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Siblings of high achievers face challenges, inspiration

Siblings with big shoes to fill learn to find their footing inside and outside of the academic landscape

November 2, 2018

When Kristen Colavita was a baby, her brother Michael would build intricate Lego masterpieces — computers, TVs, VCRs —  imitating the real thing down to the string he used for the wiring. Kristen does not remember it, but she’s heard the story enough times to recount it from memory, one of many reminders of her brother’s excellence.

Michael Colavita, Class of 2016 valedictorian currently attending Harvard University, is perhaps uniquely intelligent but not unique in his position as an extremely high-achieving older sibling. Kristen Colavita, her twin brother Vincent, and Yiwen Xiong, whose sister Yili attends the University of Chicago, are a few of many students with this distinct relationship.

While high school stress is being studied from local to international levels in nearly every fathomable form, the effects of sibling pressures are not as documented, and information on siblings of older academic superstars is even more sparse. What research does exist is conflicting; one study finds that gifted and non-gifted sibling pairs had few differences in self-esteem, while another found that competition among these sibling pairs was positive for the gifted sibling but destructive for the other sibling. (It is important to note that the siblings featured in this piece are not necessarily labelled gifted, but very little research has been done on sibling pressures where one sibling is high-achieving but not gifted.)

What is evident, though, is that each student deals with this situation differently depending on their family, peers, and personal mindset. Some feel like they live in the shadow of their siblings, some differentiate themselves as much as possible, and some feel no pressure at all, but they all must eventually embrace their differences. The younger sibling’s high-school journey is perhaps more complicated than the average student’s, but they all face the question that every teenager does at some point or another: who am I, and who do I want to be?

I. Understandings and Misunderstandings at School

Most younger siblings are used to being recognized by teachers and upperclassmen by their last names. However, siblings of academic superstars find themselves faced with not just recognition, but a legacy to fulfill or leave behind as they see fit. 

When Vincent Colavita entered high school, he found himself compared to his brother, who was then a senior, by his classmates for the first time. Michael Colavita’s impact on the school — it is not an overstatement to say that he was famous among students and faculty — made people recognize the relationship immediately when Colavita introduced himself.

Colavita recalls classmates approaching him with programming questions when he was in Intro to Programming, expecting him to have the same immense knowledge of computer science that his brother did. It was not his lack of experience that frustrated him as much as his peers’ assumption that he would be a carbon copy of his brother.

“If it was Michael that the kid had talked to, then yeah, he’d have been flooded with answers. But I just didn’t have any answers,” he said.

He eventually grew accustomed to the comparison, and growing up meant that it bothered him less every year. Still, as a new high-schooler, Michael Colavita’s reputation was a difficult weight to handle.

“Most of the time in ninth grade, I didn’t show it, but I was upset by [the comparisons] a lot of the time. Eventually, it became an expectation for me that a lot of people would say it,” he said.

Xiong, too, was most bothered by comparisons to his sister as a younger child. His motivations and sense of self were not as defined in middle school as they would come to be in high school, and Xiong reflects that seventh and eighth grade were the years he felt most aware of his sister’s academic achievement.

In middle school, he often had his sister’s old teachers, and while they would not stress the sibling relationship, Yiwen would see evidence of her prowess in school all around him.

“I’d see her old projects that she’d shown to me, and they’re in [my] classroom. And so I’d always try to achieve that,” he said. “It [wasn’t], ‘here’s Yiwen,’ it’s ‘here’s Yili’s brother’ — I kind of hated that [at first], but in the end, it didn’t really affect me.”

One of Westford Academy’s social workers, Micaela Violette, explains that siblings may feel an underlying pressure simply being in the same classroom as a high-achieving sibling, even when the teacher has no intention of drawing harmful comparisons.

I think teachers often say, ‘oh, I had your sibling.’ And already students might make their own assumptions. A teacher might just be saying it as a connection […] but to that student, if they’re already feeling like their sibling is a higher achieving than they are, where the bar has been set, then they might feel this pressure that the teacher now intended just by making a simple comment,” she said. 

Kristen Colavita disagrees, noting that although many teachers have drawn the comparison between her and her brother, she is able to see it as a simple connection.

Vincent Colavita remarked that “in many ways, she [Kristen] does live up to expectations.” Colavita is at the top of the Class of 2019, takes five AP courses, and has won the Yale Book Award as well as department awards in programming and math for several consecutive years.

Kristen Colavita, however, sees it differently; she is living up to no expectations except her own. Her work ethic and immense drive stem from her mindset that only her best work is acceptable.

If you don’t do the best you can, then why even do it in the first place?” she said. “It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Though Colavita has had many of her brother’s teachers, she does not feel as though she was ever compared to him. Rather, she has found that most misunderstandings about her relationship with her brother come from her peers. She explains that her classmates expect her brother to be the source of her motivation, which she thinks is understandable considering their similarities.

However, it is far from the truth. People are simply looking to make connections between the two siblings, when in reality Colavita is following internal motivations.

“I think people expect me to be always comparing myself to Michael and therefore, you know, they want to see if it’s true […] there are so many times I get the question, ‘what was Michael’s GPA? What’s your GPA?'” she said. 

That is not to say that Colavita does not admire her brother’s success in school. She simply acknowledges his genius and strives to achieve excellence regardless of what her brother has accomplished ahead of her.

“I don’t like using the word acceptance, because that makes it sound like this huge burden that I’ve come to accept. But Michael is smarter than me, and that’s just the way it is. That’s just how the genetics worked out, and I’m perfectly fine with that,” she said. 

II. The Parental Push

“All the time,” Xiong answered without hesitation when asked if he felt compared to his sister. “I still am.”

Xiong first became cognizant of his sister’s academic achievements around seventh grade. While it was awe-inspiring to see her projects and schoolwork, he also began to feel a disparity between the two of them.

