“Try Harder!” panel advises FUHSD parents


Graphic Illustration created by "Try Harder!" film team

“Try Harder!” illustrates the immense pressure that burdens students in a competitive academic environment.

Jason Shan

“Tiger mom central.” “The ultimate self-confidence crusher.” These are just a few of the phrases Lowell High School students use to describe their school in the 2021 documentary, “Try Harder!”, which many Lynbrook students resonate with. Acknowledging the similar academic pressure that exists within FUHSD schools and Lowell High School, FUHSD made an effort to encourage a healthier academic environment by sponsoring a film screening followed by a parent Q&A session on May 6. With a diverse panel body ranging from psychologists to the film’s director, FUHSD hopes to redefine traditional academic success and advise parents on how they can better support students.

As the top ranked public school in San Francisco, Lowell’s lofty reputation fosters a highly competitive academic environment. “Try Harder!” illuminates student hardships at Lowell, where overachieving is the norm, and students constantly push themselves to meet ever-rising standards. The film encompasses the experiences of a handful of Lowell students as they go about their classes: some thrive under the pressure while others feel stifled, but they all aspire to attend highly prestigious universities. While their college ambitions motivate them to excel in rigorous courses and exams, they also have negative effects, including lower self-image from constant comparison to peers and lack of self-discovery from strict focus on academics.

Like Lynbrook, a large majority of Lowell’s student population is Asian-American. This identity comes into play through parental pressure — such as that of the stereotypical overbearing “tiger mom” — and a tunnel vision toward Ivy League universities from students. The same college-oriented mindset at Lowell also exists within many FUHSD students.

“I see freshmen entering high school, and instead of being excited, they’re worried about college,” Lynbrook College and Career Counselor Katherine Tang said. “They’re centering their activities around college, doing everything they can to build a resume and position themselves for college decisions. They’re thinking about college as the finish line instead of the starting line.”

The idea to hold a screening of the documentary was introduced by Vicki Nahrung and Adi Milshtein, the PTSA presidents of Homestead and Cupertino, respectively. They researched multiple films and discovered that “Try Harder!” aptly captured the experiences at FUHSD. To fully delve into the topics of the film, two panels — one for students and one for parents — were held in addition to the screening. 

“There are so many perspectives you can pull from in terms of the different ways students experience high school, experience success or think about how to find the best college,” Associate Superintendent and panel moderator Trudy Gross said. “So having that opportunity for conversation is really powerful in order to explore all these different viewpoints.”

The parent panel advised parents on how to be more supportive to students, both academically and emotionally. As the documentary depicts, parents hold a large influence on their children and often unknowingly enforce college-focused beliefs onto them. However, students in “Try Harder!” expressed feeling pressured to satisfy parents’ expectations, which caused them to be overburdened and stressed. The panel discussion was centered around reframing expectations to elevate students without taking an emotional toll.

“Don’t sacrifice health for results; that is never worth it,” Lowell graduate and film participant Ian Wang said to parents during the panel. “Though they may not feel like it at competitive schools — I certainly didn’t feel like it at Lowell — your students are already elite.”

The intent of the documentary and panel was to convey that high school should not be viewed solely as a stepping stone to college, but rather a time for exploration and experimentation. The panel’s view is that leveraging high school to join clubs and participate in extracurricular activities will have the greatest benefit to students in the long run in developing their sense of purpose and passion.

“Students have to be comfortable with their well-being and their own definition of success,” Tang said. “It’s hard to change the competitive culture overnight, but there is more than one path to success, and you don’t have to go to a particular school in order to achieve it. Students should engage in activities they are truly interested in, seek welcoming environments to support their interests, and make friendships,  and these will ultimately lead to their future success.”

At heart, the “Try Harder!” panel provided FUHSD parents with a glimpse into the perspectives of students at schools with competitive environments like Lowell and gave suggestions to help students navigate through a time of great growth and maturity.

“At the end of the day, the message from our film is that wherever your child ends up in school, they’re still your child,” Lum said. “College decisions are just one decision out of many in their lives.”