In high school, Annie Garment ’04 founded the Cancer Awareness Club at National Cathedral School in Washington, D.C. Every other month, she said, she put flyers in her classmates’ boxes about upcoming cancer fund-raising events — events even she was not planning to attend.
“Sophomore year we realized we were competing with each other for spots in college. It became a matter of ‘who can found the most meaningless clubs,'” Garment said. “We all founded clubs. Mine was cancer awareness.”
On the other coast, Marcelino Pantoja ’05 also did volunteer work to pad his college resume. But unlike Garment, he worked construction jobs with his father during the school year to help support his family, too.
Pantoja’s parents only went to school through second grade. And at Pantoja’s high school in Tracy, Calif., students were hardly in a cutthroat race for spots at the nation’s elite universities — less than a quarter of the student body went on to four-year colleges at all.
As Yale President Richard Levin pointed out last December when he urged the elimination of early admission programs, the American college admissions process has become an obsession.
In some communities, the focus on gaining admission to the nation’s elite colleges begins almost from the cradle. There is a $10,200 “gifted kindergarten” program at the Ivy League School in Smithtown, N.Y., and “Yale Class of 20??” baby shirts in the Yale Bookstore.
But a bigger concern with the admissions process, Levin said, is that the system still discriminates against students from lower-income and less-educated households and communities. Nevertheless, some manage to overcome the inequities.
Alongside the students for whom the path to prestigious schools is marked out from childhood exists another group of students who beat the odds to make it to Yale. These students come from families in which neither parent has gone to college, from high schools with no college counselors, and from neighborhoods ridden with crime.
First in the family
Basil Williams’ ’04 father did not graduate from college, but he had high hopes for his son.
“He always said that I wasn’t allowed to think of any school besides an Ivy League one, but I never believed him,” Williams said.
Of the students accepted to Yale for the incoming Class of 2006, 11.1 percent come from families in which neither parent or guardian graduated from college, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid Richard Shaw said. He said the proportion for current undergraduates is comparable.
Pantoja said his father, who does not speak English, had high expectations.
“My dad was adamant about me getting better grades and performing better in school regardless of whether I had to work construction with him,” Pantoja said. “Basically he told me, and by my experience with those working conditions I knew, the only way to get out of it was to do better academically.”
Pantoja made it to Yale, but sociology professor Joseph Soares said the percentage of students who come from families in which the parents have no college education has fallen dramatically over the last half century. Soares attributes the decline to the ability of top universities to attract and admit affluent students from around the country, rather than a cross-section within their own region.
Counseling falls short
Before Katie Young was hired at Tracy High School last fall, there was no college counseling office.
Young said her school’s culture discourages students from attending college.
“If their parents haven’t gone to college or graduated from high school, college is not in their frame of reference,” Young said.
Pantoja said the guidance counselors tried their best to help the students, but with 500 students per counselor there was too much work to leave time for individual attention for every person.
Deborah Head and one assistant counsel 870 seniors at Garfield High School, which is in a low-income neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Head said some parents don’t want their children going to college far from home.
“For one particular group, the stress is having their parents allow them to go where they want to,” Head said. “Some want to go farther away in California, or to an elite college, but their parent doesn’t have an understanding of why Cal State-L.A. isn’t good enough.”
Alex Bribriesco ’04 said most of the college-bound students from his Iowa high school attend Iowa State University or nearby community colleges. When he told his guidance counselors that he wanted to apply to an Ivy League school they discouraged the idea.
“They tried to get me to apply to other places instead because they didn’t think I could get in,” Bribriesco said.
If their mothers are strict, Williams’ friends from home are working minimum-wage jobs. If their parents are more lenient, they are selling drugs on the corner.
“I just moved out of the projects,” Williams said. “My father made me go to Catholic school for high school because I missed too many days in junior high, they were trying to hold me back a year, and I was getting straight C’s. All my friends were having sex and starting to do drugs.”
Williams said that he misses his friends from home, but is beginning to feel a distance between himself and his friends in the Bronx.
“I love it when I go back,” Williams said. “But now there is [tension.] At first when I left there was a big block party because everyone was happy that I was doing something positive — but now when I go back, I start to see some jealousy and people think that I act like I am better than them.”
Shaw said that for the Class of 2006, Yale accepted students from 177 high schools who have not sent any students to Yale in the last three graduating classes.
Michael Montano ’03 was the only person from his school to come to an Ivy League college in the last four years. He said his acceptance to Yale changed the dynamic within his circle of friends.
“From the day I found out, and the day my friends found out, I stopped being Montano, which is what they called me, and I became ‘the Yalie,'” Montano said.
Candace Douglas ’04 lives in a largely immigrant New York City neighborhood. Neither of her parents graduated from college, but they value education and sent their daughter to Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass.
Douglas said her friends from junior high have vastly different priorities from hers.
“They look at school differently than we do. Andover was very big on honor code, and Yale is as well, and my friends would talk about copying tests and papers, and it would rub me the wrong way,” Douglas said. “They look at me completely differently now, and they try to figure out what was so different about me that I ended up where I am.”
