SAN DIEGO – It’s that time of year when anxious high school seniors assess their worth by checking their email.
The nation’s colleges and universities are announcing their decisions. At prestigious schools like Stanford, Yale and Princeton, one out of every 20 applicants is admitted.
No wonder so many people are picking up the recent book by Frank Bruni, “Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania.” The New York Times columnist presents a truth that many of us learned from a brutal teacher: life.
As Bruni writes: “Where we go to college will have infinitely less bearing on our fulfillment in life than so much else: The wisdom with which we choose our romantic partners; our interactions with the communities that we inhabit; our generosity toward the families we inherit and the families that we make.”
All true – especially the part about choosing a partner, who will either lift you up or pull you down.
Recently, my wife and I were having dinner with my college roommate and his wife. Both of us have young children. My old friend raised a provocative question.
“Which would you prefer?” he asked. “That your kids grow up to go to Harvard like we did, or that they grow up to be good people?”
I had the same answer he did: good people.
Growing up in the hardscrabble farm land of Central California, it meant a lot to our families that we went to the Ivy League. It would mean less if our children went there. Besides, as a lawyer and a journalist, my friend and I have probably met more Ivy League graduates than “good people.”
Still, we all want our children to have an unlimited sense of possibility. And so I recently took my 11-year-old daughter to visit 10 schools through the Ivy League Project, a privately run program that introduces Latino students to East Coast universities. Students pay a fee, which they get from family, friends and fundraising.
I know the program. Martin Mares, the executive director, is a retired educator who 25 years ago invited me to speak at Parlier High School. Like much of Central California, Parlier is overwhelmingly Latino and economically disadvantaged. As I talked about the Ivy League, the students’ eyes seemed to glaze over. So, at one point, I said: “I wish I could take all of you on a field trip to visit those schools. Your consciousness would expand.”
Inspired by those two sentences, Mares overcame obstacles, ignored skeptics and built a leadership empire that has taken a few thousand teenagers in three states (California, Texas and Arizona) to visit colleges and universities, including several in the Ivy League. Students meet with undergraduates, eat in the dining hall, hear from admissions officers, tour the grounds. Riding on a charter bus, over the course of a week, they visit historical sites in Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston.
In the last 25 years, more than 250 of these students have been admitted to and attended private East Coast schools, and more than 1,500 have attended state colleges.
My daughter will have to chart her own course, and I’m fine with whatever she chooses as long as she gives it her best effort. She loved her dad’s alma mater. But I made sure she understood that, to get there, she will have to work hard just like I did. Most of all, I think, she enjoyed spending a week on the road with her dad.
Still, Bruni said it right. Most people elected president in the last 30 years have degrees from the Ivy League – usually Yale or Harvard. Even Donald Trump brags that he went to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Yet we all know successful people who attended state colleges and universities.
Which raises the question: What does it mean to be successful? I used to think it was doing what you love. Now I think it’s being able to juggle all your roles – son, daughter, parent, spouse, etc.
Do this well and, one day, when you go to your rest and loved ones say a few kind words on your behalf, maybe they'll mention that, above all, you had a positive impact on others. In the end, that’s what matters.
I didn’t learn this in the Ivy League. I picked it up somewhere else, along the road. And I’m immensely grateful. It’s been one of life’s most valuable lessons.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.