Making Dreams Come True
Yesterday was a special day for Harvard Univeristy because we were visited by a group of scholars from Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brooklyn, NY. The story of Mott Hall is now well-known, having been featured in the news all around the world. While their trip to Harvard might have begun with a picture uploaded to Facebook by the popular “Humans of New York” blog, their educational journeys really began when one dedicated woman - their principal, Ms. Lopez - set out to teach her students that they matter. At Harvard yesterday, we did our best to show them that we thought the same thing.
Brandon and Vidal discuss his college plans with Harvard Dean of Admissions Fitzsimmons.
I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to lead a group of about fifteen scholars on a tour of the campus. When they first joined me, I cheerfully asked for each of their names. Several mumbled or averted their eyes when speaking to me, and many were afraid to shake my proffered hand. I realized with a start that I was the first Harvard student that any of them had likely ever met, and they were not too sure what to think of me. I decided to nip this problem in the bud early on. I led them outside and began the tour. “The building that we were just in is a very special place for me, because it was the first place that I visited when I first came to Harvard. My parents and I attended an info session just like you did, and I was so embarrassed because they wouldn’t stop asking questions and I felt like it was obvious we were out of place.” Now several pairs of eyes were meeting mine as I was speaking. “They were worried about all kinds of silly things, like what kind of food they would serve us at dinner. I’m from the South so I’m used to my mom cooking a lot, and she didn’t want me to lose too much weight up north.” Now there were giggles; I am clearly thin as a rail. One girl raised her hand. “What’s your mama cook for you?” she asked. I told her several of my favorite dishes, and told her that just last week Harvard had actually served one of my mom’s recipes in the dining hall (parents can submit their kid’s favorites). There were murmurs of appreciation. “We ate in the cafeteria too,” one boy contributed. “It wasn’t too bad. I kinda liked it.” And just like that, a wall had come down.
The Mott Hall scholars asked more probing questions than many of the high school groups I have guided around the Yard. One scholar asked me how I went about making friends when I first got here. Another asked how much it cost, which gave me the opportunity to share about Harvard’s incredibly generous financial aid and how I am attending on a full scholarship. Yet another asked what to do if you got homesick. One girl, after I shared an anecdote about how I was “really nerdy” in high school because I spent a lot of time studying to prepare for college, tapped me on the shoulder and told me that I didn’t seem like a nerd to her at all. In fact, “you seem like a fun person”. With every question, every answer, and every burst of carefree laughter, I could feel them becoming more comfortable with me. And with Harvard. And with the idea of “going to college” in general.
At the end of their visit I told my little group what great listeners they were, and that I could tell that their instruction at Mott Hall had paid off. I asked them what they had learned from their visit to Harvard, and one scholar summed it up succinctly: “You do care about us, just like Ms. Lopez said.” And then, the kids who mere hours earlier were afraid to shake my hand gave me bone-crushing hugs.
Brandon setting up his group shot of the Mott Hall scholars.
The events yesterday reminded me why I take time out of my busy schedule to work a part-time job in Harvard Admissions. We do not just care about Mott Hall because they were featured on HONY; we care about finding all qualified students, and expanding our reach to them wherever they might be, from the housing projects of Brooklyn to the tobacco fields of my tiny hometown. I do the work that I do because I am grateful for the opportunities that Harvard has offered to me, and because I want to help other students so that their path to college is not as confusing as mine was. The Admissions & Financial Aid Office makes it a priority to provide support to prospective students who may not have resources at home or in their local communities to help them apply to college. Specifically, the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative is designed to help answer questions about affordability. The Undergraduate Minority Recruitment Program strives to encourage students from diverse ethnic backgrounds to apply. The First Generation Student Program supports students whose parents didn’t attend college. And the Harvard College Connection provides support to all students from disadvantaged backgrounds (I work with HCC). All of these programs employ actual students to talk to you about applying; Harvard cares about forming real connections between people, as the scholars of Mott Hall were able to see for themselves yesterday. Harvard’s motto is Veritas, which is Latin for truth, and there is no truth that we recognize more clearly than that a single dedicated teacher or mentor can make a positive difference in the lives of countless students. As the son and grandson of public school teachers, I am proud of the work that Mott Hall Bridges Academy is doing and I am confident that more than one of their graduates will be walking to class in Harvard Yard in the not-too-distant future.