Tuesday, November 4, 2003

Where do I go from here?

Senior's stress: Knowing what she doesn't want in a college

By Karen Gutierrez
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Paige Erkins is 17. She plays tennis, has a lip-gloss addiction and speaks Spanish with an authentic-sounding accent.

In less than a year, she will be in college. She has no idea where. She thought she had the list narrowed down, but then she started visiting.

Fordham University in New York? Forget it.

Wellesley College near Boston? No way.

Boston University? Good vibe, but a bit impersonal for $37,000 a year.

    Previously in the series:
  • Girl Power: Kiss us, we rule
Now Paige is at a point shared by hundreds of high-school seniors in Greater Cincinnati. After three days of campus tours this fall, her future is still uncertain. But she knows exactly what she doesn't want when she sees it.

"If I could give any advice, it would be to visit," Paige says. "Because that visit will turn your mind right around. I would have been miserable if I had gone to some of these colleges.

"You think you know what you want, but you don't really know."

These are stressful months for 12th-graders.

Since sophomore year, they've been bombarded with hundreds of mailings from universities. Everyone seems to want them - Tulane, Cumberland, Toledo, even Lenoir-Rhyne College in Hickory, N.C.

Some students feel paralyzed by all the choices. Others have tunnel vision: They want a prestigious, name-brand school, even if lesser-known colleges are just as good. And they face tough odds.

With record-setting numbers of applicants, the nation's elite schools have become absurdly selective. Duke University, for instance, rejects half of all the valedictorians who apply.

Paige Erkins talks about the next big step in her life, college, in guidance counselor Joe Runge's office at the Cincinnati Country Day School.
(Craig Ruttle photo)
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Paige attends the exclusive Cincinnati Country Day School in Indian Hill, where the admissions frenzy is in full swing. The school's 77 seniors check in almost daily with their college counselor. Some took summer classes at universities to boost their resumes. One Country Day student even completed four quarters of Chinese at the University of Cincinnati.

Among classmates, Paige is known for her outspokenness, and college is one topic that gets her going. Just last week, a white male student told her he would never get into Harvard "because of affirmative action."

Paige was livid, and she let him know it.

Minorities are less likely than whites to attend college in the first place, she says, so how can they be such a threat? Besides, race isn't the only factor considered by universities. People assume she'll get in anywhere "because she is black," but she doesn't feel that way at all.

Admissions officers confirm the process is more subtle than many students think. Colleges first look for the young people most capable of graduating, then for those with unique qualities.

Race is only one of them. Universities also need students whose parents are alumni. They need some who will pay out-of-state tuition. They might need more athletes, oboe players or aspiring nurses. Lately, small liberal-arts colleges are even scrambling to recruit men - of any color.

Paige's ever-shifting list of possible schools is driven in part by dread of rejection.

"I'm trying to go for schools that won't be disappointing afterwards," she tells Joe Runge, director of college counseling at Cincinnati Country Day.

"That's part of the process," he says gently. "Everybody gets denied someplace."

Fordham: Not feeling it

On a weekend in September, Paige sets out for New England with her mother, Esther Erkins, and a cousin, Lee Walton.

Paige and her mother haven't yet determined how they will pay for tuition. At the moment, they're focused on finding the right school.

Paige has a few notions. She wants to go away. She's leaning toward a career in corporate law, or maybe sports commentating. She wants a school with strong academics and people who would passionately challenge her views, but respect them.

Also, she loves New York. She has family there. She can buy Louis Vuitton purses on the street there. She would never be bored.

Fordham University is a Catholic school in the Bronx with 7,000 students. It was one of Paige's "mid-range" schools, meaning she had a good shot of getting in, but that didn't make it less attractive. In fact, she thinks Fordham has a lot of potential - until five minutes after she arrives.

It's not the lack of African-Americans, she says. She's used to that, and besides, "I've learned that just because someone looks like you doesn't mean they're on your side." No, there's something else about Fordham. A sixth sense, call it. Paige's family agrees: Fordham feels like a gated community of people who tend to think the same way.

