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Southern California's Young Faces : Cover Story

Overachiever

Lauren Kubota Never Stops. Her College Applications Reflect Her Impressive Extracurricular Work. Still, Admissions Officials Won't Truly Know Her.

April 22, 2001|ALLISON ADATO

What's it like to come of age in a place defined by outsiders and their cliches: surf, gang turf, Hollywood, Vine, the land of milk and honey? Do our children grow up too soon? Is Southern California the great springboard to a life of opportunity? On the following pages you'll find 17 children who are moving toward adulthood. Their stories are not the stuff of headlines or extremes: young criminals, star athletes, child movie stars. Rather, we went in search of "typical" kids. We talked to teachers, parents, tutors, coaches, counselors and school officials. Scores of names tumbled out. We then asked a dozen writers to spend time with these kids, and to try to find the small slice of each one that said something about their lives in Southern California. It is, we hope, a telling collage.

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Based on how she filled out their applications, here is what the admissions boards at 10 universities know, and don't know, about Lauren Kubota, 18-year-old senior at Glendale's Herbert Hoover High. Columbia asks what books she has read recently. Among others, she mentions "The Fountainhead," "The Hot Zone," "The Kitchen God's Wife" and "My Year of Meats," a novel about a Japanese American filmmaker hired to market U.S. beef in Japan.

What the board won't find out from this list is that Lauren tears through pulpy medical fiction. "Those kind of books you can read in two days and teachers don't approve of," she says.

On Harvard's scale from 1 to 5 measuring how definite she considers her academic plans, Lauren's dedication to journalism is a 3. It seems an uncharacteristic hedge from someone who has wanted to be a writer since she was 4, when adoptive parents Tom and Nancy Kubota divorced--another fact the universities have not sought out.

Barnard's application lists some of its notable alumnae: Zora Neale Hurston, Suzanne Vega, Margaret Mead, Twyla Tharp and Anna Quindlen, then asks what contributions she has made to her family or community. "I don't know what they want me to have done!" Lauren says. She writes a few lines about her volunteer work. The neatly lettered response belies her insecurity about this answer. It conceals also that she had never heard of three of the five women.

All of the schools will hear extensively about extracurricular activities. Lauren is captain of her cheerleading squad and a co-editor-in-chief of her school newspaper. They won't hear about how, when those two activities' schedules conflict, she will blow off cheerleading every time. Nor will they know how the newspaper's faculty advisor occasionally trusts her to run things in his absence, or how she makes a point not to give preferential editing treatment to her boyfriend, who is also on the paper's staff.

They'll see she was vice president of the debate club. That she is the publications editor of the Native American Awareness Team, which means she is documenting the group's construction of a monument on Hoover's campus, and writes their newsletter. That she ran track. That she was a member of the Key Club. That she volunteered to help send Adam Schiff to Congress. That last summer she spent two weeks as a CNN intern in Atlanta.

What they won't see is the videotape of her first on-camera interview, or how nervous she was.

They will learn that Lauren coached an elementary school drill team--they won't know how much she loved the kids she met there. They will learn that she once held a job in the bag room of a country club--but won't know that it required rising at 5 a.m. on weekends throughout the summer and much of the school year.

They will read that she is president of the Glendale Symphony Orchestra Preludes, a girls group that greets symphony patrons, passes out programs, serves cookies at the women's committee meetings and visits hospital patients. They won't know that she got involved only at her mother's urging. "Do I enjoy it? Not particularly. In ninth grade I didn't have that many extracurriculars, only one or two, and my mom was getting on my case for getting into college. Everything else I did because I liked it."

But do Lauren's answers add up to an accurate portrayal? "They get a pretty good idea of you, but I don't think they have an entire picture," says Lauren, who is also a snowboarder, an "X-Files" devotee and the recipient of a hand-me-down Cadillac the size of a tank. "Some of the questions seem a little bit irrelevant. They don't ask about other parts of your life besides school."

Where each application asks her race, Lauren has checked both Asian (her biological father is Japanese American) and white (her biological mother). But the boxes don't indicate that this is precisely the racial makeup of her adoptive father and mother too. She will talk about being adopted in her personal essays.

"I am left to wonder about the self-knowledge that nearly everyone else takes for granted," she writes. "I don't know when my hair will begin to show traces of gray. I don't know where I got my freckles. . . . Where most are given their identities by being born and raised surrounded by like individuals, I have found that I have created my own identity."

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