By VALERIE BANNER
HE BEST OF THE CLASS OF 2003 ARE READY.
For years, they've watched classmates earn awards, recognition, scholarships and entrance into prestigious colleges.
Now, as their senior year is upon them, they are harvesting their own honors and awards in preparation for the many applications they must complete.
They've been involved for as long as they can remember -- playing sports, doing community service, taking piano lessons, tutoring, being a part of clubs and organizations.
They wonder if their long lists of achievements will be enough -- enough to get them into the college of their dreams, enough to get them that scholarship, enough to pave the way to their desired career, enough to make others remember them.
While they wonder if it's enough, they never consider the opposite: is it ever too much?
Megan McCaslin sits down at the Friendly's in Poland. It's noon on a Saturday afternoon. She orders nothing but coffee, which she says she drinks because she's tired.
She doesn't have much time to rest, despite the fact that it's her first day of summer vacation. She needs to go home to pack -- she's leaving for Girls State the next day.
Megan, 17, will be a senior at Poland Seminary High School in the fall, where she's involved in practically everything: cheerleading, student council, National Honor Society, the speech team, the school play, Spanish club, science club and is a lab assistant. She also does community service for Angels for Animals, Senior Olympics, Special Olympics, Camelot Arms nursing home and the Red Cross.
In addition, she manages to get "pretty good grades." She has a 3.9 GPA.
Megan has dreams of going to Duke University and of becoming a pediatrician or a pediatric allergist.
But she says that's not what motivates her. And while her parents support everything she does, she says she doesn't do it for them either.
"I pretty much do it myself because I like it," she says. "I thrive under pressure."
Monica Selak and Clay Petro, both seniors at Ursuline High School, say they put pressure on each other. The 17-year-olds are tied for the top spot in their class and have been since their freshman year.
This competition has motivated them throughout high school, they say.
"You know, you come home and you have all your work and you know Clay already has it done," says Monica during a break between summer classes and cheerleading practice.
Clay says he thinks the same thing.
"It was 1 in the morning and I was laying in bed and I had to read a book. And I -- honest to God -- thought, 'Monica said she already read that book.' ... So I jumped up and turned the light on." He finished the book that night.
While they continue to push each other, Clay says they now have something new that keeps them going: getting accepted by an elite school.
"That's the major motivator. Colleges look at what you're doing now," Clay says. He notes that it's good to be involved with a lot of different activities "because they look at that and care about that."
Clay says he's interested in Brown, Case Western Reserve and Northwestern universities. He plans to study medicine.
Monica says she'd like to go to Georgetown, Columbia or Stanford universities to major in political science.
Too much pressure
Eric Ritz, director of social services at Belmont Pines Hospital, says sometimes students put too much pressure on themselves to be first in their class or get into their dream school.
As an example, he speaks of one girl who had been ranked second in her class. "She wanted to commit suicide because she wasn't first," he says.
Although Ritz points out extreme cases like hers are rare, he mentions that suicide is the second leading cause of death for 15- to 22-year-olds.
Ritz says it is healthy for parents to motivate their children and encourage them to find success in sports or academics. However, he stresses, "that's different than saying, 'you must do this, and if you don't you're a failure.'"
All three students say their parents appreciate their hard work, but don't force them to the top.
"They don't demand good work," says Clay of his parents. "But it's nice making them happy when you do well. ... But at the same time, if you mess up, they're there to pick you back up and say don't worry about it."
Learning to lose
Dr. Ron Shaklee, director of the scholars and honors program at Youngstown State University, says that students who have never faced less than perfection often don't know how to handle their first defeat.
"It's dangerous if you don't learn how to fail. You won't handle it well when you finally do," he says. "If you've never been faced with a situation when you came in second or didn't do the best, it can be damaging to the psyche."
Megan says she has been faced with a situation where she didn't do her best.
"The most frustrating thing is when you pressure yourself to do well and you don't do as well as you can," she says.
Shaklee says he's seen people who have been achieving to their highest potential hit a wall and feel like they just can't do it anymore.
"There's definitely a burn-out factor," he says. "They just reach a point where they can't do it anymore. Some of them don't want to disappoint their parents; some don't want to disappoint themselves."
And some don't want to disappoint others, Monica points out.
"I think there are time when you want to stop, but you think of all the people depending on you and you keep going," she says.
Taking a timeout
Megan says she's used to pushing herself to the limit, too.
Toward the end of the school year, she said she felt burned out. "It was a Wednesday, and I had a test in every class and cheerleading tryouts on Friday, and I just broke down," she says. "The people at my school are great and they see people like me everyday. They let me go home for 10 minutes" to wash her face and compose herself.
Megan says that when she reaches a point where she just feels in over her head, she knows who to go to for support.
"My mom and Mr. [Bill] Snyder [her chemistry teacher] are two people who keep me going. When I don't think I can do it anymore, they keep me going," she says. "My mom everyday tells me, 'Megan, you can do anything in this world you want to do.'"
That includes getting into Duke University, for which Megan and her mom are already preparing.
Megan, Clay and Monica all say they are really looking forward to college. But they know better than to expect to slow down then.
Shaklee says in his experience, students with exceptional involvement and grades tend to continue their success more than students who were less involved but had outstanding test scores.
"They're a type A personality," he says. "They don't need it [motivation] from their parents. It's just an inherent or learned behavior."
Jaymin Patel, who will be a sophomore at YSU next year, is more involved now than he was in high school.
Ask him how he's doing, and he replies "hectic."
Jaymin, 18, graduated a year early and as salutatorian from Shenango High School. He's received a full academic scholarship from YSU and has thrown himself wholeheartedly into campus activities, as well as beginning his own organization for students of Indian decent.
He gets stressed, he says, but has found several ways of coping with it.
Sometimes, he says, "I'll just pull on people around me." Other times he finds it more effective to "isolate myself. ... I lay on my bed and listen to Nelly Furtado."
Jaymin's course load next semester will exceed normal, but he doesn't plan on slowing down any -- even though he knows he'll be stressed by it all.
"My goal is to have accomplished so much in my lifetime that my parents, my community can say 'Wow, he really did something,'" he says. "My ultimate goal is to leave a mark."