How My Family Helped Me Break Into the Ivy League (The Short Version)

This piece is as much reflections on my education as a continuing graduate student as well as my role as a history and social studies teacher at an independent Waldorf high school.  Scandals like last year’s Operation Varsity Blues bring to the fore the role of socioeconomic status and inequality at elite institutions of higher learning.  It even calls into question what it means to be “elite” — either as an institution or as a student/alumnus.  Writing of the lowly plebeians seeking an elite education, Daniel Golden wrote for Town and Country in 2016: “Today the prospects for these unconnected applicants, who are predominantly middle-class whites and Asian-Americans, are even bleaker. The poor shmucks have to walk on water—during a tsunami.”  There has certainly been a demonstrable advantage for the well-heeled; however, Golden’s observations may be an oversimplification and hyperbole.  Allow me to shed some light on how this Waldorf Teacher broke into the Ivy League.  This first piece will explore: how my family helped me break into the Ivy League, and get into Columbia University.

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First, I will provide some key attributes which I shall elaborate upon in this and my next installment in this two part series: curiosity, faith, grit, hardworking, imagination and grace.  An excellent book on this subject that I first read four years ago was How Children Succeed by Paul Tough.  Consider this passage from James: “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.” James 1:2-4 NRSV.  Let perseverance and faith do its work in developing your character and destiny, which can be a painful process but it remains our divine calling to self-actualize and push through–but many of us have both divine and mortal help.

When I was a young child, we moved from New Jersey into rural Pennsylvania and we did not yet have cable television.  On account of my father’s career, we had a personal computer — an IBM PS/2.  I wrote short stories on the word processor, and I “composed” music with the MIDI music software.  It may sound strange, to some, to read of a Waldorf teacher actively embracing this kind of technology; the computer was a piece of cutting edge technology that was fun to engage with and allowed me to express my creativity in storytelling as well tinker with a diverse array of musical instruments to produce “entertaining” sounds.  This “tinkering” and exploration through play developed into a passion tempered and cultivated by discipline, practice, precision, literacy.  As I grew older, I continued to develop a keen interest in history and literature as well as music.  I took Advanced Placement and honors classes as well as accelerated college bridge classes.  I learned to play four instruments: the clarinet, the saxophone (alto and baritone), the violin and the guitar — with varying degrees of continued proficiency.  I would really love learn the piano.

My mother was a high school mathematics teacher that taught AP Calculus to rural high school students.  She was also quite creative at home.  Delicious meals and desserts from scratch.  And made Play-Doh from scratch–our toys.  And always encouraged my creativity.  For a school project, I made a longhouse from popsicle sticks and craft glue as well as my homemade Play-Doh to make people, bowls and a campfire.  My masters thesis explored the struggled for recognition of a local Native American tribe.

My maternal grandmother was the first in her family to attend college and she earned a bachelors degree in economics and later a masters degree.  She had the most amazing collection of books and antiques!  When I was younger and visited her house, I would have quiet time sitting in the living room scanning through her encyclopedias and books on ancient Egypt.  My paternal grandmother always encouraged my learning. Perhaps too much too early, she gifted my Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book to me when I was six years old.  LOL.  My maternal grandfather was a local public official, from a longline of civic leaders dating back to the colonial era.  My paternal grandfather was an absolute lion of a man but also a kind, gentle and courtly soul.  A decorated war hero, successful business executive and generous community leader.  He was a absolute Lion, and we, his family, were his pride.

My struggles made me.  You see, its not the “A” that often defines the student but the “C.”  I was encouraged to take risks, explore, hit dead ends, try harder, and try a different way.    I took risks.  I hit dead ends.  I was broke.  I sometimes worked two jobs.  At my lowest point, I was deathly sick and housebound, but I had faith in myself and with God’s help, I got up and pushed through.  I had role models.  I always “gave back.”  My first job was in environmental policy before working in healthcare, and then in banking before becoming a social studies teacher at a Waldorf high school.  As a social studies teacher, I encourage students to learn the hard yoga (breathing, flexing and strengthening) of living in a complex, social world.  Each one.  Reach one.  Teach one.

In the words of Kurt Hahn, as I tell my students: “There is more in us than we know.  If we can be made to see it, perhaps, for the rest of our lives, we will be unwilling to settle for less.”

So, you see, this is how my family helped get into the Ivy League.

It’s Really Happening.

Good day, all!

I’m celebrating another small victory, or perhaps large victory.

A little more than one year ago, I set out to return to school and complete my degree with the ambition of continuing onwards to law school.

Last weekend, I took my Law School Admission Test, or LSATs.  Three hours of problem solving and logic puzzles.  I did it!  I’m that much closer to the goal line!

I started writing this post on September 30, 2016 after that mind numbing exercise known as the Law School Admissions Test.  I was ecstatic that I finished this test and was that much closer to achieving the goal I set out to accomplish … until I changed paths.  There have been many updates:

I am no longer interested in law school.  Being back in the classroom and thinking about the circumstances which brought me to this point, I have strongly considered graduate school for social work and American cultural studies, in that order.  I feel that I am of better services to others, and it is more rewarding to myself, to work in interdisciplinary ways which heal and create.

My blogs.  I have had an awkward relationship with blogging which I am truly attempting to shed.  I have compartmentalized my writing experiences in such a way that fragmented sounds like a much better word.  A blog for being a non-traditional student, a blog for sales and marketing strategies, a page for artwork, book reviews, being Christian, fiction writing, and being the scapegoated adult child from a dysfunctional family.  There’s a lot I want to say and just committing myself to any one voice in any singular moment just leaves me speechless, with nothing to say at all.  So, I’m consolidating and moving my blogs into a new home, which I hope you will continue to follow: stmcdonald.com.

Back to School!

Another school year begins!

I’m excited and glad to be back this term. Work-life balance has kept me pretty busy over the summer; that and studying for my LSATs, which are now only a few weeks away.

Im sitting here in a campus dining hall, in my mid-thirties, and remembering just how depressed, sad and exhausted I was when I sat in a campus dining hall almost twenty years ago.

It was almost a reality that I would not be sitting here this evening due to my financial state.  Unfortunately, I could not secure a private student loan this year which would allowed me to continue full-time and graduate in May.  However, I am at three-quarter time and optimistic that I can finish over the summer or next December at the latest.  The reality of the matter is that my returning to school was a long-ball move where I am succeeded academically and professionally albeit with a lot of short-term “bumps in the road”, as they say.

I hope to explore those “bumps” with you this year in my blog.  How does a 35 year old single father work raise his child and go to school?  Why?  And what went “wrong” the first time around?  I look forward to exploring those questions with you.  Right now, I wish I could share this burrito because it is absolutely delicious.