Taking Flight: the journey to college

Feb 27, 2019 | Beyond the Bubble, Features, Inside the Bubble, News

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n the fall of 2016, a dozen members of the Upper School’s founding class gathered in Emily Ross’s (‘17) living room to talk strategy. Their task? Establishing—and hopefully demystifying—the postsecondary culture for a community that had never experienced one. The College Wellness Task Force emerged later that day, analogizing their experience to flights, complete with a Lufthansa-style safety demonstration video and related safety card. The task force, made up entirely of seniors, also created the Relaxation Elves of the Postsecondary Process (REPPer) Program, a partnership between juniors and seniors aimed at fostering de-stressing activities and mutual support.

Three years later, these efforts have largely faded from memory. As Nueva prepares to send its third class of seniors to elite institutions, it is worth exploring whether any of its original postsecondary customs remain. Administration and faculty members are increasingly concerned about becoming a college-prep school, while students and parents want more information and time devoted to the process. Is it possible to find a culture that works for everyone?

The founding class attempted to do just this. Beyond forming a mutual pact about admissions discussions—something every Science of Mind (SOM) class does in the 11th and 12th grade— they shared their norms in an all-school assembly.

They were upset when the school published data showcasing early admissions success to current and prospective parents.

While it may not have seemed relevant to most students or faculty, Varun Mehta (‘17) believes it was important for the whole school to see.

“With such a small, tight-knit community, lots of potentially awkward conversations were hanging around every corner,” he says. “It was a way for us seniors to take some control back in a particularly uncontrolled period in our lives.”

While it was difficult to prevent intrusive questions from visitors, they felt empowered and compelled to put an end to such behavior within the community. 

Seniors in the video also role-played declining to share information with others, such as where they had applied, admissions decisions, and anything else related to the postsecondary process.

While future classes also emphasized respect for boundaries, the Class of 2017 drew remarkably conservative lines. They were upset when the school published data showcasing early admissions success to current and prospective parents. A then-underclassman was admonished for asking how seniors were handling stress. Erika Rojas, College Counseling Operations Manager, recalls students refusing to tell her their admissions decisions.

“I was not there to judge them,” Rojas says. “I had to collect this information as an administrator for the college counseling office.”

Ross, who hosted the first meeting of the College Wellness Task Force at her home, agrees that her class maintained privacy and confidentiality around their college admissions process.

[The REPPer system was] “a good idea in theory, but, like the house system, for it to work properly, everyone has to actually participate.”

“Our grade seemed to think that the administration and/or the task force didn’t want them speaking to each other about postsecondary plans at all, which was by no means the goal,” she says. “Instead, we wanted to cultivate an ecosystem where those who conducted their postsecondary processes openly were free to do so, but those who were not comfortable discussing their or others’ plans didn’t feel any adverse social repercussions because of that.”

While the senior class diligently followed and reminded others of their norms, the REPPer program eventually lost steam. Mehta admits that it was “a good idea in theory, but, like the house system, for it to work properly, everyone has to actually participate.”

Scott Brasesco (‘18) suggests that the program tried to formalize a custom that already existed between grades.

“As a senior, I was definitely able to help advise younger students on college and the college application process, but I don’t think I did that any more with my REPPer than I did with other students,” Brasesco says.

While current seniors still enjoy sharing advice with friends in lower grades, customs that the program attempted to popularize—such as gift-giving and kind notes—no longer exist today.

Though REPPing lacked the enthusiasm needed to become a community tradition, one custom had a lasting effect on the Upper School. At the end of their application journey, the founding class assembled origami cranes out of their rejection letters. Hiding the names of both the applicants and universities, it symbolized their peace—and lack of shame—with unwanted outcomes. Since the first year, each application cycle has been unique. Last year’s graduating class, for example, was known for their openness with each other and the larger community.

Though current seniors are more sensitive and selective about sharing personal information than the preceding class, they have sought to foster an equally supportive environment. 

“Many of us felt that the Class of 2017 had been overly concerned with keeping things quiet and had turned the process into something secretive,” Brasesco says. “We made talking about the process commonplace, though we still made an effort to not bother anyone who didn’t want to discuss their own process.”

