This part of my story may seem improbable, but I can assure you, it is true. You can’t make this stuff up.
The Blind Date
It was senior year at John Bowne High School, around the time students begin college applications.
The best part about the whole college application process was creating the college list. Students will take months trying to figure out if a particular college is a reach, a match, or a safety school.
When it came to creating my college list, it was simple. It took me one day to create it. I was set on staying in New York with my family and was indifferent about experiencing the out-of-state and dorm life that many young folks lust for. So my list was short and straightforward.
The problem I faced was that I was uninformed and uneducated in respect to getting ready and applying for college. I couldn’t rely on my family to guide me, as I am the youngest of three, and was going to be the first person to attend college. Plus, throughout high school, my main focus was on working and helping out my family. Learning about universities was not an immediate concern of mine. I was going into this whole college application process blindly.
What I did know for certain was that I really wanted to attend New York University (NYU). It was my top choice on my list (well, my second choice, more on that later), for reasons I still can’t explain. Maybe it’s because of its worldly education, or because it embodies the essence of New York City. Whatever it was, I was adamant about attending NYU.
Friends with Benefits
The other schools on my list, my “safeties,” were Stony Brook University, University at Buffalo, Binghamton University, and The City College of New York (CCNY). To be honest, I was apathetic in regards to these “safeties.” The only reason why I had a safety list was because I overheard my Asian friends in AP Statistics discussing their backups if shit hits the fan. These schools were frequently mentioned.
Not to say they are “unworthy” schools, but to most applicants and companies, they are considered “non-target” colleges. If it wasn’t for my well-informed and well-trained classmates, I would have only applied to NYU.
I know, that would’ve been foolish of me to only apply to just one school. So, I decided to follow their footsteps and reap in the benefits of have “safeties.” When ignorant and in Rome, do what Romans do, right?
The Innocent Breakup
Now, you may be asking, “Gerome, why not include the other New York schools, like Columbia University, Cornell University, University of Rochester, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and Fordham University, in your college list?” Good question, reader.
Columbia University was actually my first choice, being it was an Ivy League school in New York City. I had visited their campus in the Upper West Side, met a few Columbia students, and fell in love with the idea of going there.
But, when I went to get advice from my high school adviser in regards to Columbia’s application process, I was, more or less so, turned down.
Here is the deal. John Bowne High School is sub-par at best. Apparently, from what I was told by the college adviser, Columbia will only review two applications each year from high schools like John Bowne. The two students had already been “selected” to apply; a valedictorian, and a sadistic over-achiever, who had a set of academic and extracurricular achievements that can fill up a room of encyclopedias. Apparently, I had no chance of my application going through given my achievements in the field of grocery bag packing.
I was a naïve teenager, and in the dark, when it came to college applications. I heavily relied on other people’s knowledge and advice. However, to this day, I regret not submitting my own Columbia University application behind my high school’s back.
In regards to the other New York schools, they were either too far or, I was unaware of their existence at that time. Look, to you, this may seem bizarre. But, I was raised in a family with zero foresight in respect to colleges and education. We were told to “go to college and get a degree,” but we never understood the intricacies of it.
With the help of my high school’s advisers, I was able to organize all the documentations required for each college application. They helped me with my personal statements, getting recommendation letters, visiting the schools, paying application fees and mailing them out.
I finished all my applications weeks before the deadlines. Everything seemed to be going well. It almost felt like getting accepted into NYU was a for sure thing.
Every day, I would check the mail box for decision letters. Sometimes, I would wait on the front porch to catch the mail carrier so that she can personally hand me my family’s mail. I was paranoid and didn’t want anything getting “lost.” Occasionally, she would joke about losing my decision letters. As weird as it may seem, I think she was flirting with me.
Then, things didn’t look too certain anymore.
There was never a time I stopped thinking about NYU. Its purple and white logo kept popping up in my head at random times. I kept dreaming about how my life at NYU would be; sitting in Washington Square Park, sipping on Starbucks coffee, reading various science textbooks, discussing the previous day’s lecture with my classmates and talking about how awesome our professors are.
The wait was excruciating. In just a few months, I was going to be the first in my family to attend college, and I wanted that day to come already.
And I was so confident that an acceptance letter will be arriving from NYU. I couldn’t see why they would reject me. Even though I had a mediocre SAT score, I felt I had a compelling story to tell. I had started an after school math tutoring program on my own, I was in the top 5% of the graduating class, I had the highest math average in the school, and above all, I am a minority, a first-generation Dominican-American. NYU would’ve loved to have me in their “worldly” cohort.
Boy, did my dreams quickly come crashing down!
I remember the day the decision letter arrived. I was laying in my room, playing Call of Duty on my PlayStation, when my mom entered, smiling, with two envelopes in her hand; one from NYU and the other from Stony Brook University.
I paused the game, looked at the envelopes, and then at her. I took the envelopes from my mother’s hand and placed them on the bed, side by side.
