I actually talked about my final decision regarding college in my blog on March 20 of this year, a posting titled “March Madness.” But a number of you expressed interest in what happened after I sent off my college applications in November and December of ’86. So, back — at least in part — by popular demand is what occurred before I made the decision to go to the University of Pittsburgh in March and April ’87.
As I said last week, I applied to eight schools in all, including Yale, Columbia and the University of Pittsburgh. I received my first college letter in February, a letter from Yale in a regular business-sized envelope, a clear sign of rejection from that vaunted university. If I’d known about their policies to limit the number of disadvantaged students who qualified for scholarships back then, I might not have applied to begin with. As it was, I had no idea why they rejected me. Over the next five weeks, I received one acceptance and packet of materials after another, including ones from Columbia and the University of Pittsburgh. All but Columbia gave me a full financial aid package of one kind or another. All offered either a partial or a full-tuition scholarship for four years except for Columbia. Pitt had offered me one of their inaugural half-tuition academic scholarships that they called the Challenge Scholarship, meant specifically to attract low-income students and students of color with qualifying grades and SAT scores from across the country to the university.
Columbia was the only school that assumed that someone in my family could afford to cover a significant portion of my tuition. I called their financial aid office in mid-March to ask why they hadn’t offered me any kind of academic scholarship. They called me back to tell me that they wanted to “make sure” that I really couldn’t afford to go to Columbia.
“But you have my Mom’s financial paperwork,” I said.
The man on the other end of the phone then made an offer. “Well, we could send out a private investigator to track down your father and take a look at his finances. If everything checks out, either he can cover part of your tuition or we can offer you a scholarship.”
I was floored by the sheer sense of arrogance coming out of the phone. “My dad hasn’t paid child support in eight years,” I said.
“We want to make sure that he doesn’t have money for your tuition,” was the creditor’s — I mean the financial aid person’s — response.
“Thanks but no thanks. You either trust me or you don’t,” I said, and hung up the phone.
I was really and truly torn between having some idiot private investigator digging through Jimme’s pitiful life and finances and saying “Go to Hell!” to Columbia. I didn’t want to see the worst case scenario occur, which was that some fool would come back to Columbia and say that Jimme could afford to pay $3,000 of my tuition per year. In the three years up to March ’87, my father had given me $3,500 total.
Then I thought of other pros and cons, and as I thought of them, I wrote them out. Columbia was an Ivy League school, the University of Pittsburgh wasn’t. Yet, Columbia was more expensive than Pitt by more than two dollars to one ($18,000 per year versus $7,500) and the students at Columbia would likely be similar in education, socioeconomic background and attitudes to my Humanities classmates. Not good. I couldn’t take another four years of classmates appeasing teachers or biting their fingernails to get an A, or clownin’ me because I somehow didn’t fit their vision of a cool nerd.
But the most important factor in saying “No” to Columbia besides their financial aid sleaziness was 616 and Mount Vernon. If I went to school there, where would I live and where would I study? Home? You got to be kidding! Mount Vernon Public Library? They only stayed open until 9 pm, and were never open on Sundays. On campus? That would only work if I were able to get a decent paying part-time job on campus. After sorting through this, I knew that Columbia was out.
The only questions I had left were whether the University of Pittsburgh was truly it, if the upstate New York schools looked better on paper than Pitt, and how to break the news of my final decision to my mother. Hobart and William Smith Colleges gave me the best offer—a full-tuition academic scholarship and lots of financial aid—followed by Rochester Institute of Technology and Rensselaer Polytechnical Institute. I knocked off the last two because my biggest fear was that I might decide to switch majors from computer science to history or English or political science. Neither of these schools offered substantial arts, humanities or social science majors. Hobart and William Smith, which I hadn’t heard of before I started all of this, was a difficult choice when I thought about the scholarship. They were in the middle of wine and beer country, though, and with so many White students, I could just see myself depressed and becoming more like my father while up there. Pitt was it.
