And so I want to share a letter I had sent to the president of my alma mater, Barnard College. I received a lovely reply yesterday which made me think to share this letter, in part due to the statistics inclination (through standardized tests) of many college applications; I edited out, for privacy reasons, some paragraphs related to my son.
Dr. Deborah Spar
President, Barnard College
New York, N.Y., 10027
Dear Dr. Spar,
Years ago, you wrote an article in the Barnard Alumnae Magazine (BAC), the only article ever to remain in my memory (that’s become a colander over time). You wrote about “Tonya,” a student who had applied to Barnard and came from circumstances (poverty, poor quality of pre-college education, among others) that made you worry whether she would be prepared for Barnard’s academic rigor. I hoped then that Barnard, indeed, would accept her …
Then, through the latest issue of BAC, I see that Barnard did accept her and that Tonya has successfully graduated from Barnard! No words can capture my immense gratitude to you and Barnard for that decision. THANK YOU!!! Any institution of higher learning certainly should be aware of the structural constraints and un-level landscape that is American education and I’m glad that Barnard was/is sophisticated enough to wo-maneuver through that terrain.
I suppose Tonya’s story is close to my heart as I count myself among the underprivileged kids who applied to college. In looking back at my younger self, I remember—and sheepishly admit to Barnard through you for the first time—fulfilling the required foreign language exam by taking the Russian test. I knew not a single word of Russian. But I remember thinking as a high school student that my Spanish test results were not likely to be stellar (I have difficulty learning foreign languages), so I thought then that I may as well offer a poor test result in a more impressive-for-being-unusual language relative to Spanish which nearly everyone I knew in California was studying. Whether or not that strategy greatly improved my chances, I look back at that younger self and admire her for trying to think out of the box—it is a type of “street smarts” that also made me survive college to be a proud Barnard College graduate today.
I believe more institutions of higher education should be looking for those elements (beyond statistics) that may make a student survive if not thrive in an academic setting. I am so glad—and proud—that Barnard College is this type of an institution, particularly given what you call the “great and tragic divide” that is the country’s educational landscape.
I was a mediocre student at Barnard as I (perhaps mistakenly) privileged my journalism extracurricular experiences to academics. But Barnard did prepare me well for the world. That is why I am sending you two of my poetry books, two Selected Poems projects. I don’t mean to force you to read my poems (you don’t have to read them!)—but I did want to share the books as physical proof more than 30 years later that when colleges make decisions along “The Right Stuff,” as you’d entitled your latest article, it is a good investment.
By the way, like Tonya, I was also a recipient of generous financial aid…
Again, thank you for myself and for Tonya. And because Barnard educated me to be part of the world, thanks to Barnard as well for giving me the insight to have, today, a son—my only child. On his behalf, thank you for helping him achieve his potential through family and education. What we do can have such wide-ranging ramifications, and I am truly grateful to Barnard College for what it does.
Eileen R. Tabios