These days I usually write about college admission from the high school side. This week, however, I moderated a panel at IACAC about working with students in an urban setting. My colleagues and I talked about ways to reach first-generation, low-income kids and their parents to inspire them to work hard and go to college.
In the Q & A at the end of the session, one audience member asked how those on the college side could help high schools in those efforts, which I thought was a great question. We had talked a little about cultivating college/high school partnerships, but the question seemed to come from an individual, not an institutional, perspective, and it widened our perspective on the topic.
I recalled a very humbling moment in my experience as an admission officer at Amherst College. I had just begun to visit Chicago high schools, one of which was Providence-St. Mel’s, an all-black high school on the west side. I knew about it because its founder, Paul Adams, had been given an honorary degree by the College for his efforts to provide a strong and college-oriented curriculum to his students. (This was before the charter school movement had taken hold in Chicago.) I decided to visit.
Most of my visits were to high schools already familiar with Amherst–the New Triers, the Latin Schools, and so on–well-equipped, wealthy, and ambitious, with exceptional track records for getting their kids into “elite” colleges and universities. Providence-St. Mel was a new experience. I walked in assuming that I’d see the top students and spend some time narrating the wonders of Amherst to a rapt and select group.
Instead, I was ushered to a junior English class. I was embarrassed to be interrupting class time, but the teacher graciously gave up his spot and I proceeded to blather on and on about Amherst, the liberal arts, the beauties of the Pioneer Valley, and so on. I unfurled the fall-leaves-and-liquid-sunshine poster to dazzle my audience.
As I continued with my spiel, however, I began to notice that the students, while trying to pay attention, were increasingly puzzled. I just kept talking until I had covered all the points I needed to cover, then paused for questions.
“Where’s your school again?” one student asked. I was irritated. I’d already told them, and besides, didn’t everyone know where the top liberal arts college in the country was? I patiently replied, “It’s about 90 miles outside of Boston.”
Looking even more confused, one young man said, “Oh, we thought it was outside of Chicago.” It turned out that the whole time they’d thought I was talking about Elmhurst College, located in the suburbs. We all had a good laugh, but I was disappointed not only that I hadn’t made an impression but that they hadn’t known anything about Amherst in the first place. I was blaming them for something that I should have thought more about.
That visit proved to be a revelation that changed the way I did things when I visited high schools outside of the “usual suspects.” I was humbled by these students and realized that Amherst had to be a bit humble as well. When I got back, I looked at the poster and realized that although it said “Amherst” it nowhere said “Massachusetts.” We were confidently assuming that everyone knew where Amherst was.
Even more, though, I realized that in some cases, I might need to talk more about college and higher education in general than about Amherst in particular. At some schools I visited after Providence-St. Mel, I began to spend more time explaining terms like “liberal arts” and “university/college” than I did waxing poetic about the glories of Memorial Hill.
At first, I thought maybe I wasn’t doing enough to spread the word about Amherst, but then I realized that in my talks with non-mainstream kids I could probably do more good by putting my own Amherst College liberal arts education to work than by just “selling” the College. I would let students ask questions not just about the College, but about “college” and everything that went with it. I started to listen more than talk; I encouraged students to ask me anything they wanted about college, whether it was about Amherst or not.
In the process, I learned a lot. I realized I couldn’t just blab on and on about an institution far from their real and imagined lives; I realized I could perhaps inspire them by letting them know what going to college could help them do; I started to come to high schools not simply to tell them how wonderful Amherst was, but how wonderful they could be, no matter where they eventually went.
So my response to the questioner at my session was, “You can help by listening to their questions about college; by being open to their concerns; by putting into practice the things you learned about communicating with others while you were in college. When you talk about your institution, you can put yourself in those students’ places, and realize that their worries can be several orders of magnitude greater than those of the ‘usual suspects.'”
I’ve seen many presenters go through their scripts regardless of the reactions of their audience. I’ve learned that sometimes it’s far better to abandon the script and talk to kids at whatever level they happen to be. Otherwise, you’re just hail on a tin roof. In the process of listening and understanding, though, you will do yourself and your institution proud.