Beyond knowing each other’s admissions outcomes, members of the Class of 2018 were seen editing essays for friends, laughing off deferrals, and celebrating with those that received good news. Rojas notes having opposite concerns about the second class.

“Sometimes I would actually have to tell them to talk softer,” Rojas laughs. “Visitors and younger students could hear them talking about college from the other end of the hallway.”

While the Class of 2018’s outspokenness was on display most places, it was notably absent from the walls.

Students wanted the option to share both their own names and those of the colleges that had rejected them, though the administration worried this would distress younger students and confuse visitors. They asked that a hopeful element—such as responses to each university (such as “Dear X, your rejection will not define me because…”) or a wall of acceptances—be included. The students refused, saying that accomplishment was already apparent to others through shared conversations and the school profile. With no resolution in sight, they created an Instagram account to post rejection letters without censorship.

If the first two classes occupied two ends of a spectrum, the Class of 2019 has been right down the middle.

Though current seniors are more sensitive and selective about sharing personal information than the preceding class, they have sought to foster an equally supportive environment. 

By displaying the installation before a day of celebration, rejection comes to represent a blip in an inevitably successful journey.

The Telegram group chat, named Post Post Primary Discourse, was created for applicants to vent about stress and impending deadlines, request peer edits, and crowdsource quick answers to financial aid, Common App, and technical questions. Some students have made light of the process by sharing relevant memes on the platform.

Just before early application deadlines, roughly 65 percent of the senior class was involved in the group. The emergence of the group chat has coincided with a decrease College Counseling office visits from the Class of 2019 compared to previous years. Laurel Mitton (12), administrator of the group, says it is possible that Post Post Primary Discourse replaces the need for College Counseling in some instances, though she notes that questions are often asked to school counselors in-person first and then shared on Telegram.

The current seniors have been eager to cooperate with the administration on a rejection installation. The actual display and presentation of the letters matters less to them if they can share names freely. After months of discussions, the student council and administration have finally reached a compromise.

A visually symbolic assortment of rejection letters—both anonymous and not—will be presented on April 30, 2019. The following day, National College Decision Day, students will wear apparel from the universities where they have chosen to matriculate. By displaying the installation before a day of celebration, rejection comes to represent a blip in an inevitably successful journey. Its temporary nature ensures that it is seen only by intended audiences. Whatever lack of engagement the current seniors may have with the College Counseling team is more than compensated for by the Class of 2020.

“By the time Nueva starts preparing us, it’s way too late to start any meaningful extracurriculars for college.”

While the juniors only received an official introduction to the postsecondary process in December, many have been preparing for much longer.

“I have had a college counselor outside of school since early sophomore year,” one junior disclosed. “By the time Nueva starts preparing us, it’s way too late to start any meaningful extracurriculars for college.”

When questioned whether doing anything specifically for admissions is in the Nueva spirit, they responded that receiving a good education is. While such thinking may be discouraged by the senior class, it is surprisingly commonplace for their younger peers. The junior class is reportedly stressed and competitive with each other.

“I kind of like it because I’m on top of it too,” said one junior. “But if I was doing badly, I feel like I wouldn’t like it as much. You know?”

The College Counseling team is receptive to student needs, though cautious about inadvertently putting such pressure on students, especially underclassmen. While they will begin speaking with sophomore advisories later this spring, Gavin Bradley, Director of College Counseling, emphasizes that the scope is limited.

At this juncture, students will only be given advice about testing, curriculum planning, and summer activities. Nonetheless, this plan marks a departure from traditionally delayed contact with College Counseling; the Class of 2021 will begin discussions approximately eight months before their senior counterparts did.

if a student needs to hire someone to encourage them to get involved in things then…that’s their choice, I guess.”

While the junior above would have appreciated earlier connection, Bradley says he will never counsel in the manner which they describe.

“That reveals a misunderstanding about the purpose of our college counseling. What they are talking about is activity advising,” Bradley says. “And if a student needs to hire someone to encourage them to get involved in things then…that’s their choice, I guess.”

Bradley has heard seniors and returning alumni express skepticism about the motivations of younger students, but he remains optimistic as the school attracts a broader array of people who are new to Nueva.

Bradley has heard seniors and returning alumni express skepticism about the motivations of younger students, but he remains optimistic as the school attracts a broader array of people who are new to Nueva.