Falling In Love With My Safety School

Falling In Love With My Safety School

The word that summarizes my college application experience is pressure. Pressure starting as early as seventh grade, when my sister got into Yale and I felt that I would need to go to an Ivy too. Pressure in freshman year to start out strong and get A’s to cushion the harder courses I knew were to come. Pressure to overwork myself in difficult courses in subjects like math and science that I knew I wasn’t interested in, just for the sake of my college application. Pressure to get tutors to boost low grades. Maybe guilt would be a good word, too: guilt about not packing my schedule with more AP courses and about dropping out of a club I stopped enjoying instead of sticking it out to demonstrate “commitment.” For me, the college process was all about feeling like I wasn’t good enough.

I’m sure the words many of my peers would pick would be similar: stressful, intimidating, tiring. The only thing that kept us going was the prospect of a big envelope from a fancy school. A year later, after my first year of college, I am in a place I never would have expected to be in, having just finished my freshman year at what I considered to be a safety school, and the only word I can use to describe it is perfect. What many would consider to be their worst college-process nightmare ended up being a dream.

My parents always have told me that I should always be proud of myself as long as I do my best. Being a generally smart, friendly, nice kid, I quickly assumed that “doing my best” meant “doing everything perfectly,” which wasn’t too hard in elementary and middle school. Things got tougher in freshman year, when I transferred to a prestigious specialized high school. With over 800 bright students in my grade, all vying for select seats at top-tier colleges, my high school had pressure down to a science. Having a GPA below 90 marked you as the bottom 50% of the class. Pulling all-nighters was somewhat of a rite of passage. Surrounded by overachievers publishing math papers and winning prizes, I managed to keep my head up, even as I felt increasingly mediocre among my peers. My GPA was great and my standardized tests all went smoothly. I became a freshman mentor and the stage manager for our theater productions, and a teaching assistant at the dance school I had attended since childhood. By all accounts, I was successful, and had every reason to be proud of myself. But like many, I thought success depended on what schools would send me those big envelopes.

Things very quickly started going wrong at the beginning of my senior year. Reality set in that in comparison to others from my school, my grades were a few notches too low for an acceptance to most of the Ivies. Giving up on my childhood dream wasn’t fun, but Ivies are a long shot for almost everyone, and I had started to narrow down my search to small and midsize liberal arts schools and universities within a few hours of my home in Brooklyn, which had eliminated many of the Ivies anyways.

What was harder to deal with was the reality of my family’s financial situation. Post-recession, my family simply couldn’t afford to pay for much of my tuition, but we wouldn’t qualify for need-based aid. Unfortunately, most of the schools I was looking at were among the country’s most expensive. After years of assuming that I would go to an elite school simply because I was qualified, I refused to accept that my family’s finances would narrow my choice. Colleges advertising their ample financial aid plans had led me to naively assume that money wouldn’t be an issue when I made my college decision, when in the end, it was one of the most important factors. My mother gave me a serious reality check by not letting me apply to Wesleyan University in Connecticut, telling me that it wasn’t worth paying the application fee for a school she couldn’t afford.

I ended up applying to a few Ivies, four schools that we figured would offer me merit scholarships, and three expensive “target” schools. I was accepted to all but the Ivies, including what had become my top choice, Vassar College. I checked my Vassar acceptance on my phone on the way home from school; when I walked into my house, I announced to my mother, “I got in,” and burst into frustrated tears. Vassar had the vibrant student body I was looking for, but I knew the cost would be unmanageable. As much as I loved the school, I especially dreaded not being able to go somewhere I’d been taught to think was “elite,” and missing out on all the opportunities it would supposedly offer me.

Luckily, I received full scholarships from the honors programs of Fordham University and the University of Delaware, and an acceptance to the free Macaulay Honors program at Hunter College. I don’t remember much about the month of April, when I was making my decision, because I so completely rejected the idea of going to one of my safety schools that I effectively refused to think about colleges at all. Finally, after an emotional few weeks, I agreed with my parents that it was irresponsible to take out loans for school when I had the option of attending an honors program at an excellent school for free. I grudgingly admitted that Fordham’s combination of small classes, a competitive honors program, a gorgeous campus and a convenient city location made it stand out from the rest, even above my “target” schools, like Vassar. I turned in my acceptance and tried to think positively.

I can’t believe how arrogant the college elitism in my environment had made me. After all the fuss, Fordham was really the perfect match for me. The 37 students of my small honors program are the most genuine and down-to-earth people I’ve met, as well as being astoundingly smart. Not a single one of my classes has been larger than 30 students, and every one of my professors has known me by name. As a freshman, I was allowed to sign up for as many upper level courses as I wanted, and my advisor went out of his way to help me customize my schedule. The combination of my small program and the larger size of the school has created a combination of coziness and opportunity, and living in a green campus within New York City allows my friends and I to spend an afternoon playing frisbee on a beautiful quad and be in the city seeing a show only hours later. Next fall I’ll be interning at the Metropolitan Museum, which has been a dream of mine for years, and would have been impossible without the support and recommendations of my amazing professors.

If this sounds like an advertisement for Fordham, it’s only because I want to let the stressed out, pressured high school seniors of the world know that it will be all right, even if you end up in an unexpected place. There is a world of schools that your friends aren’t talking about, that you haven’t been pushed towards, that are just as good as (if not better than!) the expensive, exclusive ones that you’re pulling all-nighters for. A fancy name can get you far, but not as far as the genuine success and confidence that you’ll get from going to the right school for you, whatever that may be. At my school, I have been challenged and given opportunities to shine in ways that I might not have had I been in a more competitive, stifling environment, and I don’t have to worry about graduating with student loans hanging over my head. The money that my family had saved for my college tuition can instead be used to help me study abroad, or pay for grad school.

I’m going to be a freshman orientation leader this year, so I get to go back to school early. I said get to, not have to, because I can’t wait to be back. What was once a dreaded safety school has become my home.