Wednesday, December 16, 2015

An Ivy League Dropout Due to Jeans, Not Genes

By:  Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

My first school counseling job was in a rural town, far away from the major city where I was born and the suburbs where I finished high school.  A few years after leaving that job, I heard that a neighboring high school of that rural town had sent their first-ever graduate to an Ivy League college.  The success turned out to be brief, however, as the student came home for Christmas vacation, and never went back.

There are all kinds of reasons students change colleges, but this one is particularly sad, at least to me.  The reason this student left her college had nothing to do with roommates, or classes that were too hard, or even a broken heart.  She came home because the brilliant students at this wonderful college made fun of her rural background, and her lack of worldly ways.  “Everyone made fun of the jeans she was wearing” her counselor told me, shaking his head.

That story came to mind last week, when another counselor and I were discussing Justice Scalia’s remarks at a Supreme Court hearing about the need for many students of color to attend less challenging colleges.  Counselors usually try to give people the benefit of the doubt, so even though this statement was appalling in so many ways, I was trying to figure out some way that it wasn’t as bad as it sounded.

My colleague assured me it was as bad as it sounded, but then he offered this.  “When I was working at the admissions office at a highly selective college, and we received an application from a student from a very poor school, we only looked for one thing—sophistication.  If we took this student, we knew they were going to be exposed to all kinds of new ideas in the classroom, but they were also going to be exposed to different political ideas, lifestyle choices, foods, and people they’ve never seen before.  Sure, they had to be smart, but that meant nothing if they weren’t sophisticated.”

There are other words to describe this quality—flexible, accepting, resilient-- but I knew exactly what my colleague meant.  It helped me understand more of what that rural girl was feeling when she was being mocked for wearing the wrong jeans.  She had the brains to make it in an Ivy League classroom; she just didn’t have the wherewithal to make it in the Ivy League hallways.  She knew she had some growing up to do, and, all things considered, that was fair.  Given all they had been exposed to, her Ivy League classmates had a different kind of growing up to do, but she was unwilling to let their need to mature come at her personal expense.

I’d like to think Justice Scalia really meant to talk about sophistication last week, about the need to make sure students are picking colleges where they will find the right mix of challenge, opportunity, and support, both in and out of the classroom.  Finding that fit is our job, and we’re smart enough to know fit transcends gender, race, age, and background.  Lining up the right college is an individual process, and that’s why it takes time, knowledge, and insight to create the right mix of art and science that is college counseling.  It’s why some students end up at Ivy League schools, and why some students from the same high school end up at public universities—and all of them end up happy.

We’re smart enough to know that.  I just wish Justice Scalia had been that smart, too.


  1. Perhaps when looking for sophistication in the students with financial need, colleges could do a better job of screening those students who may be intolerant, haughty, and arrogant.

  2. Wow. You nailed it. Many years ago I turned down some "advanced" colleges, I thought, because of money, but deep down, a fly-in to one drove home that "sophisticated" for Killbuck, Ohio felt like a refugee in that exquisite, but utterly foreign campus culture. I've often wished that the fly-in organizers had thought to include a session where students from nontraditional backgrounds could share their experiences, share what if any resources were on campus to help with the transition, and address the undercurrents that I was sensing but wasn't yet mature enough to process. Then again, maybe because they didn't, I ended up at just the right college fit for me, despite my complete ignorance and my school/community's lack of college advising resources? I don't know, but your piece drives home the need for "sophisticated" (aka formally trained and/or experienced) college counselors in ALL of our schools, especially the ones that currently have the least resources. Thanks, Patrick.

  3. Great point, about needing the sophistication/resilience/openness to a new social milieu. I experienced some of the same sense of foreign-ness myself, coming from a low-income (though not first- gen college) background.

    And, I couldn't believe I was hearing a Supreme Court justice say what Scalia said.

  4. I was somewhat appalled by that story about looking for low income students who were "sophisticated". To me, it sounded like the assumption was that lower income people were hicks who had ideas that needed to be somehow "raised", and they had to be open to being changed into the image of their "upper-class" peers at the college, because, obviously, they shouldn't remain lower class hicks. What an arrogant mind set. Perhaps the hicks would actually have something to teach the others.