The sticker price
In her experience, Young said, students like Pantoja are exceptions rather than the norm.
“For a student from a disadvantaged background to overcome those odds and make it into Yale, it takes other circumstances,” Young said. “It takes a family pushing them; it takes an awareness of aid.”
Young said the lack of understanding about financial aid is a widespread problem.
“Many students think they can’t afford it,” Young said. “They say, ‘My parents can’t pay $30,000, I can’t go there.'”
Levin said the University has been struggling for years with the intimidation caused by the Yale price tag.
“That’s a constant concern, the concern about whether our high sticker price discourages applications,” Levin said. “We try to get the information out that we do give substantial financial aid and [that] our aim is to make it possible for every family to afford it.”
But even for students who do apply and are accepted, sometimes the aid packages are not sufficient for the needs of the family.
Heidi Burns, a sophomore with a merit scholarship at the University of Virginia, did not come to Yale because her mother and stepfather were not willing to pay the tuition. Burns comes to Yale every couple of months to visit her high school boyfriend.
“There was a lot of tension about how to pursue a relationship with a parent who could possibly not support you in a decision like that,” Burns said. “Yale was my first choice — Occasionally I’m bitter.”
This year, Yale approved a new financial aid policy that will decrease the amount students must contribute by an average of $13,780 over four years.
The move followed Princeton University’s January 2001 decision to replace student loans with grants. The change also came after Yale saw the percentage of its student body on financial aid decline from about 44 percent in 1994 to 37 percent last year.
“I think the combination of better information being disseminated and some reform of the early decision regime ought to help them with the [decline],” Levin said. “And if we do both those things and we still see some erosion, that suggests we ought to do more in the area of financial aid.”
But Soares said the admissions office knows it has to be careful with how much it recruits in low-income neighborhoods.
“They’re trying to get the best talented class, but also the best talented class that can pay to keep the tuition at the right level,” Soares said. “Yale is never going to be 50 percent of students from inner city schools — it can’t afford to be.”
Shaw, however, said Yale does not limit its recruiting because of financial concerns. While he said these considerations may be important at tuition-driven schools, Shaw said it is “absolutely incorrect” to apply them to Yale.
“We are not in the least bit driven by concerns of ability to pay,” Shaw said. “We are need-blind and need-based. We recruit everyone and everywhere, and we spend a lot of time in inner cities.”
Shaw said Yale treats illegal immigrants as international students applying from their country of citizenship, and would put together their aid packages from University grants. But Head said a lack of residency status prevents many of her students from going to other colleges because the students are not eligible for federal aid.
“You have the kids who are qualified to go to a top school, but they’re not documented,” Head said, referring to the 10 percent of her students who are illegal immigrants. “My second-highest student, who has a GPA of 4.2, hasn’t been accepted any place she’s applied so far because she’s not documented legally.”
The Vanderbilt Ritz
Once he made it to New Haven, Pantoja said he had no trouble adjusting to Yale.
“The transition was smooth and it was for the better,” Pantoja said. “I feel like my life has become more exciting.”
And he says the living accommodations are an added bonus.
“I know how it feels to live in a shack all my life,” he said. “I’m living in a small little dorm in Vanderbilt [Hall], but this is luxury compared to what I used to live in.”
Pantoja said that even though he comes from a background radically different from most of the people around him, he has found that in some ways he has more in common with them than he had with the students at his old school.
“In terms of the pursuit of looking for a better life, they’re more like me,” Pantoja said. “Yes, we’re still all different, but our drive to want to become successful is the same.”
For Williams, coming to Yale was more of a shock.
“To be honest, I have never been around so many white people before in my life,” Williams said. “It was difficult at first.”
Pantoja said he has felt that many of the students at Yale do not realize how fortunate they are to be here.
“I do believe that a lot of kids here do not appreciate what they have. I don’t want to say it’s their fault — they were raised like that,” Pantoja said. “By sheer luck, I was raised in a poverty environment.”
Pantoja said he was incredulous that he would go to school with kids “who have the ability to find the cure for cancer,” but said he is not worried about keeping up.
“I have nothing to lose, really,” Pantoja said. “I could just as easily have been like my cousins, who are 18 and living in Mexico, married. I’m not worried about not keeping up because I don’t have that luxury. I spend my time studying my homework rather than worrying about if I’m going to make it.”
What the future holds
A few years ago, Williams did not want to go to a Catholic high school.
“I was lazy, and I knew if I went to public high school I didn’t have to do a damn thing,” he said.
But now he has changed his outlook: Williams is pre-med and wants to be an ophthalmologist.
Pantoja said he made it to Yale because he has big dreams.
“Basically what I’m doing is beyond anybody’s dreams in my family, and beyond what my dad even thought I would do,” he said.
As for his own future plans, Pantoja said he has high aspirations.
“I’d like to go to Harvard or Yale Law [Schools]. A lot of people say it’s too hard or you can’t make it,” Pantoja said. “But it’s no different from the kids who were telling me in high school, ‘Oh why apply to the Ivy League — you’ll never make it.'”