Back to the Future

Those of us who applied to college thirty or so years ago seem mostly to have tossed out a few applications, taken the SAT or ACT once, and then gotten on with the rest of our high school lives. We waited and hoped for the best. Some of us were lucky enough to have a counselor who casually mentioned a college or two we’d never heard of and encouraged us to apply, which we did. That was certainly my experience. Mr. Boulhouwer, counselor at West Morris Regional H.S. in Chester NJ is responsible for my applying to and eventually attending Amherst College in Amherst MA. He suggested I try a “liberal arts” college. After explaining to me what that was, he tossed out Amherst and I said I’d give it a shot. The rest, as they say, is history. (To this day I’m convinced that I didn’t even know Amherst was all-male until I got there; I probably would have been a Williams alum if he’d said “Williams” instead.)

I’ve joked with any number of adults of about my age who have similar stories about how they got to their alma maters: the chance remark, the off-hand suggestion by a math teacher, or the casual observation by a respected neighbor or relative. There was no strategizing, no long-term planning, no multiple testing, no weighing the pros and cons of every school. At some level, we knew we’d be fine anywhere we went and we trusted that the schools would make good decisions (although not necessarily the ones we wanted). Once the applications were done we went about our business. And in fact we did turn out pretty well, most of us.

Having made the transition from working with the uber-strategic to the underserved, I’ve discovered many similarities between the latter and my generation of college-goers. Low-income and first generation students interested in going to college tend to be hard workers fully involved in their schools and communities, out of choice and necessity. They’re not strategizers, they’re young people who hope their talents and experiences will be enough to get them admitted to college; that is to say, they haven’t been good students and participants in order to get into college, they’re going to get into college because they’re good students and participants. They’re not multi-testers trying to break 2200, they’re test takers because they have to be, and let it go at that. Most of them can’t afford, literally or figuratively, to spend hours and hours parsing essay questions; they’ve got real things to do.

In these ways and others, I’m finding that the low-income and first-generation students I work with are very much like we were many years ago when it comes to college admission. Without romanticizing too much, I’d say that they have an authenticity that colleges and universities say they want, an openness to and desire for new experiences that can make them exceptional students in any classroom. Yes, many of them are rough around the edges and many have gone through things we wouldn’t wish on anyone, but they have a resilience and even an optimism that make them wonderful to work with. They believe that college is going to help them live better lives and learn important things; they are honored to be chosen and pleased to have the opportunities to advance; they are grateful to be able to fulfill their hopes and dreams and those of their families. They don’t see college acceptance as a right or a mark of innate privilege; they see it as the result of hard work and determination. And they’re willing to bring these qualities to campus.

For these students, applying to college is an adjunct to their lives, not their purpose in life, as it seems to be for so many of their overprivileged peers. And in that way, they avoid the largely self-created stress we hear way too much about. Their lives are their own and if a college accepts them, that’s great; if not, they’ll try again. It makes me hopeful for the future.