Interviews: What are you thinking about as you search for colleges?

By Jennifer Carcamo, 18, HighTech L.A. (2008 graduate)
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I never thought I would end up staying in L.A. and going to UCLA. My dream was to go to Columbia University in New York—as far away from home as possible. I only applied to UCLA because it was a good school, I wondered if I could get in and I had an extra application fee waiver. But by the time my acceptance letters came in, my idea of a dream college had completely changed.

I first heard of Columbia from my ninth grade English teacher. I did research online and found out that it’s one of eight Ivy League schools, which means it is one of the most prestigious and academically challenging colleges in the nation. The colleges get their name from their ivy-covered brick buildings. Taking the online tour of the campus, I was hooked on the architecture, which dated to before the American Revolution. Reading about grads like Alexander Hamilton and Barack Obama, I wanted to make myself one of those famous names. I fell in love with the idea of going there.

However, the main reason I wanted to go to Columbia was because it was the only way I saw to get away from home. I never had a good relationship with my mom. We never talked or hung out. The only time she spoke to me was when she wanted me to do the dishes or vacuum or yell at me because I had done a chore wrong. I had to get away.
By the end of ninth grade, I had my entire future planned—I would graduate with high honors, be valedictorian of my class, attend Columbia, graduate and become a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.

I threw myself into school to escape problems at home

School became my second home because of the troubles at home. I started a journalism club and helped put together the yearbook in 10th grade when I was editor-in-chief. I was active in Junior Statesmen of America and even joined the robotics team (I’m not a science person). Since my school revolved around technology and had no sports, being a part of the robotics team was like being a jock in a regular school.

Come the end of my sophomore year, I ran away because of the fighting and yelling at  home. I moved in with my aunt and uncle, who took me in as if I was their daughter. I slept on the couch, stuffed my clothes under the bathroom sink and shared a bathroom with my 4- and 7-year-old cousins, David and Diego, but I didn’t care. Moving out pushed me to work harder in school to maintain my grades so I wouldn’t have to depend on anyone except myself.

Junior year almost pushed me to my limit. I took all the honors classes my school offered. I skipped nutrition and/or lunch because I always had some meeting to attend, teacher to talk to, test to study for, or project or assignment to work on. Outside of school I was even busier. I became a writer for the San Fernando Valley News, a local newspaper, and L.A. Youth.

I was never with nothing to do and I loved it. Being busy didn’t give me time to think about my family problems. It also gave me a reason to be away from home. I didn’t have my own space at my aunt and uncle’s and I felt like I was taking up theirs. I usually studied in the small kitchen and sometimes fell asleep on the dining room table on top of my uncle’s laptop.

At the end of my junior year my college counselor, Ms. Koven, filled my e-mail with college information. So many other possibilities opened up beyond Columbia. My friends college-gossiped about the University of California schools and they talked about UCLA and UC Berkeley and how ridiculously difficult it was to get into them. I realized I was the only one of my friends who was planning on going to college out of state. I was still focused on Columbia, but listening to them made me think twice about ignoring California schools.

I attended a one-on-one session with Ms. Koven where we talked about what colleges I wanted to apply to and which schools were my safety schools, reach schools and super-reach schools.

My list consisted of 12 schools, six on the East Coast, including Columbia. I didn’t realize there were so many other schools out there that had so many things to offer. New York University has a good journalism program and Hawaii Pacific University has a strong communications department. UC Santa Barbara has lots of clubs and activities while Boston University has internship opportunities in the big city. All the schools offered a good education. Columbia was beginning to seem like just another school in a sea of many.

Would my SAT scores be good enough?

Instead of focusing on which school was perfect for me, I decided that I would focus on getting good grades and studying for my SATs. I took two SAT prep classes, one offered after school that was free and another at Cal State Northridge over the summer that I got a scholarship for. I studied prep books for hours after I finished my homework. I stressed myself out until my aunt found white hairs on my head. Still, most of my friends did better than I did and I looked at my scores as the black sheep of my college application. My highest score was a 1750 out of 2400, and I was distraught. The average score at Columbia is 2100. Even though I had a 4.0 GPA, I was positive that no top-notch school would accept scores as “low” as mine.

Going into my senior year, my college list expanded to 13—eight in-state and five out-of-state: Cal State Northridge, Cal State Fresno, Cal State Los Angeles, UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara, UCLA, Berkeley, Loyola Marymount, Boston University, Emerson College, Hawaii Pacific University, New York University and Columbia.

