Written by: Nia Satterfield Brown
The college process is in full swing for the class of 2021. November 1st was the last day for seniors to submit their ED application and with that deadline, lots of stress and anxiety imbued the minds of many. For Black students, there seems to be an added emotional weight, pressure to do especially well because of their skin color, and lack of support, aspects that their white counterparts–generally– do not experience. Below, two Black seniors share their unique experiences about applying to college. They were asked a series of six questions. Members include:
Brianna Bembry ,17-year-old, student at The Chapin School
Jeremy Williams, 17-year-old, student at The Collegiate School
Do you feel supported by your college guidance counselors?
Brianna Bembry: At the beginning, I didn’t feel very supported by my counselor. I’m first-gen, so I really needed someone to hold my hand throughout this entire process and I can’t say my school succeeded at that when I needed it most. There was definitely a lot I had to learn on my own, especially in regards to financial aid and scholarships, because college guidance at my school just doesn’t deal with many students that will rely on need-based aid, so I don’t think they’re the most well-versed in that area. My counselor would often have me look into schools that were notoriously bad with aid, knowing how much money meant to me and my family in this process, which was at times frustrating for me. Of course, I’ve gotten to a place where I’m happy with my list and hopefully most of them will be able to supply the aid that I need, but I wish I had gotten more support in that area because worrying about whether you can afford a school can be so stressful.
Otherwise, my counselor was consistently supportive of my writing, which I genuinely appreciate. I chose to be very honest and vulnerable in nearly all of my pieces, so she made sure that I felt comfortable sharing these parts of myself with admissions counselors. A lot of times, I start to doubt my abilities, but her being proud of the pieces I’ve written is really what’s pushing me through and giving me a lot of optimism about the future.
I will say, though, that my school’s entire college guidance system is pretty flawed in that there’s very inconsistent levels of support across the grade. There’s students like me who see their counselor a few times a semester and have a harder time getting quick responses, while others are having weekly meetings (set up by the counselor, not the student). Overall, it did take me until late summer/fall to feel genuinely supported by my college guidance counselor. I definitely had to learn how to be more upfront about what was working and what I needed to hear in order for her to better support me.
Jeremy Williams: Yes. I think that he is listening to my preferences and guiding me in accordance to them.
Have you been discouraged from applying to certain schools?
Brianna Bembry: I was never outright told that I shouldn’t apply to certain schools, but I think I’ve been a bit discouraged in other ways. I feel like there have been many times when I was encouraged to stay safe than to reach. For example, quite a few schools that should have been categorized as safeties and targets (according to my stats) were often deemed harder for me to get into and moved up on my list. I have another counselor from Prep for Prep, and she disagreed with a lot of the placements and felt like my list was very bottom-heavy. I’ve been able to even it out, but again, it kind of made me doubt my strength as a student.
Jeremy Williams: Not by my college counselor, no. I think I have discouraged myself from applying to certain schools because of their location or things that I’ve heard about their environment.
How do you feel emotionally through this process?
Brianna Bembry: Emotionally, it’s been a lot. I think realizing how corrupt this whole process is has hit me a lot harder than I expected. You really do witness first-hand how money is strategically designed to be the biggest obstacle and how the white and wealthy kids are prioritized. The idea that all my effort to escape one PWI will probably just land me in another can be so paralyzing sometimes. I’m applying Early Decision to my top choice which is beyond anxiety-inducing. I’m honestly not afraid of being rejected, I’m afraid of getting in and not being able to attend because the financial aid package just won’t work. There’s also always that fear, for me, at least, of not finding “my people” or being looked down on because of my identities and background. I’ve put a lot of pressure on myself to not just get into college, but to attend a school with at least some national recognition, not really out of pride, but just because I know how great of an impact it would have on my family. Because I’m on this track that no one in my family has done before, I feel pressured to be the one to break out of this familial cycle, become stable and successful, and eventually move our family up the social ladder. It’s hard, and considering how my interests don’t typically lead to jobs with high salaries, I’m nervous that I won’t be able to do it.
Applying to college really is a lot. I didn’t think it would be this all-consuming and you usually don’t expect that until you’re in it. It’s hard to go through it all from home too, and to not be around friends and teachers who understand and can support. It can be really difficult to stay motivated, positive and up-beat. It’s also really hard to take a break and just breathe because there’s so many deadlines and commitments pulling you in so many different directions.
This year, I started questioning if college will be worth losing so much of myself in the process. It feels like I’m either selling or suppressing parts of myself to get closer to attaining a level of success that’s defined by white people.
Jeremy Williams: Extremely stressed to say the least. Mid to late October has become essay crunch time, and I still have schoolwork on top of that. It’s a disheartening thought that you essentially only have two pages to say something notable enough about yourself to be admitted into a college.
Have students or teachers ever made comments towards you about affirmative action or anything else as such?
Brianna Bembry: No, and I realize there’s a lot of privilege in being able to say that. I’d like to think people have learned who affirmative action truly serves and that those kids of comments would not be tolerated today, but I know that’s not true. People are still ignorant.
Jeremy Williams: Not that I can remember. I won’t entertain the notion that I get in somewhere just because of affirmative action. Wherever I get in, it’s because I’m qualified, not because I’m there for diversity.
Do you feel an added pressure to do especially well because of the color of your skin?
Brianna Bembry: Definitely. Black women constantly have to prove themselves as worthy and intelligent in these predominantly white spaces, so the college process feels like yet another example of how we must go above and beyond the average white person in order to be viewed on remotely the same level. I’m also a Prep kid, so it feels like I’ve been working towards the goal of attending college since the 5th grade, and there’s definitely the added pressure of fitting into Prep’s narrow definition of success.
Jeremy Williams: I think pressure is the wrong word, but I feel something like it. I feel more of a responsibility being one of few Black students coming from a prestigious private school. Not many Black students get the opportunity that I have, so I really do not want to squander it. I’ve been privileged enough to receive the education that I have, so I almost owe it to those who haven’t that I take advantage of this opportunity and use it to the fullest extent. My mom used to tell me “to whom much is given, much is expected,” and I have really taken that saying to heart. I expect the most from myself. If I do not do well, I am the first person to be disappointed in myself.
What do you think could be done to better your experience as you go through this process?
Brianna Bembry: I wish I had a college guidance counselor with a similar racial and/or socioeconomic background as me. My school best serves its white and wealthy students, so to combat this, we need counselors who have lived through the challenges that come with applying to college as a Black person or person of color, a middle to low-income student, or as first-gen. I also wish the seniors before me had been more upfront about how difficult and isolating the process would be so that I could best mentally prepare myself. Finally, I think teachers could be a lot more receptive to the fact that college applications take so much time and energy. Especially during the week leading up to the common November 1 ED/EA deadline, teachers really could have scaled back the workload in order to accommodate us better.
Jeremy Williams: I’m not entirely sure. Maybe we could have less work assigned from our other teachers. Maybe a seminar on what admissions directors are looking for in our writing. I personally helped implement a College Fair for Jamaa (the affinity group for students of color at my school) where alumni came in and spoke about the college application process and college life through the lens of being a person of color. I think it is important to note that people of color often have different experiences at selective, predominantly white institutions than their white peers, and this difference had to be acknowledged in some way. Students of color were inherently missing something with the pretext that the college application process can be standardized for everyone. It can’t be because everyone is different.