrim characters. Even a comedic bit about getting Evans’ character’s autograph hearkens to a scene in Scott Pilgrim; yet playwright Kenneth Lonergan wrote the script 17 years ago.

Cera is, as Variety puts it, “a lovable loser,” a bit mopey, his hands always stuffed in his pockets, his shoulders always hunched over, ridiculously uncomfortable in his own skin. Yet this is what makes his search to contribute something to the world so endearing; who can’t relate to his character Jeff wanting to do more, as a security guard to an apartment complex constantly mistook for a “doorman?” Like Scott Pilgrim, Jeff is hopelessly in love with a girl out of his league, and like Scott Pilgrim, he learns to stand up for himself against Evans in unconventional ways…”

Read the rest of my piece, first published on BroadwayWorld.com!

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Acting: A Leap of Faith

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Baby Cassandra, Bottom Right, as an Ancestor of Mulan

 

“For the next month or so, I’ll be memorizing lines and living from rehearsal to rehearsal. I’ll be collaborating with actors older than me, actors with countless years of experience under their belt. I’ll be digging deep into three original one-acts and studying videos of goth girls, Sheldon Cooper, and Zooey Deschanel to help me step into the shoes of my respective characters.

And if I’m honest, I’m a little nervous. Okay, maybe a little more than that–I’m terrified.

After all, the last time I acted on stage was when I played Mary Magdalene in a Sunday School play. Or maybe it was when I was part of an ensemble for a Glee-esque musical. Or perhaps it was when I had maybe two lines as one of Mulan’s ancestors in a middle school production of Disney’s Mulan Jr. Regardless, the last time I “acted” was a very long time ago. Though I call myself a storyteller, I am deeply aware that I haven’t had the chance to engage in the most visceral, immediate role of a storyteller of all: as an actor…”

Read the rest of my piece, first published on BroadwayWorld.com!

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Theater: An Invitation to Read Between the Lines

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“Sometimes, in my English class, I feel an overwhelming urge to shout it out: “The curtains were blue!” The saying is common among students, an adage that rose from a hypothetical situation: the author writes “the curtains were blue” and the Literature teacher reads into it, saying “the curtains represent his immense depression and his lack of will to carry on,” when really, the author just means that the curtains were blue.

While I think literary criticism is valid and has a place in academia, it is all too easy to overstep bounds and attribute something to the author’s line of thought when it wasn’t intended at all. I believe that the critics who love doing this may be more suitable to analyze another medium: theater.

Theater is more conducive to this type of over analyzing. Theater begins with a script but is made for the stage. A giant team of people is required to bring it to life. Every decision is carefully curated and weighed, with theater-makers asking how each choice will contribute to the story, or impact the audience. Unlike in literature, “the curtains were blue” is not just an act of imagination-in theater, an entire production and design team has to deliberate using the color blue, select a blue curtain, and string it up in the theater. Because of the sheer amount of people involved in the collaboration process, nearly every detail is a calculated, meaningful choice…”

Read the rest of my piece, first published on BroadwayWorld.com!

 

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How To Be a Writer in College

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“College, at times, is exhausting.

From running between club meetings and social events, to studying in the depths of a musty library, to staring down a mountain of required reading, it seems like there’s hardly any time to breathe, recuperate, and reset during campus’s breakneck speed of life. As I watch my color-coded Google Calendar fill up with events for the week, a sense of dread builds in my stomach. Every Sunday, the question haunts me:

When am I going to find time to write?

It’s all too easy to push writing off to next Saturday, which, at the moment, is completely clear. But throughout the week, the whitespace on G-Cal will begin to disappear below multi-colored events, and before I know it, Saturday time will slip out of my hands. I seem to always be chasing time to write, but like a mirage, the closer I get, the more “free time” dissipates in front of my eyes. What I need, I’d think to myself, is a writing retreat: days on end where the only thing I need to do is write…”

Read the rest of my piece, first published on BroadwayWorld!

I, Cassandra: A Reflection on “I, Tonya”

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*This article deals with the Tonya Harding character as presented to us in the movie I, Tonya.

Tonya Harding made history as the second woman to land a triple axel in an international competition. She skated her way to the Olympics with fierce excellence and unstoppable grit. The look on her face when she landed the move encapsulated everything America loved about her: the thrill of winning and doing something deemed nearly impossible.

Tonya Harding also was severely abused as a child under the strict, unrelenting gaze of her mother. That abuse carried into her young adult life when she met her husband Jeff Gilooly. Pressures of the ice-skating world combined with her rough-and-tumble childhood made her an outcast in the skating world, even before what she calls “the incident” with Nancy Kerrigan.

I am none of those things. I have never achieved something as great as the Olympics nor faced any abuse from the people in my life. Instead of being beaten down, I am constantly being lifted up by everyone I love.

Then why was I able to relate to Tonya so much?

The movie garners sympathy for Tonya. Life dealt her a bad hand. In a particularly heart-wrenching scene, Tonya confronts the judges after receiving a low score despite clearly out-skating all of her competitors. She skates up to the panel. Fury and desperation burns in her eyes as she implores, “How do I get a fair shot here?”

It wasn’t fair, Tonya laments to us. It just wasn’t fair.

And that was what struck me to the core.

I’m not Tonya. And neither is anyone else, for that matter. But we’ve all faced, in our ow ways, the unfairness of life. And sometimes, we’ve all reacted like Tonya did: by striking out, complaining, sinking into self-pity and an unhealthy lifestyle—all actions justified in the movie by the compassion we feel for her.  

