A glimpse into post-COVID IMSA with the students of pre-COVID IMSA, Class of 2022
The following is an editorial from IMSA alumni. This letter has been reviewed only for clarity and the appropriateness of its language, and no edits have been made to its content, claims, or assertions. The Acronym supports respectful discourse about the challenges facing our community and welcomes comments on this article which uphold that standard.
Submitted by: Christo Ekimov ’22 and Erin Yoo ’22
Many IMSA students are attracted to the Academy for something besides academics—after all, the school attracts the avidly curious and the naturally scientific more than any other comparable system. To them, this school should serve as a way to meaningfully explore shared interests and cultivate connections with like-minded students. While this is a noble cause, it is one that we feel is slowly deteriorating; we believe that IMSA is becoming a shadow of its former self.
Naturally, this is quite an alarming thought.
As students of the Academy, we wish nothing but the best for this institution. However, as graduating seniors, there is little that we can do in our role. Despite this, we have done our best to create a resource that may be of some use to future generations.
In traditional IMSA fashion, we have resolved to do something incredibly absurd, something that will forever live in infamy, and that just might be told with stories the likes of Steve Chen’s pancakes: writing a letter. The project is simple: interview members from the Class of 2022, compile their responses, and provide a brief analysis. Ideally, the insights within will provide a representation of our class’ perception of IMSA and how we viewed our time at the academy.
Maybe it’s a farewell letter. Or, maybe, it’ll be the start of something great…
This letter is intended to serve as a brief snapshot of the Class of 2022’s experiences with IMSA. Since the culture changes frequently at the academy, our intention is to leave an electronic ‘time capsule’ which details our perception of the institution. As current seniors, we (the authors) have no time to implement the ideas discussed and hope that others may gain some use from our findings. We believe IMSA is an incredible opportunity but are concerned with its ability to survive and withstand the test of time. Ideally, this letter will inspire positive change at IMSA and remedy some ailments we believe exist.
If at least one of these goals is accomplished, the total effort expanded in this letter will be well worth it.
We interviewed 22 seniors we knew across all 7 halls and recorded their responses to the following questions. Interviewees were selected based on those we interacted with daily, their ‘passion’ towards IMSA, as well as their leadership positions (StudCo, CAB, club leaders).
Question 1: How would you define IMSA (a school, prison, community, etc.)?
A majority of our respondents generally defined IMSA as being a good thing.
Many people labeled IMSA as a place for inquiry and stated that it provided something that their old school could not. To them, IMSA is a place for higher education and furthering their own academic ambition. Others described the ‘IMSA bubble’: a place where the only world is IMSA—IMSA news, schoolwork, friends, etc. Nearly all respondents mentioned the idea of community. They spoke about the accelerated relationships that IMSA helps foster and the intimate bonds between people among different grades. Lots spoke about how they changed at IMSA. For them, IMSA wasn’t just only an academic endeavor, it was a place where they could grow personally.
Of course, from an outside perspective, IMSA is a residential school with an incredible program and talented students.
Question 2: How would you describe your ideal IMSA vs. the current IMSA?
Many voiced concerns about IMSA in its current form.
Nearly all respondents pointed to the universal issue of communication at IMSA. Due to the Academy’s small size, word travels quickly and people felt difficulty keeping secrets or their own business private. Students also complained about the administration’s approach to decision-making and their ability to relay information. IMSA is inherently top-heavy and bureaucratic, with a multitude of administrative departments, which makes governance and communication of any kind difficult.
Many seniors spoke about freedom at IMSA. They felt limited by the various regulatory measures in place and the lack of otherwise common privileges. For the most part, vehicles aren’t allowed on campus, barring some medical exemptions. Eighteen-year-olds also can’t leave campus alone and still must attend rolling check. It is difficult to address these concerns, however, because of the various behind-the-scenes laws we as students aren’t aware of.
Other topics, such as IMSA’s discipline system, clubs, and curriculum were also addressed. More details can be found in the summary document.
Many stated that an ideal IMSA would remedy current issues and improve upon existing resources. Many people believed that IMSA’s educational philosophy, being inquiry-based, was sound but just needed better implementation. Respondents agreed that current students aren’t as invested in the curriculum as they should be, and an ideal student would engage in self-guided inquiry frequently. Ideally, the administration would have a better understanding of ‘real’ student affairs, and communication would be frequent and transparent. Physical buildings would be newer and better-equipped while also offering more spaces for clubs and extracurriculars.
There’s not much inherently wrong with ‘theoretical’ IMSA, yet in practice, the academy seems to struggle.
Question 3: How much longer do you see IMSA lasting, and why?
After the endless Facebook posts ranting about admin, failures of the institution, and angry stakeholders (students, parents, teachers), one might think the student body is hopeless for the future of IMSA. Quite a depressing thought.
Yet, surprisingly, there were a good number of Class of ’22 students that predicted lasting longevity for IMSA. In fact, the majority of surveyed seniors, 12 out of 18 as seen below, stated that IMSA would last at least 10 more years.
However, the students who did predict a longer lifespan for IMSA (10+ years) expected the institution to change. In their view, the IMSA name would still exist, but the original idea or brand would not. It wouldn’t be the same, “magical” learning laboratory anymore. Instead, it would just be a school named IMSA.
Out of 22 total Co22 respondents:
- 12 believed IMSA would last 10+ years
- 6 believed IMSA would (or could only) last a maximum of 10 years
- 4 remaining seniors did not answer the question and/or provide a clear answer
Question 4: What are the current problems you see with IMSA?
