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Best and Brightest, but Not the Nicest—A Commentary by Amelia Rawls ’10

The following commentary was published in the Washington Post on May 1, 2008.

Best and Brightest, but Not the Nicest
By Amelia Rawls ’10

Today is the deadline for high school students around the country to formally notify their colleges of choice that they will be matriculating in the fall. For my family, the application process this year was a happy one -- my younger sister was accepted at an Ivy League school. I was thrilled for her and excited to answer questions about my own university experience. But when she asked me what students at the "top" colleges were like, I realized I was disturbed by my answer.

During four years at Princeton University and nearly a year at Yale Law School, I have been surrounded by students who dazzle. These are the students for whom application processes were made. They include published novelists, acclaimed musicians and Olympic medalists. They include entrepreneurs, founders of human rights groups and political activists. If they have hobbies such as stamp collecting and belly dancing, by golly, they are the best stamp collectors and belly dancers in America! These youths live a life of superlatives, a life in which being No. 1 is not just an aspiration but the status quo. They can be inspirational, and I am lucky to be able to learn from them. But they are not always nice people.

You know what I mean by "nice." I mean the kind of "nice" that involves showing compassion not merely because membership in community service groups demands it. The kind of "nice" that involves sharing notes with a student who is sick or lending a textbook to a friend who doesn't have one. The kind of selfless, genuine "nice" that makes this world a better place -- but won't get you accepted to college.

Of course, top universities accept hundreds of individuals who have demonstrated the highest levels of citizenship. These teenagers have volunteered in more food banks, sponsored more fundraisers and lobbied more officials than any previous generation. They earn, rightfully, the gratitude of their communities and the plethora of honors that come with it. Colleges at the top of U.S. News and World Report's rankings would balk at the notion that these students are anything but the best and the brightest.

I'm not saying different. I'm saying that sometimes some of these students will denounce world hunger but be unfriendly to the homeless. They will debate environmental policy but never offer to take out the trash. They will believe vehemently in many causes but roll their eyes when reminded to be humble, to be generous and to "do what is right."

It is these people, though, who often climb America's ladder of success. They rise to the top, partly on their own merits yet also partly on the backs of equally deserving but "nicer" people who let them steal the spotlight. Before they, or we, know it, they are the politicians and corporate executives subverting the very moral positions they espouse. They are the (frighteningly) many figureheads who purport to be leaders even as they embarrass our country and mar our history books.

Watching the race for the presidency, I cannot help but wonder whether our candidates, with their prestigious degrees and impressive credentials, are nice people. I wonder if, in their trek to the top, they have pushed aside the kind of quietly brilliant altruists who mean what they say and say what they mean. I wonder if our society is crippling itself by subjecting its youths to an almost-Darwinian college selection process.

The writer is a first-year student at Yale Law School.