Campus & Community

The student perspective

4 min read

A Harvard freshman tells urban middle schoolers to dream big

After five months at Harvard, here I was back at middle school. My mission this time: to inform eighth graders about Harvard and the college admissions process.

I walked into a loud classroom of kids and immediately knew this was going to be a long hour. I had really forgotten how much energy middle-school kids have, a pure form of excitement that nothing can extinguish, not even authority.

The teacher introduced me and I started to present, reading from a sheet of paper. Within seconds, I knew this was not going to hold their attention. So I started again. And that worked better.

By the end of my presentation, the students had made goals they wanted to accomplish in high school, from joining the track team to trying a new activity every year to asking for help in dealing with a crack-addicted father. They went from saying “I just want to drop out of school now” to “I could see myself in college.” It’s amazing, the potential middle-school kids have, if you just meet them where they are and encourage their dreams.

Over the January break I worked with the admissions office in an effort to recruit more minority students for Harvard. Although the College tries to recruit a diverse campus community, many underprivileged and minority students simply do not hear about Harvard as an option, or they are discouraged from applying because of misconceptions about the admission process and financial aid program.

As a result, many students are convinced that they could not get in and, even if they could, that they could not afford it. Harvard to them is a mystery, an unachievable goal, an impossibility.

To help change these perspectives, I went to 13 high schools and two middle schools in the San Francisco Bay area that have large minority populations.

Many of the stories I heard throughout my trip were heartbreaking. I learned about abusive brothers, drug-addicted family members, evictions. Understandably, many of these students had given up. College was the last thing they were thinking of.

But as I talked more about my experience going through the application process and attending Harvard, their blank faces began to engage. They started to realize there was a way out. And the questions began to change, from “What was your SAT score?” to “What is it like being a minority student on campus?,” from “Did your parents go to Harvard?” to “Do you feel the professors are accessible?” After I explained Harvard’s application process, which takes the whole person into account, and its generous financial aid packages, I could tell that it no longer seemed impossible. I could see hope on their faces.

“Wow, I’m not saying I can get in, but I want to try.”

“Harvard seems more like a possibility.”

“I have new motivation to work hard.”

The students’ comments at the end were the highlight of my trip, and made me realize that I was making an impact. Now, several weeks later, I am still getting emails from students asking for advice, saying thank you, and asking questions. I hope next fall when application season rolls around, I can continue to try to be a resource to these students.

The undergraduate minority recruitment program is about more than just recruiting students who may feel that selective colleges are not for them; it’s also about continuing to mentor these students.

On my visits, I tried to give the advice that I needed in high school. I tried to show the students that there are many paths that could lead them to Harvard, to other selective schools, or in new directions, and that what seemed out of reach could be in their grasp.