My One and Only College Visit Before College

November 5, 2013

Concordia College, Bronxville, NY, November 5, 2013. (

Concordia College, Bronxville, NY, November 5, 2013. (

One of the many pitfalls of poverty in the midst of striving toward college was that I didn’t do a single formal college visit prior to taking the Amtrak to Pittsburgh in late-August ’87. (Ironic, then, that I’ve been on at least sixty college campuses to teach or lecture, for graduate school, for conferences, talks, interviews and other events in the past quarter-century). The only options for doing any college visits at all while at Mount Vernon High School (NY) were either the schools in the area or to go on the HBCU college visit trips to Howard and Hampton University. I had no interest in applying to an HBCU (which I’ll talk about later), and the prospect of visiting Columbia or NYU never really occurred to me until years later.

But I did have one inadvertent encounter with a college campus prior to arriving at Lothrop Hall on the University of Pittsburgh’s campus in ’87. It was in the fall of ’85. As I wrote in Boy @ The Window:

I discovered something rather interesting about myself toward the end of the year. I understood, maybe for the first time, how much walking and nocturnal self-pleasure had replaced sitting on the radiator at the living room window as my after school and weekend distraction. Walking allowed me to continue to contemplate my future, to make sense of my senseless world. Very early on in my junior year, I went on a Saturday walk straight up Route 22, from East Lincoln and North Columbus. I ended up at Concordia College in Bronxville, a small liberal arts school in the middle of one of the richest towns in America. It was a cloudy and crisp early fall day, those first series of gray days you experience after a long, hot summer. I wore my gray hooded and zippered sweat jacket with my beat-up multi-colored and checkered long-sleeve shirt and some cheap, made-in-Taiwan blue jeans.

Even with that and my tall, Black male self on a mostly White campus, I seemed to blend in. Not a single person looked at me as if I didn’t belong there. Some of the students actually said “Hi” to me, and not that overly enthusiastic greeting, either. I walked across the campus, walked into some of the buildings and walked around some of the empty classrooms. After a bit more wandering around, I ended up at the library. It was surprisingly small, but the books it did have were the kinds I used to like reading. Old and dusty historical texts and subjects of interest only to old writers and historians. I saw students at tables studying or talking softly while studying. Then it dawned on me why the students didn’t automatically assume that I wasn’t a college student. I was dressed like they were, or,I guess, they dressed like me. Sloppy, but not too sloppy. It also dawned on me that you needed a college ID on the campus in case the guards suspected that you weren’t a college student. So I made my way from the campus and trekked back home.

This was my first and only college visit. And though I hadn’t stopped by the admissions office or spoken with a financial aid counselor, my wandering walk gave me much food for thought. The visit reinforced my thinking on what I needed to do in eleventh grade to guarantee both college acceptance and a scholarship. I assumed an academic scholarship, but an athletic one was still in the realm of possibility. I knew, again, that this was my make-or-break year to bring my grades up as far as possible. I had no idea what my class ranking was, but I assumed that I needed to be in the top fifteen or twenty to have my best shot. So I set the largest goal possible – making it to the top ten of my class.

Eddie Murphy (with Rick James), "Party All The Time" (1985) video (screen shot), November 5, 2013. (

Eddie Murphy (with Rick James), “Party All The Time” (1985) video (screen shot), November 5, 2013. (

In the back of my mind, I knew even then that I didn’t want to attend a school with any of my classmates or with any reminders of Mount Vernon. So many of my Black classmates were already talking about attending HCBUs or New York area school. I knew that despite their relative maturity as eleventh graders, I didn’t want to be in classroom settings with the Rick James “Party All The Time” set or with White and Black classmates who thought of me as a caricature of a human being or Black male.

That walk to Concordia reminded me of a simple fact. That my path to college was my path, not to be determined by anyone else, and certainly not the people I didn’t even trust with a smile.

Ivy League Dilemma – Addendum

March 18, 2012

My addendum to the “Ivy League Dilemma” post, as there are several lessons to learn from my stumbling successfully into college at the University of Pittsburgh:

1. Always do your homework regarding the kinds of schools you want to attend. Easier said than done when you’re sixteen, the Internet didn’t exist, and your family doesn’t have the money to take you to visit schools prior to applying. Even with the disadvantage of poverty and lack of knowledge, I certainly had enough money for the $1.25 fare to catch the 2 to 110th Street and transfer to the 1 to get off at 116th, then walk up the step to find myself on Columbia University’s campus in ’86 or early ’87. That I didn’t see Columbia’s campus until ’90 is inexcusable.

2. Never allow the slights and ridicule of others determine where you should and shouldn’t go to school. I assumed that because my affluent and White (and some Black) Humanities classmates were snobbish, cliquish and entitled that I would see the exact same patterns at places like Columbia and Yale, making me more likely to see the University of Pittsburgh as an oasis from that side of human nature. It turned out that I was right and wrong. Pitt was so big, with so many different kinds of students, that there wasn’t this exaggerated sense of academic entitlement that I’d been a part of in the six years prior to attending. Over the years, I’ve learned that even truly talented and affluent students could be and often are wonderful human beings.

3. Don’t become intimidated by competition just because of the pressures and failures of the past. I don’t think that I was intimidated per se, but I do think that I wanted to not make a fool of myself among other high academic achievers either. My mix of the schools in which I applied in the fall of ’86 reflects this middle-of-the-road and contradictory thinking:

University of Pittsburgh                Columbia University
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute  Rochester Institute of Technology
Hobart & William Smith Colleges  SUNY Buffalo
Yale University                              University of Rochester

I simply didn’t know enough — or knew anyone who knew enough — about me, my potential, and about the kinds of schools I’d been looking for to apply to the best mix of schools back then. Today, knowing what I was like then, but also knowing what I know now, I can reasonably assume that the list below would’ve been the best one for me to work from a quarter-century ago:

University of Pittsburgh                University of Pennsylvania
Cornell University                         Brown University
University of Toronto                    University of North Carolina
Georgetown University                 New York University

Of course, hindsight in my case is 20/10. This list just means I have a ten-year head start in helping my son figure out his higher education plans.


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