“I realized that wow, she’s actually really good at what she does. It was kind of this moment where I almost wished I could be her, in the sense of being able to achieve that much,” he said.

His parents would show him the work his sister had done, and he felt an underlying pressure to be like his sister in his household through his middle-school years. Although he strove to match her level of achievement for a time, he soon realized that his relationship with his sister was spiraling and that it was in everyone’s best interest to stop comparing himself to her.

This change in mindset was set in stone for Xiong when his sister left to attend the University of Chicago as Xiong entered high school. The physical separation allowed Xiong to find a mental separation between himself and his sister, giving him the freedom to pursue his interests.

However, though pressure from his parents dissipated over time, he still felt a sense of comparison from them as they tried to push him in his sister’s direction.

“So my dad would always kind of push […] that I should do a lot of things my sister does. […] while there was pressure I feel like nowadays, I’ve managed to branch off into our own sort of niche and stay there,” he said. “In the end, like all parents compare their kids, like, they say they don’t play favorites. But in the end, there is always some bias, no matter what you do.”

A 2015 study in the Journal of Family Psychology found that parents’ beliefs in their children’s academic abilities affected the child’s performance in school the next year.

Violette explains that in a parent-child relationship, praise is easily equated to success. Thus, when praise is given proportionally to academic achievement, a sibling without as many accomplishments to his or her name may feel a sense of failure or favoritism with parents.

“I think it goes back to treating people as individuals, like I said before, you know, really looking at an individual person’s capacities and strengths and weaknesses, and really trying to play off of their strengths and build them up and provide praise,” she said.

Kristen Colavita describes her home environment as much more supportive. She asserts that her parents just want the best for her, and that her strongest effort will always be enough for them. This, she says, may be part of the reason why she has never felt a strong sense of comparison or inferiority to her brother.

“I guess if I had grown up in a family where my parents expected all A’s, I would go insane from the fact that I could never be Michael,” she said. “There isn’t a specific example I can think where I’ve felt, ‘okay, let me step back and make myself happy.’ Because I’ve always been happy with my relationship with Michael.”

However, her family has always put a strong emphasis on academics and success in school.

“I grew up in a house where education and academics are very important. My mom and dad want us to prioritize our education. […] I’ve just always been an environment where it’s normal to sort of put a heavy emphasis on, you know, doing school and enjoying learning,” she said. 

Vincent Colavita feels boxed into this emphasis on academic success that does not suit him. Just like his siblings, he is also interested in programming, but is passionate about video game design and programming applications rather than pure computer science.

As a result, he describes himself as able to put 110% of his effort into his interests while cutting himself some slack on the rest. This has led to friction with his family, who wants to push him towards academic success.

“[My mom] doesn’t have any first-hand experience of what my experiences are […] she tends to think in ways that don’t apply to me,” he said.

Colavita explains that his siblings have set a standard in his family, already academically inclined, that he is not by nature meant to reach. His personal successes are often overlooked in the context of his siblings’ academic success.

“It is quite frustrating when you have all of these personal accomplishments that you’re really proud of, but nobody’s going to be looking at you for that. They’re not going to say hey, it’s the person that made that game. It’s going to be hey, it’s the person who took the low classes. They’re not looking at who you actually are, they’re looking at the numbers, the grades,” he said.

III. Answering the Question

Though it happened at different times and places for each student, Xiong and the Colavita twins have all learned to find their footing in Westford Academy and understand the value of their differences.

For Xiong, it was joining band in freshman year that gave him access to a community his sister was never a part of and gave him the self-confidence to branch out. By getting to know people outside of his sister’s friend circle, he was easily able to separate himself from her and develop an assurance of his own desires and capabilities.

“I sort of made that transition freshman year from like, almost like the shadow of my sister into my own person,” he said. “So finding what I wanted to do, as opposed to what my sister was doing was kind of like the big thing. And once I hit that, that’s when I really knew that, like, my sister was different, and I’m me.”

Additionally, he describes his friend group as extremely supportive. Many other younger siblings of high achievers are either in band with him or friends with him otherwise, and he feels that the shared experience has made him more comfortable with who he is.

“It’s awesome having a friend group of people who are in the same situation as me, where they have older siblings who are in the high-achieving community but who don’t necessarily want to be who their siblings are,” he said.

Even in activities he shares with his sister — he is part of Latin Club as well as Mandarin Club like Yili Xiong, the latter of which she co-founded — he is able to assert is own place and no longer feels pressure to be like his sister in any way. Branching out is important, he says, but there is no harm in enjoying the same things as one’s sibling.

Kristen Colavita shares that philosophy. She has almost the exact same extracurriculars as her older brother — Marching Band, Math Team, Programming Club — and they have an identical career interest and dream school. People assume these similarities are because Colavita is trying to imitate her brother, she says, but the reality is that Colavita is simply able to find a sense of self and independence from her brother without differentiating herself.

“I will admit there are many similarities between me and [Michael],” she said. “But I don’t feel the need to do everything to make myself different. I think if we’re both interested in programming, that’s just the way it is.”

For Vincent Colavita, his strategy has been to retain his interests above all else. He continues to design video games in his spare time and only puts his best into what he enjoys, with the conviction that this is the only way for him to grow and move forward in life. He understands that giving in to the pressures he has felt through life will end up hurting him in the end.

“I think if you give in to pressure that kind of creates a reliance on the older sibling […] it just generally doesn’t lead to happiness.”

The array of pressures and comparisons he has had to fight off have made him much surer of his purpose and passions:

“I think you always have a sense of self, but unless you’re given a point where you need to answer the question you’re never really able to describe it […] now that I’ve had to push back and push against and push forward, I can pretty accurately describe who I am and who I want to be.”

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