One day in high school, it dawned on me that was time to apply for college. I walked down the guidance counselor’s office and waited in line for my assigned counselor, who was tasked with seeing students with last names L-Z, which equaled about 2,500 students at my particularly large suburban high school. I had met her few times before. She asked me if I wanted to go to college in state or out of state. Well, in state, I guess. Michigan has some good schools and why would I want to move so far away from my high school boyfriend? Besides, I didn’t know the names of many out-of-state schools, and I hadn’t taken the SAT. So I took applications for three schools in Michigan, not even bothering to take one for University of Michigan because my 3.3 grade point average wasn’t going to get me in there.
When I started filling out the applications, I realized it would have been a good idea for me to take some advanced classes. I’d always loved writing, got As in all my writing classes, but it was never suggested to me that I should take AP classes. Instead, I spent most of time at the student newspaper and would even skip other classes or show up late if I had was on deadline at the newspaper. And math, ugh, math. I think an 8th grade teacher suggested to me that I take the low-level math classes in high school, thus began me on a trajectory of being in the “special” math classes with many kids who ended up dropping out of high school. Even though I had this narrative in my head that I was bad at math, I did well in those classes and two different math teachers made me “student of the month” in high school. I was left to pick my own classes, and as a high school student who was more concerned with the school newspaper and wearing cute clothes, I didn’t see the point in taking the hard, nerdy classes. So I just coasted along. After my older sister’s major struggles in high school, my parents were understandably satisfied with me getting mostly Bs.
I didn’t get in to my top choice school. I visited the second choice. The weekend visit was fun, the campus was green and pretty, and the school wasn’t too far away, so that’s where I went. In the grand tradition of high school relationships everywhere, it ended come second semester. I made a few good friends at school, but often felt a bit like an outsider at my huge, party-focused university, and often felt like I was one of the more serious students there, which was new for me. College was overall an enjoyable experience but honestly it wasn’t super challenging. I had one or two professors who did inspire me – a journalism teacher who was a former Chicago Tribune reporter, and a quantitative statistics teacher who was a former Bush Administration staffer. But I really found my niche when I began working for the college newspaper and then later, the mid-size daily newspaper in town. I worked my way up from intern to staffer at that paper and loved every minute of it. (I fully expect to look back on that job as the best job I’ve ever had.)
I ended up graduating early as a result of taking lots summer classes at two different community colleges. That’s when I came across an internship opportunity at a First Amendment non-profit in Washington DC. It sounded perfect beyond belief – a center that defended the free speech rights of student journalists – and I sent off a wildly enthusiastic email and cover letter and got a call-back right away. By the next day, I had that internship. A few weeks later, I packed up my Ford Taurus and my college boyfriend dropped me off in DC. That boyfriend didn’t last either, but that internship was life-changing. I decided to stay in DC almost immediately after arriving. I felt like I really fit in with DC’s motivated yet fun-loving persona. However, for the first time in my life, I was meeting people from Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Dartmouth, Brown and Cornell. I was surprised that these people didn’t seem particularly smarter than me or more successful (although they were more worldly) because I imagined Ivy League schools were only filled with the richest and the most intellectual people named Wellesey Thurston IV or Penelope Wendelmeyer who grew up with French tutors and went on ski vacations to the Swiss Alps. I always felt a little embarrassed telling people where I went to school, then would immediately chide myself for buying into that kind of elitism. Then I met Mr.YemenEm, whose father went to Dartmouth, who went to Dartmouth himself, who had studied in Europe, and who aspired to be a Foreign Service Officer with the State Department since he was a teenager. All of these things were foreign to me.
I’ve just been thinking about all this lately after reading columns like this one in the New York Times called “The Ivy League Was Another Planet” about opportunities and who attends the top-ranked schools. (And then this column came along, in which a whiny high school senior laments how being average didn’t get her in to any Ivys.)
On paper, I see why the top-ranked schools probably don’t feel that they would gain much from setting up a table at my huge public high school and recruiting students who maybe had never even heard of their universities (such as high school YemenEm). They have plenty of top-ranked students apply to their prestigious universities so why bother with a middling student whose family is not rich, who would need financial aid, and who would likely not end up being a benefactor to the school down the road. (Military recruiters, however, don’t miss the opportunity to canvas such high schools, and it serves them well).
One problem with the current system as that many high school kids only know of schools in their nearby regions. Many don’t know that they have to have nearly perfect grades to get in to a top-ranked ranked school (or even just a very good school). And, if they’re anything like YemenEm, they might decide it’s not a good use of their time to finish the final Humanities project because it would take a full 40 hours to make a recreation of a Twilight Zone episode and that student might have a newspaper to put out, tennis practice, and a part-time job at a real estate company, not to mention other finals to complete. For me, the main issue was that I was just terribly naïve about education. I didn’t know what other schools were out there, and that many more privileged students search out universities to find ones that are a good fit with their personalities and interests and learning styles, rather than choosing based on geographic proximity.
I’m not sure what the answer is. Perhaps teachers can take a break from the daily grind and ask a student about where he or she wants to go to college and offer some suggestions on universities. (When a friend of mine here in Yemen was a high school student in Detroit, one of her teachers said he thought she’d be a good fit at West Point, the university she ended up attending. She just got promoted to major). It would also be helpful if guidance counselors actually knew their students and could suggest appropriate universities. One place to start is not assigning guidance counselors a caseload of thousands of students. Another solution is that universities could provide outreach to students and parents from all corners of the United States — not just the wealthy ones — and actually recruit at places other than the nation’s best high schools. Again, not sure what their motivation to do this would be, aside from diversity, which, for most universities doesn’t mean a white girl from the suburbs.
I’m fairly confident my life would not be any better or more fulfilling if I went to a fancy Ivy League school or a small liberal arts school where the teachers were all published novelists the bespectacled professors held classes under a weeping willow. (And honestly, after learning how much these schools cost, I doubt my family and I would have decided it was wise idea to spend that kind of money, because you couldn’t beat the tuition of my in-state public school). I love my life now and wouldn’t change a thing. But, I do want students who are similar to high school YemenEm – engaged but not necessarily challenged and totally oblivious to schools outside of a 200 mile radius – to know what’s out there and to know what you have to do to get it.