But the cycle can become vicious. Not everyone can pull themselves out of it like Tonya eventually does. I know I would be a helpless victim if not for the presence of God–I’d be lost in my exasperation at the world for closing door after door. But because I know His love for me, I know my self-worth lies in Him. And I know He has great plans for me. And I believe Oprah speaks the truth when she says, “There is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction.”

Life isn’t fair. Tonya had it a lot worse than most of us. Tonya failed. A lot. But one thing we can all learn is her spirit. Her resilience. Her courage. Even though she gets out of shape thanks to some poor life choices, she throws herself back into rigorous training as soon as she sees a sliver of a shot at her big-time dream. She’s unstoppable, even after she is banned from the sport that she desperately loves, a sport that runs through her blood. Life knocks her down hard again and again, but she defies expectations because she does the only thing that matters: she gets back on her feet. Watching Tonya conquer the ice despite how she is falling apart on the inside makes me think that I, Cassandra, can conquer too.

Like screenwriter Steven Rogers describes,

She smiles. Somehow she rises. Nothing will keep her down.

She begins to fight again.

Fight Like Cap

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“Why are you Team Captain America?”

I’ve lost count of how many times I was asked that when Marvel released Captain America: Civil War. The question is one that has haunted me, because I’m not sure how to articulate my answer.

Chris Evans’s killer jawline, solid abs, and Dorito-shaped body certainly help. But I think there’s something more to Cap. He’s a patriotic leader and he fights for what is right, but like Spider-Man tells him, “You think you’re right, and that makes you dangerous.” After all, don’t all villains think they’re right?

I think the real answer lies in why he fights, and how he fights. He fights for the people he loves. He fights until the end of the line, even if his sacrifices are all for naught. He is willing to become an international war criminal to protect his best friend Bucky. His love persists even if it places him at odds with his country, because brotherhood and solidarity trump patriotism.

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The post-9/11 world has seen a drastic rise of superhero franchises. Perhaps we were looking for a savior of sorts. We found it on the big screen in a team of heroes restoring hope by defending New York from an alien terrorist attack. But as every movie release raised the stakes, their flaws began to surface. Instead of trusting each other, they built walls. In Civil War, Cap and Iron Man faced off on emotional and ideological levels, marking a turn away from the archetypal tale of superhero-defeats-antagonist. Rather than an attack instigated by a sorcerer cloaked in green and adorned with horns, Marvel showed us the psychological devastation of hero-on-hero war instigated by a man with no superpowers.

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This year’s Infinity War is less about defending Earth from Thanos, but rather about whether these broken superheroes can unite to defeat their biggest enemy, or not. Movies now contain less scenes of heroes saving humans than scenes of heroes working through their disagreements. Defenseless mortals are being written out of the narrative, and yet, audiences still connect to these movies and relate to the superheroes more than ever.

Perhaps it’s a sign that we were never the helpless citizens all along. Perhaps we were always the superheroes. We each, in our own way, have the power to save. Like Captain America, who stands up against the forces of a changing world to save his best friend. Iron Man, who takes a youngin under his wing and becomes a surrogate father. Thor, who knows his brother is a backstabbing traitor, but chooses to love him anyway.

Maybe those are their real superpowers.

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I don’t think we’re looking for a savior anymore, nor are we supposed to. We have our own untapped powers. We know why we fight. We must stop using the rhetoric of team versus team and set aside differences. Unite out of love and necessity. Get back on our feet again and again. Declare like Cap, “I can do this all day.”

This is how we fight.

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College: The Art of Saying Goodbye

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In August, when I said goodbye to my family in the airport ready to head off to college, I didn’t shed a tear in front of them. It was a sad parting, but I was also excited for everything college promised: new adventures, new friends, essentially a new life. Yale in many ways has met that expectation, and I couldn’t ask for more.

I flew back to sunny California for Thanksgiving break. I spent a beautiful week playing mahjong with my family and methodically checking off my bucket list of favorite food places. It was wonderful, yes, so wonderful that when it came time to say goodbye, I broke down in tears at LAX, clinging onto Mom and Dad.

I don’t have anything against Yale. In fact, I’ve fallen head over heels for Yale, and I think it’s more than a first-year puppy love. But I cried anyway, dreading not the return to Yale, but rather the separation from my family—even if I was going to see them in less than four weeks for Christmas break.

My mom texted me the following picture. It only made me cry harder on the journey back to Yale, knowing she was taking it just as hard as I was.

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The fact was, I was leaving my family behind. Thanksgiving break was a return to tenants of my previous lifestyle: heart-to-hearts with my mom, jokes with my dad, and games with my brother. After break, I was convinced no one could show me that same degree of kindness at Yale. After all, how deep could connections go for first-years in a brand new environment? Jaded thoughts began taking over. On the shuttle back to Yale’s campus, I prayed the ride would last forever.

Arriving at Old Campus, I planned to make two trips to lug my heavy suitcases up five flights of stairs (no elevators in my building!). Instead, I was greeted by a kind stranger who spontaneously helped carry them all the way up to my suite—and suddenly I was reminded that I was not alone. That people here—my roommate, suitemates, classmates, frocos, professors, ministry fellows, and yes, strangers—have consistently wrapped me in their love and care. This random act of kindness was a timely reminder of this loving community. It was the simplest, yet loveliest welcome back from Yale.

The cycle will repeat itself—no matter how much I want to delay it, I’ll have to say goodbye again to my family and dog at the end of Winter Break. I might break down in tears again. I might throw a tantrum in the middle of LAX. I might never master the art of saying goodbye, but maybe that’s okay. Because every goodbye is accompanied by a welcome back. And while not everyone may bump into a Good Samaritan with the strength to lug a 50-pound suitcase up five flights of stairs, I hope you’ll find your own little welcome back in the new year.