09/15/2011 04:27 pm ET | Updated Nov 15, 2011

Going to South Africa: Is It Really for Me or My College Applications?

Trying to get into college is like being the donkey in the movie Shrek: wildly jumping up and down, doing anything and everything to be noticed, hoping the one you want will pick you. Add to that a wannabe "Tiger Mom" and it's enough to drive you crazy. That's my life.

My mother likes polka dots and I like stripes. My mother likes her eggs sunny-side-up and I like mine scrambled. The differences between us can sometimes make living with my mother like the Mongols trying to live with the Russians. It's especially difficult as I embark on the search for the perfect college. Understandably, my mom has high expectations for me. Both my parents graduated from Northwestern. One of my brothers goes to Yale and plays soccer. The other goes to Princeton and plays football. So I'm sure my mother wants me to get into one of those nice, fancy schools. I'm a smart girl, and I play water polo -- something a lot of black girls don't do -- but I do not know where I want to go to college yet.

Sometimes I feel like my mother makes us do programs just because she thinks they will help me get into college. For example, she heard about this program in South Africa that teaches kids about world business.  I love to travel, but honestly, I'm not exactly sure if I'm interested in business. The only reason I would consider doing this program is because colleges need to see that you've been chosen for something selective.

This past summer my mother persuaded me to do a language-intensive program in Guatemala. It sounded like four glorious weeks away from my parents learning Spanish and tanning on the beach.  But my mom left out a few vital pieces of information that I'm sure might have made me look twice at this program.

 Guatemala was no day at the beach. My home stay was living with a family that let the roosters poop all over the kitchen table where we ate dinner. I showered with the ducks and pooped in a big, dark hole. This was in a small Mayan community called Pachaj, where I spent four hours in the morning planting trees on a very steep hill, and then spent four hours in the afternoon taking Spanish lessons. When I left Pachaj we went on a three-day trek. If the word "trek" is unfamiliar to you, it means hiking for days, carrying all your belongings on your back and wearing the same clothes every day and night.

When we weren't trekking over a mountain, we were weaving on a loom, which was very different from anything I had ever done in the way of crafts. I got to go to a dance club, where I saw real Latin dancing. I also visited a lake that was between two volcanoes, and finally I got to tan.

The trip was full of things that I wasn't expecting, but with limited Internet access I didn't have the resources to yell at my mother and express my anger. So, instead, I was forced to look at my surroundings and learn something about myself and the world that I live in.

If I hadn't gone to Guatemala, I wouldn't have realized that I have a passion for the environment and that I love learning about all different types of cultures. Most importantly, I wouldn't have learned that I can really survive any situation that I happen to be placed in.  At the beginning of every difficult situation, I could feel myself on the brink of tears, and I didn't think that I was going to be able to do it. However, each time, I was so happy that I had done it, and I was proud that I had survived. Even living with the family with the poop on the table ended up being fun.

While Guatemala was great and I'm glad I went, you can see why I don't exactly trust my mom. The program in South Africa sounds like another program that will look great on the high school résumé, but will I really enjoy it? Sometimes it seems that kids just do things so that it "looks good on college applications."  It's a tough decision whether to do something you have a passion for or something that will help you get into the college of your choice.

Am I supposed to participate in a program just to make my mother happy and get into college? Maybe I should just do something that will make me happy and get me into college.

What do you think?