Do you really make an impact?

After already living out most of my college career, it was time for my high school best friend to pick the college of her dreams. She had narrowed it down to two choices. Since I lived in the dorms, I didn’t get to visit her as often as I used to. But now it was Spring Break and I was back in my home town of Huntington Park.

By the time I reached her house it was nearing sunset; we sat in front of her front steps. I knew I didn’t know enough anymore to speak about her personal life, so our conversation steered towards the college decision process. She had been excited about both UCLA and UC Berkeley, and I had gifted her a Bruins banner I knew she would adore.

As an academically accomplished woman, she had many mentors in her life. When scholarship companies were deciding who would be the best community ROI (return on investment), they had decided Katia* was the best bet. I may have been the top mentor in her life at one point, but that time had long passed. Everyone wanted to say they helped her. Because there was no doubt she was going to be successful in life, everyone wanted to at least say they played a part in that.

Her older brother had already been successful as captain of the Academic Decathlon, but she quickly surpassed him in high school achievements. These two big acceptances were the inevitable result of her great work ethic and her counselors helping her fill out her applications. I did offer my help on them, but by the time I saw them they were already polished enough to where I didn’t have to do anything.

When she received her acceptance letter to UCLA, one of her mentors, a UCLA grad herself, was ecstatic. She immediately offered to connect her with anyone in case she had any questions.

By the time I visited her, what would be left? She had already visited both campuses and probably had enough information to decide. My head couldn’t stop sending me this nagging signal that I had to do something to be useful. That’s who I am; I love being helpful. I figured there was still something I could contribute to her decision. I still wanted Karen to be a part of my life. Even if we never became as close as we were in high school, I wanted to know how she was doing and be able to connect to her.

Our connection was already getting thinner and thinner. Although I loved politics (and I still do), she wasn’t interested in connecting it to other disciplines like science. I tried to explain why it mattered but in the end she bluntly stated, “I just don’t care enough about science.” I stopped pushing the point and moved on to talk about more practical political stuff like voter registration drives.

That was it. That was the key. If I can stand out among the sea of opinionated people, it would be to talk about politics. I already knew she wanted to be a political science major and I knew that not all political science departments were created equal. UCLA has a huge activist political scene and their politics are more radical than other colleges. UC Berkeley still has activism, but it is also near Sacramento, so it is more accessible to Capitol internships and such. (Note: If you are reading this and thinking What a gross oversimplification! , keep in mind I didn’t attend any of these colleges and I was speaking about this as a 19-year-old without the same knowledge I have today.)

Therefore, I told her that if she wanted to do community organizing, UCLA would be a great choice and that I knew UCLA graduates who got into activism. If she wanted to try a more bureaucratic approach, UC Berkeley might have more connections to make it happen for her.

Then came the kicker. What I knew needed to be said because it could change the type of person she became altogether. My college roommate said it first, and I have to admit its held true over time. She’s said, “Everyone that I know that has graduated from UCLA has turned into a communist.” (Again, hello conservative UCLA students. I’m sure you exist… but I haven’t met you. Stereotypes exist for a reason.) And if there’s one thing Katia hated, it was communists. She was always the kind of patriotic woman who would cheer on the United States even if the rest of the city rooted for Mexico. The kind of person communists make fun of in their memes. The person who starts their sentences with, “Even though communism sounds great in practice…”. You know how that ends.  I recited my roommate’s observation verbatim. Her expression was doubtful at first but then she admitted she’s seen that trend too.

I can’t say she had an epiphany, because that would be overstating my influence. When I left her house that day she was still undecided.

By this point, she was ready to go to a college based on a coin flip. Tails was UC Berkeley and Heads was UCLA. Whatever it landed, she would go to it. She juggled the coin in her hand, still not 100% sure whether she should give it all that power. But soon enough, she flipped the coin. It landed heads. Instantly, she yelled out: “Nooooo!!”. That’s when she knew where she needed to go.

*Not her real name

Review of Colleges that Change Lives

Bottom Line: Colleges that Change Lives is a refreshing and re-invigorating look at the college guide genre. It suffers from a lack of California options and frank discussions on financial aid.

Most books in the college guide genre have money sign logos indicating that a school is a “great value”, fun-fact information boxes and admissions stats right below each entry’s name. Colleges that Change Lives by Lauren Pope eschews all that in favor of a novel approach. Purposefully, this book asks its readers to contemplate each college individually through an elegantly written narrative. Each college is described through its setting and the words of its teachers and students. No attention is put on its score in the national ranking and admission statistics are mentioned only to give hope to those who are interested in applying.

Colleges that change lives has renewed my belief in a liberal arts education. In these past three years since graduating, it has become easy to get caught up in the hype over technical education, “fast-track” degree options and MOOCs (Massively Online Open Courses). News reports highlight college students with a high amount of debt and high level of underemployment. Many of the schools in this book have a required 1st year curriculum. They laugh at that idea of underclass courses as “GEs you get out of the way”. In these schools, first year courses are a chance to become intellectually stimulated, time to spend pondering the biggest questions humankind has ever faced.

I am fortunate to have attended a college with a comparable experience to that in the book. I took the CORE interdisciplinary critical thinking course sequence, built amazing relationships with my professors and lived in a dorm ranked number 1 in the nation by the Princeton Review.

This book reminds me to always introduce liberal arts colleges as an option, particularly in my community of Huntington Park, where they might not be as well known. Students need to focus on finding their fit, which might be closer to the colleges listed in the book instead of the “big name” schools of USC and UCLA.

My criticism of this book comes in the fact that “only” one college is from California. To me I feel it makes it seemed biased and it reduces its usefulness in my everyday work. For many reasons, there are always students here who are going to want to stay locally and who need  the money a Cal Grant can give them.

When doing my junior action plan, this book has been absolutely instrumental when figuring out how to best serve Jesse Gomez. This is a student with a 2~ GPA but that seemed willing to do whatever it takes to succeed. He showed his potential by having a 20 on the ACT, the 3rd highest score in  his class. He wasn’t on the initial list of students teachers nominated for the M3 math competition. However, during the parent meeting I presented in, his mom came up to me afterwards and asked about opportunities for her son. She said, “He loves math”. I informed her of the upcoming math competition and I promised that  I would inform him about it. He eagerly joined the math team and worked hard preparing for the big day. While I was coaching the team, it was clear to me that he was one of the most talented members.

The book labels these kinds of students as late-bloomers. It offers hope for them to get admitted into college. Every college in the book, except for Reed College, accepts more than 50% of their applicants. This in itself changed my preconceived notions about the correlation between college admissions and college quality. I used to think that the more selective a college is, the more worth it is to attend.

Additionally, I wish the information provided included more of the financial aid available to students. Most of my students are low-income and so I would like the book to have addressed how generous their financial aid packages are when evaluating the quality of the school. If the schools don’t have as much money, it would have been good to learn that upfront so that students with a higher need could easily move on.

All in all, this is a book I see myself photocopying excerpts of on a regular basis, once I do more research on the featured colleges’ financial aid. It also inspired me to find colleges that fit this sort of “changes lives” label that stay within California.