The look on my mother’s face when I told her said it all. She was as shocked as I’d ever seen her. She kept trying to convince me to go upstate to Hobart and William Smith, to see about going to Columbia for their private investigator. My mother had tried all year to influence my college decision without any sense of my needs or attitudes about her or 616. First it was “Apply to West Point” because they would “make a man out of me” and “provide me good discipline,” and because “women love men in uniform.” When that didn’t phase me, she wanted me to go to a Black college like Morehouse or Howard because “I gave them [the United Negro College Fund] some money.” It was $25, not enough to buy a book bag. Too many of my Black classmates planned to go to an HBCU. These were the cool folks, the Rick James and Eddie Murphy “Party All The Time” folks, going to schools with reputations for cliques, partying, and low graduation rates. I wanted a mix of people, White, Black, Hispanic, older and my age, male and female, nerdy and normal. With those suggestions, I pretty much shut my mother and everyone else out of the decision-making process.
My classmates spent the next couple of months asking me where Pittsburgh was and why I wanted to go there. I really didn’t have a great explanation. All I knew was that I needed to get away from the New York area for a while and that the University of Pittsburgh’s tuition was cheaper than almost anything I would’ve faced or paid in New York. I knew that they had a decent Computer Science program — this was to be my first major. But I also knew that I wasn’t stuck if I wanted to change majors or study something other that computer science.
From their perspective, my decision to opt for the University of Pittsburgh was sheer lunacy and the city might as well have been in the middle of Tanzania or Appalachia. Who goes to a no-name school out-of-state? Outside of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, only a small minority of folks chose to go to Pitt. And as someone from the New York City area, there were other, closer public or semi-public options, including the SUNY schools, the CUNY schools, Rutgers, Temple, even Penn State. I already knew that most of my immediate classmates were out of touch with my socioeconomic and familial reality. I just didn’t realize by how much until I made my Pittsburgh decision.
Among the top Mount Vernon High School performers, most would’ve expected me to apply to only elite or Ivy League universities. Period. Maybe a couple of public schools, but just a couple. Like our valedictorian or salutatorian, as they both expected to get into college and expected full-blown scholarships to attend the elite or Ivy League universities. Well before March, both received their wish. The valedictorian gained admission to Johns Hopkins as a pre-med major with a scholarship of some sort, while Harvard easily accepted our salutatorian.
Other Humanities students made fairly predictable decisions. Cornell, Syracuse, NYU, UC Berkeley, Rutgers, Temple, SUNY Purchase or Binghamton, Tufts and other places on the well-beaten path of students from the greater NYC area. About twenty Black students opted for an HBCU experience, gaining admission to Howard, Hampton, Morehouse, Clark-Atlanta or Spelman depending on who I talked to at the time. Some made interesting decisions. One decided on Vanderbilt for no immediately obvious reason, another chose to accept Georgia Tech’s offer because of their basketball program, and one of the other top five students went for the Naval Academy in Annapolis to be her own person. The one commonality was that almost to a person, all of my classmates had expected to go to college — because of family background, their family’s ability to pay and/or their grades — long before we reached our senior year. I knew from the end of seventh grade on that I’d need help, and a lot of it, to get into college and have the means to cover the costs.
The one thing that I didn’t have working for me in hindsight was the ability to visit the schools I applied to. I relied on my knowledge at the time, some superficial research, and my imagination to help pick my college experience. Columbia, a short Metro-North train or Subway ride away, I didn’t visit at all. But at least I knew where it was. I’d only been to New Haven once, and that was because my inebriated father fell asleep on the Metro-North with me and my older brother during the Independence Day Bicentennial in ’76 and the train made it all the way to New Haven before waking him and us up. Western Pennsylvania, as far as I was concerned, was just suburban Philly.
I was beyond wrong, and initially homesick in a warped way my first semester at Pitt, especially considering how horrible home had been over the previous five years. But, despite all of my complaining about the po-dunk ‘Burgh, I gradually came to like and even love Pitt with each passing semester. I found a circle friends, found my own niche, discovered parts of myself I never knew existed, and rediscovered parts of myself that I had shut down once my home life and school life turned on me in seventh grade. If I hadn’t needed to go to another school with an elitist pedigree so that I could finish my doctorate successfully, I probably would’ve stayed at Pitt for all of my degrees. As it stands, it was the best six years of my entire educational odyssey.
So my decision was both rational and psycho-social. In the end, I obviously made the right decision for me at the time. If I had to do it again, maybe I would’ve applied to American University or University of Pennsylvania or University of North Carolina. But given the friendships that I formed, the degrees I earned and the wife that I have, I’m not sure if another good choice like the ones above would’ve been any better than going to Pitt.