I started panicking, and my heart felt as if it sank to the bottom of the acid pool inside my stomach. You know that feeling you get when you’re afraid to tell your parent(s) that you broke their favorite vase because you know they will bring out the belt or the chancletas? For a moment, I had that feeling.
I continued to stare at both letters, while my mother held onto me and silently prayed for some good news to come to our family. Images began to flash before my eyes; Greenwich Village, Washington Square Park, Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, NYU’s purple and white logo, outings with my classmates, Starbucks, a diploma, and dollar signs, lots of them (this either meant I was going to make a lot of money, or be in a lot of debt). Still, my future looked amazing!
The Real Break-Up
As soon as I snapped out of the trance, I reached for the NYU envelope and ripped it open. From what I can derive from memory, the letter stated something along the lines of this:
This is in regard to your application to the pre-med program. Because your application was incomplete as of the deadline date, we could not consider you for admission this year.
W-T-F!? I was speechless, shocked, and confused.
I immediately grabbed the Stony Brook envelope, ripped it open, and read it out loud.
W-T-F-F!? (Yes, two fucks!) The Stony Brook application was incomplete, too?!
I re-read it again, and again, and again, anticipating the ink on the letter to magically swirl, like some Harry Potter-type shit, and rearrange itself into an acceptance letter. I tried rubbing the paper between my thumb and index finger to see if it was stuck to the “real” letter, to no avail. I even told my mother, if this was some kind of joke orchestrated by my brother and sister, I totally get it, but please end it. It wasn’t a joke.
I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. So many emotions were running through my mind. This had to be a systemic error that occurred to all colleges across the nation. How can two universities state similar reasons for not accepting my applications?
I called the admission offices at both universities to find out more information on my applications. I was wrong. It was not a system error. This was the real deal.
The following day, I stormed into John Bowne’s college center and slammed the two letters onto my college adviser’s desk.
“Why did I receive these letters?” I exclaimed. “If I recall, I handed my applications to you weeks before the deadline.”
“Gerome, this doesn’t make sense,” the adviser said. “We send out applications the same day we receive them from each student. I remember placing your applications in the mail bin that day. I am sorry, but they must have been lost at the post office.”
“Can I check this ‘mail bin’ you are referring to? Maybe it is still there.”
“It’s not in the mail bin, Gerome. The mailman comes and empties the bin every day. And no, you cannot check. Only teachers and staff are allowed near the mail bin. We do not want any students tampering with the envelopes. Look, try calling the post office. I am sorry, but there is nothing we can do.”
“I am not calling the post office! If you won’t check the mail bin, then I will!”
I quickly ran behind her desk and began flipping through the manila envelopes that were in the mail bin labeled “outgoing.” After searching through the piles of envelopes, I felt defeated when I didn’t find my applications. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to find it there anyways, but I wanted to be certain.
Maybe the adviser was right. Maybe my applications got lost enroute to the universities. This was a case of really bad luck.
As I was about to leave the college center, I noticed another mail bin, labeled “in-mail,” unobtrusively hidden beneath piles of mail. It was located on the other side of the adviser’s desk. And as I walked closer to take a better look, I noticed two manila envelopes sticking out of the stack.
I began throwing the mail onto the floor. Lo and behold, sitting at the bottom of the pile, was both my NYU and Stony Brook applications. Someone at the college center had placed them in the wrong mail bin!
You can imagine the onslaught of expletives and negative remarks that ensued. I was livid! My high school’s college center had crushed my dreams of possibly attending NYU.
All the advisers at the center began apologizing while the other students cupped their hands over their mouths in disbelief, most likely due to the fact that I couldn’t stop cursing. After about an hour of yelling and thrashing about, I finally stopped, apologized for my behavior, and left the career center, leaving the mess of thrown mail behind.
Wedding Bells at “Harvard”
Now I was left waiting for three decision letters from the “safety” schools. Fortunately, in the following weeks, I received acceptance letters from Binghamton University, University at Buffalo, and The City College of New York (CCNY), along with full ride scholarships from each school. Thank you, my well-informed, and well-trained, Asian friends for discussing their backup plan when shit hits the fan!
I ended up choosing The City College of New York (CCNY), a school ranked 389th nationally*, because I didn’t want to move to Buffalo, nor Binghamton. I was content with staying with my family in Queens. Also, I got accepted to their Macaulay Honors Program, which allowed me to attend honors courses that were more enriched and enhanced then the regular courses. But, the most important reason for choosing CCNY, was for its “poor man’s Harvard” title. Why go to any other school when I can go to a “Harvard” college in New York?
Sadly, after my freshman year at CCNY, I learned that this title was given back in the 1960s, when it was considered one of the best schools in the nation, producing 14 Nobel laureates.
The “Harvard for the poor” no longer lives up to the title.
In hindsight, the whole application process felt like the different stages of dating. It was exciting, nervewrecking, hearbreaking, but a great learning experience, nonetheless.
At the end of the day, I have no regrets in choosing CCNY. Given what I had on hand, I had to make the best of it. And, I did.
*According to Forbes 2017 Ranking of America’s Top Colleges (https://www.forbes.com/colleges/cuny-city-college/)