By SPENCE PERRY
November 14, 2012
The pale yellow light of a late fall afternoon poured through the tall windows of the sun porch at the farmhouse just off North Avenue.
A young lady was completing her second interview for admission to Harvard. The interviewer, a Harvard grad who had been in the admissions game for almost 20 years, had been enthused at her application. When he had lived in D.C. or Columbia, Md., the harvest had been rich. He had been able to help get six to eight students a year admitted. Out here, in Washington County, the pickings had been slimmer, but he held out hope that in time they would grow.
This candidate had displayed real promise. She had the grades and the boards, the curricula, plus a hard-to-define quality. Take-on-the-world courage? Endless enthusiasm? That extra thing, whatever it was, that gave her a real shot.
In the first conversation, they had gone over the mundane: courses, climate, students’ attitudes and faculty approachability (high). He had mentioned the cost (about $40,000 in 1992).
The interviewer told her that based on their conversation he thought she had a real chance, a better-than-even go. He offered to help with her application and to go to bat for her candidacy at the state admissions committee so she would be on the “A” list going forward.
She seemed really pleased, and then her face froze in seriousness. I’ll have to talk to my folks about the money, she said.
He explained to her that Harvard had (and has) a needs-blind admission policy. The college admits who it wants to admit and then takes care of their financial needs where they exist. The admissions committee never knows the financial picture of an applicant.
She had gone on her way, promising to be in touch in about a week’s time. By her second visit, she arrived subdued. Her prior sense of purpose seemed to have faded; she seemed at loose ends. She sat down on the sofa and began her explanations.
“Thank you for offering to help me. I would love to go’ but I can’t. $40,000 is a lot of money, more than our house costs.”
Did you tell your folks about the way Harvard works with students to get through, the interviewer asked. “Yes I did, but they still said no. They felt it was too far, too different and they said people from Hagerstown just don’t do things like go to Harvard. They want me to stay close.”
The interviewer was stumped. He knew that students from Washington County had gone to Harvard, but all of his arguments seemed somehow limp in the face of her folks’ views.
They said good-bye and she walked out into the gathering of darkness of a cool fall evening. As she rode off with her parents’ the interviewer stood aghast at what the promising young lady had done to herself, probably unwittingly. With the casualness of youth, she had written off the world.
Today, this story would probably have a different ending. Distances and cultural differences have shrunk, parents are more sophisticated and young people are more determined and free. Between the good offices of a changed Washington County Public Schools system and the terrific battering given the local and evolving economy, no one now believes that education beyond high school, as good and as much as you can get, is a dubious proposition.
By the way, the interviewer did have one success a couple of years later. A student from North High went to Harvard on a full scholarship. The student majored in astrophysics and has had a fine career in this field. Students from Hagerstown do go to the best there is, and do just fine.
Spence Perry, a resident of Fulton County, Pa., is active in Washington County affairs.
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