I got acceptance letters for all three Cal States right away. By February, I received my first acceptance letter to a private college—Hawaii Pacific University. Fearing that my SAT scores might not be high enough to impress any other schools, I quickly decided to go to HPU. I attended the college introduction session when an admissions officer came to Sherman Oaks. I was so excited that I began registering for my HPU e-mail and applying for a few of the scholarships the school offered. My boyfriend and I, who also got accepted, fantisized about how great it would be to go there together. Although I tried to pretend like my search was over, I knew there were nine more letters still out there.

When I told my uncle that I had decided to attend HPU, he didn’t say anything, but I could tell he didn’t entirely like the idea. A few days later, my aunt told me that he thought I could do better than HPU and not to settle so quickly. I told them that I was scared that I might not get in anywhere else, and my uncle said he had no doubt I would. That made me smile.

A few days later, my aunt told me that they were going to buy a new house. She told me they were looking for a four-bedroom house. Four bedrooms? Before I could ask what they needed the fourth bedroom for, my aunt said, “So now you can have your own room too!” I was more shocked than excited. It was the happiest I had felt in a long time.

March came and more letters started rolling in. It quickly became evident that my SATs were not a barrier. I got accepted into three more private schools and waitlisted at another. Slowly, the UC acceptance letters started coming. First it was UC San Diego with its humongous blue envelope that said “Congratulations!” on the front in white text and then UC Santa Barbara with its huge purple envelope. I felt confident, but I was still afraid of possible rejection.

After years of dreaming of Columbia, I suddenly didn’t know what I wanted anymore. If I got in to UCLA or Berkeley, did I want to go there? They are great schools, but they’re too close to home. Was it such a horrible idea to stay in California?

Then one day I received an e-mail from UCLA that said decisions were available online. My heart sank. The link staring at me meant I had to click it, log in and take myself to my own doom. I couldn’t study the envelope to determine whether it was a rejection or acceptance letter based on its size. It was just that: a link. I took a deep breath and logged in. I was accepted. I couldn’t believe it. A few days later, I got a letter from Berkeley. I was in. It didn’t sink in until other people started congratulating me. Everyone at school kept saying things like “Your parents must be proud.” My uncle was quick to say, “I told you” with a big smile that made me realize I did it!

I had been accepted to almost every college I had applied and that made me feel more accomplished than I had felt in a long time. I was still waiting for Columbia, but I thought that I probably wouldn’t get in.

I contemplated each college carefully. I didn’t know what to do. I could go far away and attend Boston U or Emerson College, also in Boston. I could still go to Hawaii or San Diego. Or I could stay home and attend UCLA. That idea of staying home had been the furthest thing from my mind four years ago. But now … maybe.

My aunt and uncle had made home safe and happy again. For the first time in a long time I finally felt like I had a place to call home. They accepted me for who I was and made me a part of their family. David and Diego even refer to me as their “sister.” And recently I’ve been getting closer to my mom, who was encouraging and supportive of my dreams.

Being near my family became important

Realizing this, I wasn’t ready to let go of my family happiness, because it wasn’t something I had when I was younger. I stopped focusing on getting away and started focusing on what I really wanted.

A few days later, I received a tiny little beige envelope with the Columbia insignia in the top left-hand corner. I decided not to open it because I knew it was a rejection letter. The weird part is I wasn’t sad. In fact, I wasn’t disappointed at all.

After discussing it with my uncle, college counselor, teachers, friends, family and my mentors, and listening to their advice and encouragement, it became clear to me where I was going to go. I went on the UCLA website and spent hours looking up housing, possible study-abroad opportunities, majors, and, my favorite part, the Daily Bruin, the campus newspaper. I sent in my Student Intent to Register (SIR) for UCLA.

I started focusing on applying for scholarships. Although UCLA gave me a generous financial aid offer, the grants were not enough to cover everything. I wanted to do everything possible to avoid loans.

After I turned in my SIR, I finally decided to open the envelope Columbia sent me. I hadn’t been rejected—I had been waitlisted. However, I realized I don’t need to attend an Ivy League college to go to a great school. And I don’t need to go far away from home to be happy and pursue a better future. In fact, I realized the opposite. Having a stable family, being happy in a place I can call home and still being able to pursue my education at one of the top colleges is really what I wanted all along. I am happy with my decision. I am now a UCLA Bruin and proud of it!


Click here to read …

Q & A: Getting ready for college. A counselor answers questions on how to prepare for the application process.

Applying for financial aid. Starting early made it easier for Sasha, 19, and her parents.

Other stories by this writer …

Journalist in the making. A disorganized journalism class and being censored still taught Jennifer, 18, about being a reporter. (March – April 2006)