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My College Cloud
Kenneth Douglas
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That big, dark cloud had been coming toward me for some time now. I had no clue what to do about it, and when I finally did start to reach for an umbrella, it seemed too late. But that’s only because I’d never seen a cloud like it before.

That cloud was college. As it approached it flooded me with a downpour of paperwork and deadlines, and it didn’t feel good. I hadn’t a clue how to begin taking on this challenge—how to pick a college, how to apply, what to do about financial aid.

On top of all that, I didn’t even want to go to college. I like learning. But between the agonizing application process and the idea of paying thousands of dollars to go to school, the door of opportunity seemed unreachable. So sometimes the solution seemed to be not to go at all.

But I didn’t want my dream to get washed away. For my dream job—a video game developer for Square Enix (the people who bring us the Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts series) or my own company—I need skills that I just don’t have right now, like C++ (a computer language) and knowing how to run a business. I need higher education for that.

Refrigerator Repair?

But what colleges might be best for my goal? And would they accept me? Could I afford it? Where could I get the information I need?

My mother isn’t much help. She was born in Guyana and didn’t go to college, or to an American high school. In Guyana, many people only go to school until they’re 16. Then they go to a trade school or start working, or if they pass an exam, go to senior secondary school.

My grandmother has plenty of advice. She constantly tells me I need to learn to fix fridges and heaters, so I can make a lot of money. But I don’t have any kind of fixing talent and don’t care to develop any.

My brother Kevin, who went to Brooklyn Tech HS, is in college at Florida A & M University (FAMU). But we don’t get along. So I don’t listen to his advice, which consists of tips like, “Look for a school in a climate you like,” and “Make sure there are enough dorms.”

‘Step Right Up!’

My high school, Benjamin Banneker Academy, hasn’t given me the help I’ve sought either. It’s had a few college-based events, but no one there ever sat down with me and said, “OK, this is what you’ll need to know for college, and this is what they’ll expect from you.”

What they have done is hand out letters congratulating us on becoming seniors, and telling us how it’s our and our parents’ responsibility to get us out of the school in June and into a college.

My school used to throw a college fair each year. But they really should’ve called it a “college circus.” There were dozens of booths set up, everyone showing something flashy to get your attention.

Offers just flying at you left and right: “Step right up, come and get your Ivy League! Hurry, hurry, hurry, we’re almost out of small, personal campuses!” It even had that carney smell. But maybe that’s just because it was held in the gym.

I remember how even in a gym filled with people I felt alone, because it all seemed so foreign to me. That was in 10th grade. Last year, in 11th grade, when I should’ve begun college consideration, none of my classes were scheduled to go to the college circus. And this year we didn’t even have one.

The Same Form Five Times

But this September my school established the College Advisory Team (CAT), made up of two teacher-advisors and three counselors. CAT’s mission is to “give all students [seniors] the opportunity to get into college,” according to Mr. Ellis, one of the advisors.

While their efforts are sound (they make time for personal meetings with seniors and keep profiles on us), they aren’t much of a team yet.

I’ve had to fill out the same form four times for three of them (twice for the same advisor) and when the fifth time came I asked one of them, “Does CAT just not share information? I’ve filled this out so many times.” The advisor said, “Oh, then don’t worry. It must be a miscommunication between us.”

Not What I Was Looking For

image by Stephanie Wilson

My experience with CAT started back in September. Mr. McBeth, a CAT advisor, spoke to the senior class during the first senior meeting of the year. He explained that he was the new college advisor responsible for getting us into college for as little money out of our pockets as possible.

This sounded appealing, so I went to his office. I already had a school in mind but I asked him about other schools with good computer science programs that might be able to offer me a scholarship.

But as soon as he found out my average, he just said, “All right, you’re on my FAMU list,” since with my grades he could probably get me in for free. Getting students into school for free seems to be his only concern–which is fine, but what I was looking for was a school geared toward my interests.

My Advisor Is Who?

In October, I asked Mr. Ellis about CAT. He said he was glad I came to him, but that I’d already been assigned a CAT advisor named Ms. Monuma. “What?” I asked. I hadn’t heard anything from Ms. Monuma. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of her.

Mr. Ellis said I could talk to him about college instead. By then, I had my mind set on going to the State University of New York (SUNY) Morrisville, which is considered one of the most technologically advanced schools in the nation.

But when I asked Ellis what I needed to do to get there, he pulled out a paper that listed SUNY schools from most highly-regarded to least. He pointed to SUNY Buffalo, a school higher up than Morrisville, and suggested I go there. But again, that wasn’t the help I asked for.

My entire CAT experience made me less confident about getting into the school I wanted. I’d wanted an advisor to sit me down and explain what steps I needed to take to reach my goal. Not what steps to take to reach their goal for me.

College Tips In Statistics Class

What little help I did feel I was getting at school was in the oddest places, like my statistics class. Since Mr. Grisset is a respected dean as well as the teacher, the seniors in the class would turn to him for college advice.

They’d walk into class and ask stuff like, “Yo G, what about those fraternities? You think they’re worth joining?” and G would begin a nostalgia-filled story (that incidentally would take up the rest of the period) about friends he’d had who were in frats.

He also filled us in on issues like scholarships and loan programs. It was reassuring to hear his perspective on college and the different paths you can take to get there. To know that if you fail a class, or get a low SAT score, you’re not automatically blacklisted by colleges. And that you can take the SAT multiple times and your highest score from each part will be what colleges care about. But it was random that he was helping us, since it wasn’t his job.

Turning to the Internet

I decided I’d have to take matters into my own hands. I turned to the Internet for help, and found two websites that offer information on scholarships—CollegeBoard.com and FastWeb.com. Both sites show scholarships that apply to specific characteristics (like being talented in sports, or being of a certain religion or race). I found scholarships offered by Campbell’s Soup, Microsoft, other businesses, and schools themselves.

I also checked out the websites of schools I wanted to know more about. I knew that choosing a major would help me narrow my search to schools that had what I wanted. I finally thought I’d narrowed it down to computer engineering, which is learning to build and maintain computers and networks.

But then I found that some schools broke that down even further into another three majors, and I felt lost again. I had to research those new ones on the schools’ websites until I found what I wanted—to learn to write computer programs.

That Cloud’s Still in My Way

Now I have my top choices—SUNY Buffalo, SUNY Stony Brook and, first and foremost, SUNY Morrisville. “Information technology management” is the major I want, and it’s only at Morrisville. It is a meld of two majors—computer engineering and business, and I’d come out with a bachelor’s degree.

As of the first week of December, I’d sent out my three applications, but my school had yet to send the colleges my transcript. So I’m still feeling anxious about this seemingly endless application process.

Some people go to college to broaden their horizons, some go because their parents make them, others go to get a fancy degree. But to me, college is simply a place where I can learn what I need to know to get the job I want, and move on.

I see it as a bridge from here to my future. I just want to cross it as quickly and easily as possible and get on with my life. But with this dark cloud still in my way, and with no one to guide me through it, sometimes I feel like I’ll never even find that bridge.

(NYC-2005-01-12b)