"I get vibes," Paige says. "For me, if I'm really feeling something, I know it. And I wasn't feeling it there."

In Boston, broom ball is big

After New York, the family moves on to Boston, where an Enquirer reporter joins them.

That first night in Beantown, Paige is full of energy. Walking to dinner, she passes a grocery store and suddenly says, "I need a drink of water!" Then she smothers a laugh. Her mother knows what this means: Paige has seen a cute guy standing by the water.

She has never had a boyfriend. Back home, she attends Country Day School on scholarship and lives in Pleasant Ridge. She moves between two worlds - the world of privilege and the world of "urban reality," as she puts it. Dating doesn't happen. Neither do parties, drugs or drinking.

"I'm a DARE kid!" she says, referring to the anti-drug program.

By the next morning, Paige's giddiness has faded. She didn't sleep well.

College visits are tiring. In the front seat of the car, her mother and cousin are getting lost on the way to Boston University. Paige gazes out the window.

"I just want this to be over," she says softly.

The family finds the admissions office. A fresh-faced young woman explains that high-school transcripts are considered most important for getting in.

The tour commences. Boston University is an urban campus, and the whoosh of traffic sometimes drowns out the guide. In a sing-songy chirp, she recites the usual assortment of facts: BU's dorm food is highly rated. The most popular intramural sport is ice broom ball, a goofy variation of hockey. A few courses have 200 students in them.

"Two hundreds kids in a class?" Paige murmurs. "I'm used to 12."

Wellesley: So intense

Paige's mother, Esther Erkins, has a doctorate and works at the University of Cincinnati, where she is associate director of the Institute for Community Partnerships.

From the start, Esther likes Wellesley College. Hillary Clinton went here. So did Madeleine Albright. Situated on a leafy campus 12 miles from Boston, the all-girls school is rated among the top 10 liberal-arts schools in the country.

The Erkins family gets a personal tour from senior Juanita Nava, who is warm and enthusiastic.

"The professors all know my name," Nava says. "I am not a number."

Paige's mom peppers Nava with questions. Paige says nothing.

One residence on campus is known as a "vegetarian feminist co-op," Nava says. In another dorm, someone has posted a clipping from Ms. magazine. It praises Wellesley students for opposing Barbara Bush as a commencement speaker. Their objection to the former first lady: "Her power and status derive from her husband."

Outside, the tiny tour group passes a grassy, rolling hill. There are no students in sight, but Nava paints the picture:

"When it snows, it's the best. You take a tray from the cafeteria and go sliding down."

Back home in Cincinnati, Paige crosses Wellesley off her list.

Yes, the student body is diverse, and Wellesley women would surely respect her views. But ...

"I didn't see one person smile there," Paige says. "I had a headache after all of it. They're like, 'Oh my God, I'm so intense right now, I have to go read Hamlet.'"

Her mother shrugs.

"I liked Wellesley," she says.

"I would die there," says Paige.

"Women who rule the world go to Wellesley."

"I just want to let you know, it's not going to work," Paige says.

Most college applications are due in January. Paige's list of possibilities is still evolving. Now she's considering Rollins College in Florida, among others.

She isn't worried, she says. She'll figure out where she fits. And now, at least, she has a taste of what's ahead.

During her stay in Boston, away from the guides and the flood of information, her eyes shone as she took in the city. She was practically dancing on the sidewalk.

"I'm ready for it," she said. "Here I come."

The 12th year

For 20,000 teen-agers in Greater Cincinnati, this is it: the 12th year. Last shot at a date for prom. First taste of adulthood.

This is the second story in a continuing series as the the Enquirer follows seniors as they savor their final months of high school and plan post-graduation adventures or apply to college.

To share your story, call Karen Gutierrez at (859) 578-5584 or e-mail kgutierrez@enquirer.com

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