I’m at Kenyon, not Harvard… And That’s Good

I’ll admit it: before I came to Kenyon, I was Ivy-crazed.

My private high school, intentionally or not, prioritized prestige. Many of my classmates came from incredibly privileged backgrounds: wealth I couldn’t even fathom inherited from their grandparents, multimillion-dollar homes, new Lexus sports cars for their sixteenth birthdays, and legacies that went upwards of four generations back at Ivy League colleges. Their winter breaks were filled with shopping sprees on 5th Avenue and Valentino bags, skiing retreats to Burlington at the most expensive resorts available, and glasses of hundred-dollar wine in Venice. This obsession with status and showiness saturated almost every facet of life, even and especially for students like me who found it unusual and unnatural, but it saturated nothing nearly so much as it saturated the college process. We all wanted to get into the best universities possible, and to us, that meant the university with the most recognizable and respected name.

My high school had developed a reputation as an Ivy-feeder school amongst the greater Buffalo area. Students not even in the top 25% of any given graduating class regularly went on to schools like Princeton, Yale, and Harvard. Within just this past year (my graduating class), two students below the top 20% went to Cornell, one to Columbia, one to Dartmouth, and one to Georgetown. Within the top 20%, students went to MIT, Stanford, Yale, and Cornell; other acceptances included Columbia, Princeton, CalTech, UPenn, UChicago, and Swarthmore. The lists of schools we were applying to mirrored the U.S. News college rankings list to a scary degree, and we all felt the pressure to wear our college’s name like a badge. We were Ivy-or-bust. We were prestige-focused. We were stressed beyond measure; we knew something wasn’t right yet couldn’t get out of the system.

By most accounts and measures, I was the most stressed of all. The higher in the class’s rankings you were, the more people there were who watched you fixedly to see where you applied, where you were accepted, and where you went. As the valedictorian, I could feel the stares. I’d overhear classmates I barely knew whispering, “Oh, she’s going to Harvard,” as I passed in the halls. I didn’t even apply to Harvard—it didn’t seem like my kind of place—but sometimes I found myself wondering if I should just to prove that I really was as intelligent as they thought, that I wasn’t a fraud. I could feel some of those same classmates who whispered about me secretly hoping I’d get rejected, and I was terrified of becoming that fallen icon they imagined. They wanted proof that academic ranking wasn’t everything to justify their own lack of effort during high school; they wanted proof that a shake-the-status-quo girl without old money could never usurp their systematic power and privilege, no matter how intelligent she was. My rejections could prove that to them.

To make matters worse, the legendary story of the valedictorian from two classes before me still lingered as an expectation. She, also a girl without old money wanting to change the system, had been accepted into every college she applied to, not a single failure. Many of my academic interests matched hers, and as I went through my senior year I wondered if my teachers were sometimes seeing my college process as matching hers, expecting a similar result.

I bought into the idea of prestige for far too long. I applied early decision to an Ivy League school, and while I did strongly like the school and envision myself there, I sometimes wonder if I would’ve liked it as strongly as I did without the name also attached. When I got deferred, I felt crushed, deflated. I applied frantically to nine more schools, including three other Ivies, one Ivy-level school not technically in the Ivy League, four selective liberal arts colleges, and one other top-tier university. With the exception of Kenyon and another safety school (sorry, Kenyon! I love you!), no school was ranked below 14 by the U.S. News.

I want to clarify that I didn’t choose my college list based solely on prestige; I didn’t apply blindly to every Ivy and Ivy-level school just because they were top-tier. Regardless of how well-ranked they were, schools whose cultures I didn’t feel comfortable with or whose academic priorities didn’t match mine didn’t receive an application from me. I did, however—and I fully cop to this—research and visit colleges based on their reputations and the information I’d heard about them, and colleges that didn’t match my desired level of prestige didn’t receive any attention besides a preliminary Google search. There could’ve been a college that matched everything I wanted out there, but I likely still wouldn’t have applied to it if it wasn’t “reputable enough” by my pretentious standards.

By the time I (thankfully) matured beyond the Ivy-crazed mentality and chose to come to Kenyon, I was completely done talking about the college process. I wanted to erase it from my memory, to obliterate it. I knew Kenyon was the place for me, and I wanted everyone else to also intrinsically know Kenyon was the place for me, because it was, infinitely more than the “more prestigious” schools that had originally been higher on my list.

Instead, I had to keep talking about the college process and reliving it, over and over. Each time someone new—a teacher, a classmate, a friend’s parent—asked me where I was going next fall and I answered “Kenyon!” with a smile, their lips would purse, a small sign of discomfort. “Where is that, again?” they would ask. We both knew they weren’t asking “again”; they’d never heard of it. Meanwhile, my close friends going to MIT, Stanford, and Cornell never received blank stares. They received excited questions of “What are you studying?” and hearty congratulations for all their hard work. By the time I explained Kenyon’s rural Ohio location, no one thought to ask me what I wanted to study. No one thought to congratulate me; adults I didn’t know immediately assumed I was the “dumb one” of my friend group.

When my dad visited over Parents’ Weekend, he expressed similar frustrations. “I love Kenyon,” he said. “But when I tell other adults I know that you’re at Kenyon, they never know what Kenyon is. They seem to assume it’s a waste of your academic talent. I’ve found myself constantly justifying Kenyon by saying, ‘Yeah, she got into School X and School Y, too, but she chose to go to Kenyon.’ Then, when they hear these other school names they recognize and realize you considered Kenyon better than them, they take Kenyon more seriously.”

Neither I nor my dad wants to justify Kenyon through other school’s names, but often we feel compelled. Breaking out of the Ivy craze isn’t a one-time phenomenon that then makes all others’ opinions not matter. It’s a constant commitment to reminding yourself that you truly are at the best school possible for you, even when no one else seems to think so.

The entire culture surrounding the college process is crap. The idea that one set of schools is universally better than all others completely disregards that different people learn differently and need different environments. In retrospect, the individualistic, competition-focused atmosphere of the Ivies completely would’ve drained me, and I would’ve done much worse both academically and personally than I’m currently doing at Kenyon.

Furthermore, I’ve had the opportunity here to right off the bat join clubs, take interesting classes beyond simple “English 101,” and become an integral part of Kenyon’s campus. Many of my friends who are in the Ivies or similar places haven’t had as many of those opportunities, meaning that in four years when we’re applying for jobs or grad schools, I’m going to have many more experiences and skills under my belt.

I’ve also sensed a feeling of complacency and perhaps entitlement from them: they think the school names on their degrees can alone buy them good jobs and six-figure salaries. I’m aware that Kenyon doesn’t enable that for me, and I’m grateful. I’ll need to rely on my personal knowledge, abilities, and résumé, and so I spend much more time actively trying to succeed and pursue opportunities than my Ivy friends who I occasionally catch sitting back unfazed and unworried. In the ever-changing career landscape that exists in the modern world, skills, not just a college name and a sense of entitlement, are much more important—so maybe my friends should be worried.

All in all, Kenyon is by far the best place I could be right now. The Ivy craze hell that led me here only makes me appreciate Kenyon more, and I wish more kids in positions like I was in last year would ignore the pressure to aim for the highest-ranked schools possible. Transcending others’ expectations to do what you truly want to do ultimately increases resilience and results in a wildly better college experience.


Image Credits: Feature, Writer’s Own