Nathaniel French

Excellence without the ivy

A few weeks ago, my brother Sam found out his early application to Yale University had been deferred. In March, he'll get a final yes or no. But the answer should not be the final word on whether he gets an excellent education and finds fulfillment in college.

Sam is the smartest person I know. He's at the top of his class, and he's already aced four Advanced Placement tests. His SAT scores are among the best nationwide.

Smart as Sam is, his real passion is the theater. He's had two plays published, he recently won $10,000 for his acting in the Walker's Rising Stars scholarship program and he began a children's performance troupe to bring plays to local elementary schools. I don't mean to brag, but my brother's hot stuff. He's everything colleges like Yale say they're looking for.

This past month, kids all over the country who applied early to competitive schools got denied. Most were probably disappointed; I know Sam was, even though he's been remarkably upbeat about the whole thing. As someone who went through the same frustration three years ago, I'm sure they're wondering, "What more does it take?"

It's hard to be turned down for something you really want. For kids who have worked hard to get straight A's since preschool and have driven themselves to remarkable achievements, it's especially tough.

For me, Harvard was the dream. I walked out of my admission interview confident that I'd floored them with my discussion of neo-Keynesian economics and Rawlsian political theory. I was going to go to Harvard and change the world thanks to the experiences and connections I made there. But my early application was deferred and later denied for regular decision.

I was left to choose between Macalester College, a liberal arts school in St. Paul, Minn., and the University of Florida. To me, the choice was simple: Macalester, one of Newsweek's "New Ivies," would give me opportunities a public university never could. It wasn't Harvard, but it was in the academic elite. It was where someone like me was supposed to go.

When I got there, I was miserable. I thought I was homesick and so I set to work, thinking I'd get over it eventually. But as the year wore on, I realized it was something time couldn't change: My classes challenged my head but not my heart. I wasn't creating anything I could be proud of. I wasn't having any fun.

I had put so much pressure on myself to go somewhere like Harvard or Macalester that I had ignored all the other options out there. I felt like anything "less" would be a failure. I had never stopped to ask, "Is this really what I want from life?"

After making an honest assessment of what I wanted from my education, I transferred to Southern Methodist University in Texas to study acting and playwriting. I immediately felt at home. The campus was more inviting, and the student body was more relaxed. More importantly, I was doing something I loved all day, every day. After three semesters, SMU is still the perfect fit. I'm much happier now than I've ever been. I've learned who I am and what I want to become.

In the past few years, I've worked and studied with students from all kinds of schools. I know an SMU theater student who rides around campus on a unicycle while juggling bean bags who is getting a second major in business so he can start his own magic company. I know someone at Kenyon College who's producing his own Web series. I know a stage management student at Columbia University who did her undergrad work at Bryn Mawr in urban planning and lights up whenever someone asks her about the elegance of math.

I've got friends who have attended schools ranging from big universities like Florida, Texas, and Minnesota, to small colleges like Hope, Guilford, and Smith. Each is smart, interesting and driven, and I've learned something from all of them.

As this year's high school seniors start hearing back from colleges, they shouldn't pin all of their hopes on one or two dream schools. The college application process is competitive, and many outstanding students won't get into their first choice. After the initial disappointment wears off, I hope they'll see they still have some exciting options.

I don't know what it takes to get into an Ivy League school. But I do know it doesn't take an Ivy League degree to get a great education.

Nathaniel French is a 2007 graduate of Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg and attends Southern Methodist University.

Excellence without the ivy 12/31/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 5, 2010 6:31pm]

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