• Former James Ruse Agricultural High student Liesl Chen thrived in the creative arts. (Supplied)
The selective school James Ruse Agricultural High in Sydney tops NSW every year for HSC results. But what happens when you don’t fit the mould?
By
Liesl Chen

20 Nov 2018 - 6:00 AM  UPDATED 19 Nov 2019 - 10:41 AM

When I was still a student at James Ruse Agricultural High, the immediate response I would conjure was, “Wow! You’re from James Ruse? Hello future doctor.”

Fast forward six years, that response has changed to “You don’t seem like a Ruse student.” Of course, because an Arts student who chooses to dye their hair, gets multiple piercings and expresses themselves through tattoos could never have been from the prestigious James Ruse, the ‘genius factory’, where students are notoriously known for their dedication to their studies.

While other children went home after school, I went to a tutoring college, while other children went to the movies on the weekend, I was at a tutoring college.

I don’t consider myself a ‘gifted’ child: never have and still don’t. Sure, I was in the extension class, I was in an OC class, I did get into James Ruse, but people fail to realise that it is not a gift. While other children went home after school, I went to a tutoring college, while other children went to the movies on the weekend, I was at a tutoring college. I was immersed in a perpetual state of competition with my peers, which skewed my perception of success.

Growing up, I harbored great admiration yet bitterness towards my older sister; she was the perfect academic who attended James Ruse, who studied law and then medicine. For years I chased after her shadow, until, I finally broke in Year 8. All the pressure of following in my sister’s footsteps, to be a doctor, to be successful had become too much.

It took me 13 years to realise that I was empty.

I didn’t want to pursue medicine, nor law. Yet, I felt like I had to because that was what “James Ruse students did”.

I didn’t want to pursue medicine, nor law. Yet, I felt like I had to because that was what “James Ruse students did”. I was passionate about the Arts; language, theatre and performance. So, instead of taking the safe route with high-scaling subjects like science or economics, I chose to do subjects like Japanese and drama for my senior years, even if it would potentially cost my ATAR. Surprisingly, there was not much backlash from my family, because over the years, I had the marks and the passion which convinced them that I knew what I was doing.

In a school so intensely focused on academics, the creative arts are unfortunately looked down upon by some students. Personally, I too would question whether I had made the right decision in choosing Drama. It was not only the atmosphere around creative arts that was challenging, studying and doing well in creative arts was no easy feat.

Creative Arts is not defined by formulas, nor factual information. Rather, it is about you as an individual experiencing the world; your ideology. Our drama teacher would often tell us, “other subjects at school teach you about the world, creative arts teaches you how to live in it. Aside from being amazing teachers, my drama teachers became good friends during my final year. As cliched as it sounds, they helped me up when I was down, guided me when I was lost, and was very often, the shoulder that I cried on.

Around the end of year 11 and straight throughout year 12, I suffered from anxiety and depression. The closer HSC came, the darker my thoughts became. I would often say to people that I didn’t think I would make it to the end of year 12. The light at the end of the tunnel had disappeared, so why should I keep walking?

The final year in high school isn’t easy, but I guarantee that doing subjects that you are actually interested in will make it that more enjoyable.

The final year in high school isn’t easy, but I guarantee that doing subjects that you are actually interested in will make it that more enjoyable. I sometimes wondered if I should have chosen chemistry instead of drama during year 12 because the scaling was better. But if I had relied on scaling, I knew I wouldn’t have put in as much effort as I did in drama, because the idea of scaling as a safety net would have constantly be in my mind. But instead, I pushed myself in Drama, picking myself up each time I didn’t get a satisfactory score, and so, produced an individual piece that was nominated for Onstage, a showcase of student work.

Getting nominated for Onstage was an indescribable feeling, I was proud, relieved, happy. But I felt acknowledged that my piece that took blood, sweat and tears to compose was up there at the top. During my time as a Drama student, I began to fall in love with one particular part – voice acting. Voice acting is the art of voicing characters in animations. I want to voice in Japanese animation. So, to make this dream a career, I took my first steps. From building an online persona, to practicing different ways of using my voice, to analysing how professionals controlled their breath.

Currently, I am majoring in Japanese and International Relations, studying at the University of Sydney as a Dalyell Scholar. Doing what you love requires hard work, it takes diligence and perseverance to align yourself with the endless opportunities that the universe has to offer.

Dreams are not granted by wishful thinking, they are materialised by our hand, and your hand only.

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