For many of my classmates, Leland Stanford Junior University has always been the dream. They toured the campus multiple times, participated in Stanford summer camps, and even took baby pictures at the Oval on Campus Drive. But before April I didn’t even imagine myself setting foot on Californian soil. That today I find myself here is equal parts luck and hard-work.
Junior year of high school was a turning point in my life. I transferred to a new dual enrollment high school, moved to a smaller apartment, and solidified my resolve to major in art history. It was time to think seriously about college. However, in the midst of standardized testing, I noticed that I didn’t have any schools I wanted to apply to in particular. My mom advocated Harvard and Yale, the only two universities that had a big reputation in my native Colombia. Meanwhile, many of my classmates thought it was smarter to go to a state school that would accept the A.A. degree that the majority of the class ultimately achieved. I drowned out the noise and decided to prioritize the few things I knew I wanted. First, I was more than ready to leave Florida. I love to travel; I wanted to go someplace far and new. At the same time, I didn’t want to just apply to schools because of their “brand”. So after researching for a bit I stumbled upon three schools: Columbia University, New York University, and The University of Chicago. New York City beckoned, the culture, the food, and most important of all, the museums.
One day, I found that pictures and virtual tours weren’t enough; I needed to go on campus. However, I didn’t have the funds to go on a cross-country trek. At the end of junior year, I reached the finalist stage of the QuestBridge College Prep scholarship. Though I didn’t receive the final prize, reaching this stage opened many doors for me. I learned about the QuestBridge College Match Scholarship, which awards students full rides to partner schools. I also found out about fly-in programs, which pay for students to travel to campus. I applied, and I was accepted to around six of these programs, all of them taking place during the fall. The trip that I was most excited for was the Barnard College fly-in, because I was going to visit New York City and get to see Columbia! I still remember stepping through the main gate and immediately falling in love.
So how did I even end up applying to Stanford? While I was flying up and down the east coast, compiling a college list and getting fee waivers, I was also applying to QuestBridge. One of the conditions of the match program is that the student must attend the school they are matched with, unless it’s one of the special non-binding schools. My two top choices, Columbia and UChicago, were both binding and I agonized on how to rank them. Which one did I like more? Which should be number one? The deadline was before I visited Barnard and I knew there was no chance I was going to visit Chicago. So then I decided to not take the risk and instead apply to some of the nonbinding schools: Yale, Princeton, and you guessed it… Stanford!
The rest of the year passed in a blur. I worked hard at school and on my applications, and then once again I was the QuestBridge finalist who didn’t quite make it. My application to Stanford was automatically referred to regular decision, so I put that out of my mind. When March finally arrived, I found myself choosing between Columbia and UChicago, the same dilemma that had plagued me half a year ago. I didn’t realize that life had a curve-ball coming my way. It was a Friday, I had spent several hours at the fair, my phone had run out of battery, and I just wanted to curl up and go to sleep. I plugged in my phone and got ready for bed. Out of the darkness, I heard it come back to life. I drowsily clicked the “Your Stanford Admissions Decision” and read the first word: “Congratulations!” It was almost too much for my sleep-addled brain to bear. I perceived Stanford as this aloof tech and science school on the West Coast. I had often forgotten that I had even applied. Now I knew that I definitely had to visit the campus. Columbia had paid for me to go visit again, this time for their “Days on Campus” programming. Stanford also subsidized part of my travel for “Admit Weekend.” I had to pay for my flight to Chicago, which turned out to be a sign of sorts. As soon as I stepped on the UChicago campus I knew that it was not the school for me. Then I visited Columbia again, and this time I got to stay in a Columbia dorm and eat at the dining halls. The accommodations weren’t the best but I still had fun all the same.
It was Stanford that surprised me. I fell in love with the crazy traditions, the quirky acronyms, and the familial atmosphere. Then I discovered “Structured Liberal Education” (SLE), a yearlong residential humanities program for freshmen. Stanford shattered all the preconceptions I had about the school, and that just made things tougher. It was a week before the May 1st deadline to decide which school I would be attending, and I didn’t know what to do. After a lot of thinking, I conceded that maybe what I loved about Columbia wasn’t so much the school as the city itself. So when I found out that Stanford would be starting the program “Stanford in New York” in 2015, I knew where my future lay.
Declining Columbia’s offer proved to be difficult. But I clicked that button and never looked back. In the end, I got what I wanted. I went someplace new and far. I have already had opportunities to explore San Francisco and San Jose. The Art History and English departments are attentive and full of opportunities. I love being in SLE and reading all these great works of philosophy and literature. I really couldn’t be happier.