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Left in the Dark
When it came to college, I waited too long before asking for help
Shameka Vincent
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It was mid-October of my senior year, and it was the first time I’d been called into my guidance counselor’s office.

“Do you plan on going to college?” he asked.

“Of course!” I answered excitedly.

“Have you applied yet?” I was shocked that he thought I’d done it on my own. I replied “no,” hoping he’d get the message that I needed help.

“Well, what are you waiting for? Applications are due around December.”

“What…where do I go for this?” I asked.

“Just pick a school and go to their website and apply. If you need help, the college adviser’s always available.”

And that was it. The conversation I’d been waiting for since the first day of high school, over in five minutes.

“Just sign this before you go,” he said, handing me a pink sheet. It was a letter of confirmation stating that he’d done his job and talked to me about college. Before I even left the room his face was buried in a pile of papers. I felt as if I was just another name on the list he could now cross out. He didn’t even notice that I never signed on my way out.

Not Serious About the Future

I think that was when I started to give up on the college application process. Everyone I needed to help me was too busy. No one was serious about my future, and I thought that meant I didn’t have to be, either.

For years, I had dreamed of attending an Ivy League university. I wanted to believe I was capable of so much, but I thought no one else felt the same. I was afraid of failure, of seeming vulnerable or weak. I was afraid of rejection.

So I threw the Columbia University application to the side (Columbia was my top choice school). Then, just a week before it was due, I started to panic and decided to fill it out after all.

When I finally looked closely at the application, I had to hold back the tears. Although my grades were decent, I had responses for less than half the things the application asked for. My school hadn’t prepared me for this.

I was shocked to see that the application was so big on community service, asking for letters of recommendation from people other than high school teachers, and questioning the applicants about world events. Had I known, I would have gotten way more involved in community and school organizations, interned during high school for real businesses, and at least once in a while picked up the newspaper or watched the news for reasons other than my horoscope or the weather forecast.

I couldn’t complete the application, so I felt that, as far as college and my future were concerned, I was screwed.

It Was All Over

image by Patricia Battles

Although most of the application was blank, I still took it to my college adviser. Once she saw what school I was trying to apply to, she immediately turned me away. Now I understand why. Columbia is an Ivy League school. A school for the students who were prepared and serious about their education and future. How serious could I have been, coming to her a week before the deadline with a half-empty application?

My dream of attending an Ivy League university was what motivated me to work so hard in school, even when things were falling apart at home. Being accepted would show the world that I had made it in spite of all the obstacles. Now it was all over.

Fending for Myself

I was upset, and I had to blame someone. I chose to blame my high school. What was the point of having guidance counselors and college advisers? The adults in my school had taught me very little about college and absolutely nothing about the application process.

Before the meeting with my counselor, the only information coming from my school about college was a few boring lectures from a handful of teachers and a once-in-a-blue-moon college assembly given by the college adviser. They didn’t really think that was going to cut it, did they?

I needed to know exactly what colleges would be asking for and how to pace myself and stay on track so that I could provide them with what they wanted. No one ever broke all that down for me.

Was I the only one who had been left in the dark? I decided to find out. I surveyed my classmates to see who had gotten help and why. The conclusions: Out of the 32 students present in my Advanced Placement (AP) English class, only eight had guidance counselors or college advisers seek them out and assist them in the college application process throughout their entire four years of high school. All of them belonged to the honors program and five out of those eight had parents who spoke with these advisers regularly.

The other 24 of us in the AP class, along with the students in my regular science class, were forced to fend for ourselves.

No One to Turn To

By April, it was way past application deadlines and some of us still hadn’t applied to college. One boy told me he didn’t even know there was a deadline to apply to college. Get this: he thought you could apply whenever you wanted. Another girl didn’t even know most colleges required taking the SAT or ACT.

The fact is many students don’t have anyone besides their school to turn to for help with college. In my case, my mom passed away when I was young and my dad abandoned the family soon after. Even if they’d been around, I’m not sure my parents even completed high school.

With the chaos of going into foster care, no one seemed able to help me prepare for college. All my aunts and uncles always told me it was a must, but then just sent me back to school to find out how. Once again in my life I felt abandoned, and this made me not want to trust anyone.

Afraid of Failure

It wasn’t until all the college deadlines had passed that I realized it was my own self that had been holding me back, too. I had to admit that I hadn’t made much of an effort to get the help I needed. I asked myself: Is it the responsibility of the school to make sure we’re fully aware of the college application process, or does the responsibility fall in the hands of the students ourselves?

Now I think that completing the college application should be a shared responsibility. It is the job of the college adviser to explain the process to every student. The school should make sure we all have a concrete plan for our lives after high school, and help us make the transition. But it’s also up to us.

Rewinding the Clock

If I could go back in time, I’d do it all differently. Freshman year, I’d immediately meet with my guidance counselor and college adviser just to let them know I’m interested in college and start asking questions about the requirements. Maybe I’d join a sports team or school organization where I could build my leadership skills. I’d start watching the news and reading the newspaper. I’d research colleges and sign up for campus tours to start figuring out which college was right for me and what it takes to get there.

I’d decide on my top choices by the end of my junior year, and as soon as my senior year started I’d meet with my guidance counselor and the college adviser, who would already know me well because I would’ve been meeting regularly with them since freshman year. Together, we’d be filling in the blanks of the college applications.

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(FCYU-2008-09-04b)



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