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.

Introduction to My Latest

Welcome to my professional page. I’m Stephen McDonald. I am, in no order of consequence: a writer, a photographer, an explorer, an Americanist cultural and historical scholar, a Progressive Christian and a devoted father a much beloved daughter. (Maybe the best for last!)

This page will include my thoughts, queries, musings and links to my writing. I also hope to include links to historical sites and places of significance that I visit to share them with you. Additional plans not limited to this page include educational videos and podcasts.

Please like my Facebook Page and follow my Instagram.

I studied at the University of Vermont but finished my undergraduate degree with a BA in American Studies from Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Presently, I am a graduate student pursuing an MA in American Studies from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.

Presently, I am writing my thesis exploring tribal identity and sovereignty of northeastern Native American tribes, focusing on the Ramapough Lunaape Nation.

My research interests include: Hudson Valley and New England history, American literature, American art, American music, social history, immigration and the peopling of America, slave narratives, immigrant narratives, social inequality, environmentalism, education, American social thought, progressive theology, and religion in American life.

Additional interests include psychology, economics, health care, science and technology, homesteading, country living, farming and sustainable agriculture. I like to sail. I make candles and dabble in woodworking. And I’m pretty good cook. I learned and continue to play three instruments: the guitar, the violin, and the saxophone. And I am fascinated by genealogical research and family history.

Pennsylvania is where I was raised. New York is where I live. Connecticut is where I study. Maine is where my heart lies.

After life transforming experience and finding renewed solace in my Christian faith, I am open to motivational speaking.

Please follow my blog if you like what you read.  Please contact me with any thoughts, words, queries you may have.

Thank you.  And Enjoy!

Stephen

“The New Colossus” in the Age of “Shithole Countries”

Jimmy Carter was President when I was born. He was the Sunday School teacher who wore sweaters when it was chilly, carried his own bags and had no real discernible ideology other than a commitment to peace. As a child, I don’t ever remember hearing, “That might be how President [George H.W.] Bush talks but that’s not how we talk in the house!” But here we are, six Presidents and forty years later, talking about “shithole countries.” This exact story might be new but this is by no means “new” news. This is the “grab ’em by the pussy” Donald Trump who “schlonged” his way to the White House. After the 2016 election, the principal of my daughter’s school held an all-school assembly after students taunted others with chants of “Build the Wall!” Yes, my daughter heard what I never had, “That might be how the President talks but that’s not how you will.” I don’t want to focus on Trump. I want to focus on the “rapists” who come from “shithole countries.”

My maternal grandmother’s parents arrived from Avellino, Italy just before World War I. They were also undocumented. My great-grandfather who conscientiously objected to compulsory service in the Italian army, promptly registered for the American draft because America was a “home worth fighting for.” All three of his sons served during World War II, and one of them with the 82nd Airborne that liberated his hometown. Yes, “dreamers” who were born in America, grew up American and proudly served their country, their home, the United States of America.

My paternal grandfather’s mother, left her “shithole” country of origin twice. She was the daughter of Irish tenant farmers who were so desperate, they gave her to her “rich” uncle (a coal miner) and spent her childhood in Pennsylvania. When her uncle died, she returned to Ireland. She was the first in her family to learn how to read and write. She was also a gifted painter. She brought her family to America herself, convinced that her children were too promising to stay in Ireland. Her daughters married well. Her elder son became a successful business executive, as did her younger son (my grandfather) who was also a wounded war hero.

My 2nd-great-grandmother arrived in New York from Scotland as a young single woman at the age of 16.

My earliest American ancestors were Puritans and Huguenots — like those seeking freedom from persecution.

Those fleeing “shithole countries” are fleeing shitty circumstances in search of the promise the American Dream offers, a peaceful and prosperous existence for our families, and a home worth fighting for.

So, this is how I leave you with the “New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus:

Las Vegas and “The Mindless Menace of Violence”

When I saw this on the news, I was as stunned and speechless as many of you.  And before the smoke even clears, the political debate begins with wild accusations and even crazier conspiracies.

I was a freshman in college when the Columbine shooting happened.  When the Sandy Hook shooting happened, and, yes, it really did happen, all I could think about was those poor children were my daughter’s age.

Assault weapons have no place in civil society.  High capacity magazines and after-market modifications have no place in civil society.  More guns do not make us safer.  I understand the fantasy, “the hero”, the “good guy”,that will save the day.  He was at Las Vegas, and he ran away.

So, I’ll leave with you with the words of the late Robert F. Kennedy speaking after the death of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Welcome!

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Hello. Welcome to my personal and professional website.  I am a progressive Christian, father, writer, hobby farmer, photographer and nature enthusiast located in New York.  I look for inspiration and motivation wherever I may find it.  I write fiction and non-fiction, essays, opinion pieces, motivational and business pieces.  After life transforming experience and finding renewed solace in my Christian faith, I am open to motivational speaking.

Please follow my blog if you like what you read.  Please contact me with any thoughts, words, queries you may have.

Thank you.  And Enjoy!

S.T. “Bear”