As expected, by far, one of the two largest categories of concerns had to do with IMSA administration (lack of transparency, lack of genuine care for students). However, multiple Student Council members who were interviewed provided a deeper perspective into the IMSA administration. According to them, admin often has their hands tied in terms of releasing announcements, making schoolwide changes, funding decisions, and more, thus resulting in the common complaints IMSA students have about the admin and school.
The other largest category of Co22-perceived problems was college-centric culture or “only doing things for college.” For example, students making posts about what the easiest classes are and pursuing opportunities just to “pad their resume” instead of pursuing them with genuine intentions to improve themselves or their community.
At the same time, a few seniors stated their belief that there was nothing really wrong with IMSA itself. They believed the school was just placed in unfortunate circumstances which inevitably caused problems. Some students mentioned the student culture of focusing more on the negative aspects of IMSA instead of the positives which may be why IMSA seems worse than it actually is.
Note: There were numerous other problems and opinions that our Co22 interviewees provided which cannot all be summarized or represented here, so we encourage you to read through the Response Summary document and even the individual interview notes and recordings here.
Question 5: What do you think of the collective student body’s mindset?
One of the largest categories of responses to this question was about IMSA student groupthink or online bandwagoning (note: some interviewees were asked to talk about groupthink so the frequency of answers does not necessarily indicate importance or relevance to interviewees). Over quarantine, IMSA’s Facebook pages became the central platform for students to have social interactions. Many of the topics included political issues, such as during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, as well as complaints about the IMSA administration. Oftentimes, students would rally around one central opinion instead of highlighting a variety of complex opinions and thoughts, so we decided to ask our interviewees about their thoughts on this part of IMSA culture. Many interviewees viewed groupthink as unproductive but also a natural part of online dialogue within a small population.
The other largest category of responses to this question was about IMSA students’ college culture and obsession with “getting into college” (elite colleges). Of the 5 seniors that talked about this aspect of IMSA culture, 3 mentioned how competitive the environment can be and 2 talked about incredibly supportive, encouraging peers and friends.
Miscellaneous topics that the interviewed seniors spanned a wide range of topics, from club culture to IMSA’s “star-power” to alumni support. Please see the Response Summary document for extra notes.
In conclusion, the 2021–2022 school year was a strange one for everyone. For the class of 2024, this was their introduction to an IMSA that many believe drastically changed since before the pandemic. For the class of 2023, this was also their introduction to a school they already interacted digitally with for a year. For the class of 2022, it was a year back at a school they already experienced once before a pandemic.
After interviewing Class of 2022 members for a glimpse into the state of mind of pre-COVID IMSA and post-COVID IMSA, we have two different conclusions. So, we have written them separately below.
Although the idea for this letter was initially born out of the idea that IMSA was failing and that we needed to do something about it, I now do not believe that is the case. After interviewing some of my classmates, I believe IMSA is changing, not failing. And, changes are unavoidable. Though some of the changes are not ideal (declining academic ranking, “declining” social culture with less participation in culture shows), I don’t think they are fatal. Maybe it’s also time to challenge the metrics I used to measure the quality of IMSA. For example, one classmate I interviewed mentioned that the declining academic ranking of IMSA indicates that other public schools are doing better – which is a good thing. We should be celebrating improvements in all education, not just ours.
I believe that future IMSA students and upcoming classes will be able to use the resources that IMSA provides to fulfill themselves and change the community, whether that’s through STEM or some other field. The only job IMSA students have is to stay ambitious, and the only job IMSA has is to make it easier for students to carry out their ambitions. Luckily, I believe the new administration (Dr. Glazer, Brittney Walker [is no longer with the Academy at the time of publishing], and more) genuinely wants to support students. So, I believe the fundamental nature of IMSA (curiosity, ambition) is not at risk. Perhaps the idea of IMSA as a STEM-focused school will change, but I think it will keep attracting passionate, hardworking students who genuinely want to better themselves and the world.
As most things are, this letter was initially born out of chance: Erin and I began discussing the inception of this project during an uneventful weekend brunch. During the infancy of this letter, we intended to write an analytic piece describing our grievances with IMSA and possible solutions. This idea later morphed into speaking directly to the president himself but returned to its original form: a simple written piece. We had difficulty finding our ‘angle’ because we wanted to share a piece that had immediate practical implications, not a snapshot into the Class of 2022. However, we realized that IMSA is special in large part for its students, and we feel confident leaving the academy’s future in what we deem to be very capable hands.
Personally, I think IMSA will continue to survive. I continue to be amazed by the people here, and I do not see a shortage of qualified students arriving. The teachers here are amazing, and I can honestly say that they have changed the lives of every student here. This place really is something special.
However, I am concerned with the ‘new’ management style of IMSA. IMSA emerged differently because it wasn’t run like a normal high school; those in charge were Nobel prize winners, scientists, and people who thought radically out of the box. I think that’s changed now. New policies seem to point towards more streamlined regulations and IMSA has already lost some of its magic; we are dangerously close to becoming normal. If the death of IMSA ever were to occur, I don’t think it would be caused by faculty or students but rather by mismanagement and a fundamental misunderstanding of what IMSA should be.
But, that’s a sad thought. And, I remain hopeful. So, here’s to fifty more years! (I’d like to attend that reunion!)
For the future IMSA generations,
Erin Yoo ‘22 and Christo Ekimov ‘22
P.S: This letter could not have been written without the aid of our interviewees (our Class of 2022 classmates); thank you for your willingness to participate in our lengthy conversations and insightful thoughts. We are also honored to have our work published on a platform as prestigious as The Acronym. We also appreciate the future generations of IMSA for taking the steps to explore themselves and their place in the world, and hope that this piece may be of some use to you in the future.