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Finding Your Identity and Navigating the Future: Lessons From Moana

Moana may just seem like a kids' movie, but it actually resonates with many high school students who are anxious about college and the future.

May is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, and one fun way to celebrate is by watching the latest Disney release, Moana. Although at first glance Moana may just seem like a kids’ movie, it actually has a theme that can resound with many high school students who are anxious about college and the future.

Moana is the story of a Polynesian girl who must go on a journey to save her island’s people. However, it is also about a teenager who is going on her own personal journey to find her true identity and place in society. This can ring true for students everywhere. According to the 2015 Gallup Student Poll, only 48% of students felt hopeful about the future, while 34% felt “stuck” and 18% felt discouraged. And although most high school students aren’t on a mission to save their people from destruction like Moana, sometimes it may feel like it.

High school students today face many pressures. One is to be a “perfect” student so that top-tier colleges will accept them. Students strive to be well rounded by being the captain of their team, playing in the school band, attending multiple clubs a week, and maintaining a 4.0 GPA. Being “perfect” quickly becomes overwhelming, and many students feel like it’s too hard.

The pressure to be involved in everything is not only stressful and time-consuming, but it can also force students into activities that they don’t genuinely enjoy. They may be involved in certain extracurriculars that “look good on college applications” without focusing on their true passions, passions that could be helpful as they search for careers and decide what they’ll do for the rest of their lives.

Jennifer Smith, a junior from Brandon High School in Michigan, can relate. “I've always had an interest in math, so it wasn't much of a surprise when I was turned towards FIRST robotics,” she says. “But during my days there, something wasn't right. Everyone was so thrilled to be there and full of energy, while all it did was drain me.” Passion is crucial for students to fully take advantage of their extracurricular activities, but it’s something that’s often ignored by both parents and students. In their quest to be a perfect candidate for colleges, students end up doing activities that they don’t really like, and as in Jennifer’s case, end up drained and unhappy.

Expectations from others can also influence a student’s search for their identity. According to a recent study by the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development at New York University, high expectations from immigrant parents can cause Asian American students to feel a higher level of academic pressure. This, in turn, influences students’ identities. Channing Wang, a junior from Maine, admits, “I've had trouble finding my identity because of the expectations others have of me. I've been expected to be this perfect student...but there's a whole personality that I have to find on my own.”

In Moana, the title character’s identity is ultimately shaped by her Polynesian culture. Although she is on a journey to search for her own identity, her culture is always there to remind her of home and where she belongs. Similarly, having an Asian American/Pacific Islander background can impact American high school students as well. 

“My identity is shaped by my Asian culture. I am always pushed to be the best,” Colony High School junior Shanni Lam explains. “My parents push me to be something that makes a lot of money, like a doctor or lawyer. It makes me feel insecure in what I should do for the future, because I know I don't want to be a doctor or lawyer.”

Different cultural expectations can also contribute to students’ insecurities regarding the future. Rabiya Ismail, from Celebration High School in Florida, says she feels “stuck when looking towards the future” because as someone who excels in school, she dreams big and wants to go to a great school in order to further her career. But in her Pakistani household, she says, it is “more frowned upon for a woman to get a better education than a man.”

There are many other factors that lead to students feeling overwhelmed about college and the future. “I feel stuck looking at the future knowing I'm going to have to choose a major in a matter of months,” Shanni says. “I still feel like a kid and that I should be able to relax.” At less than 18 years old, high school seniors are expected to make a lot of decisions that will affect their futures, which can be extremely nerve-wracking.

In the midst of all these pressures, students still need to find their own identities, separate from their parents’ and peers’. “I think kids need to consider who they are as a person just as much as who they are as a student,” says Channing.

“It's hard to find identity because everyone is supposed to have that one thing they absolutely adore or are good at,” Shanni explains. This can be difficult for teens who are still trying to figure out what they like, where they excel, and how they can combine those two to create a successful career. 

High school students feel many stresses while navigating the vast ocean of identity searching and college planning. When they get to this point, it may feel like it’s too much. “Some tips I'd give are to do whatever you can to help your community and focus on your grades,” Rabiya says. “And if people don't understand that you want a bright future, the only thing you can really do is show them how hard you can work and get it done.”

Moana helped her community by saving her people, all while discovering herself and staying true to the call of the ocean inside her. Who says you can’t too?

Can you relate? Share your story in the comments!

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APAH Month Asian Americans Asian Pacific American Heritage college Disney diversity high school pressure Moana Pacific Islanders student expectations student identity

About Nathaly Macias

Nathaly Macias is a high school junior who is super excited about college. She is interested in politics, history, and psychology. In the future, she'd like to work for the FBI. :)


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