Never Assume

A remarkable story appeared in the Chicago Tribune last Sunday. It’s about a remarkable young man named Derrius Quarles and his determination to get somewhere and be somebody. A foster child whose father was stabbed to death when Derrius was four and whose mother struggled with drugs, he had the strength of character to overcome the vagaries of his life and end up winning scholarships to excellent colleges all over the country, including Morehouse, where he now attends.
Derrius’s outlook can be summed up here: “You can’t go around thinking you are inferior just because you didn’t have parents,” he says. “For me, it’s about knowing where you are from and accepting it, but more important, knowing where you are going.” 
At 17, he was living on his own, keeping himself together and focusing on the future. He budgeted his money and when he did the grocery shopping he avoided junk food in favor of fruits and vegetables. He never took his eyes off his goal.
Derrius was fortunate to have someone see his potential. As often happens and as studies have shown, sometimes just one person can have an immense effect on a young person. For Derrius, that person was his summer biology teacher, Nivedita Nutakki, who told him he shouldn’t waste his talent. Arriving as a freshman with a 2.5 GPA at Kenwood Academy, Derrius was taking three AP classes and earning a 3.6 by his junior year. 
In the middle of this amazing story is a passage that made me angry: “Even his oversize ambition couldn’t get Quarles past one roadblock. He dreamed of attending Harvard, until one college adviser told him his 28 ACT score was simply not high enough. He abandoned his plans.”
Regardless of whether Harvard or Morehouse (or any other institution) would be the best for him, no college adviser should have told him not to bother applying to Harvard or anywhere else. It is not for that person to say. I always tell students that it is their right and privilege to apply wherever they want so long as they understand clearly what the odds are. In this case, it’s a shame that someone assumed Derrius wouldn’t get into Harvard on the basis of that score. And it’s almost criminal that Derrius was convinced to abandon his plans as a result. Any college adviser who thinks he or she can or should make that determination suffers from a bad case of hubris.
The truth is, we cannot know what the future holds for our advisees. We don’t know what colleges and universities will decide, even though we can come up with some pretty accurate guesses if we’ve had enough experience. We don’t know how or when a student will suddenly “take off” and make us proud. But all you have to do is read Derrius’s story to know that no matter where he went he’d make good, and that as a result the test scores say very little about him (and even so, they are miles above the average scores of someone from his background). 
Again, I’m not saying Derrius should have gone to Harvard or anywhere else or that he’s deprived as a result–clearly not. But no one should have told him it wasn’t possible. Anything is possible, as this young man has already shown. While we may think we know a lot, the future always confounds us and we should always be humble in its presence. 

Edit, Oct. 23: I was so taken with the story that I forgot I had met Derrius through Scholarship Chicago, a program that provides help and mentorship throughout the college process and in college as well as financial assistance during college. When I met him he had already received several admission offers from colleges and was racking up scholarships. I would never have guessed at the hurdles he was going through he was so poised, confident, and focused.