Over the Memorial Day Weekend I packed the family into the car and made the 12-hour round trip from Boston to Ithaca, NY. When I departed Cornell 10 months ago I made a promise to return in each of the next three years to attend the graduations of all of the students that I admitted to that fine university. Here is the story of one of the very first students that I admitted to the Class of 2006.
In the fall of 2001 – Thanksgiving weekend to be exact – I sat in a dining room table in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn trying desperately to convince a young lady to apply to Cornell University. She was one of the first students that I recruited to Cornell and she is responsible for some of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned about how to recruit minority students.
Much to my surprise it was a tough sell. I thought that all I had to do was to show up and tell her a few facts about Cornell, and then I’d be money. I was sure that she’d be seduced by the allure of the Ivy League. I was positive that she’d just take me at my word because I was an admissions professional. I left her house not at all sure if I’d see her application.
Lesson One: Never assume that students are just going to take you at your word.
Lesson Two: Never speak condescendingly to potential applicants. EVER!
Fast-forward four months. Not only did she apply to the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University, but she was also accepted! Silly of me to think that she would attend Cornell just because she was admitted. The process began all over again. I was grilled on everything from where to get black hair done to the availability of urban radio stations. When she came to visit and saw cows on campus, you can imagine her response.
Lesson Three: Be prepared to discuss issues around race and ethnicity openly and honestly. Don’t just play up the school’s strengths, but also acknowledge its weaknesses.
Lesson Four: It’s not just about the academics for most minority students; it’s about finding an institution that makes them feel safe and comfortable.
Lesson Five: Student savvy grows exponentially throughout the college application process. The young lady that I spoke to in April was ten times savvier than she’d been just a few months prior.
As my granddaddy used to say: To make a short story long, this young lady did decide to attend Cornell and began her educational odyssey in the fall of 2002 as a Communications major. Over the next three years I witnessed a somewhat shy and sheltered girl blossom into a smart and beautiful woman. She was a constant fixture in my office. Although I complained about the lack of veggies in her diet (chicken fingers every day for lunch) and her keeping me from getting work done; I secretly enjoyed her presence and I credit her with keeping me up on my peeps.
As you can see from the photo, Kimberli is now a 2006 graduate of Cornell University. Kimberli, I am very proud of you! Somewhere along the way I realized that you did not need my advice, but you sought it anyway. Thanks for keeping me grounded and relevant. On those days when I wonder why I do this for a living I think of you graduating. God Speed! The circle is complete.
You are smart, hardworking, and destined for greatness. I will be very proud if my own daughters turn out to be just like you.
As a disclaimer it is important that I disclose the fact that Kimberli is my niece. Yep, she’s family… but in many ways every student of color that I admit to college feels like family.
Please take a moment and rejoice with Kimberli on this monumental occasion. Drop her a comment to wish her well.