Celebrating College

As if this time of year doesn’t hold enough college admission angst, I decided this past weekend to tackle Netflix’s newly released docudrama: Varsity Blues, The College Admission Scandal.

Because I had followed every twist and turn of that case since it erupted two years ago, I figured it would provide a little light distraction as I graded AP World History essays and Humanities reading journals.

I was wrong. In fact, I got NO grading done as I once again descended into the depths of the largest college admission scheme ever prosecuted by the federal government.

Through reenactments and interviews with those involved, the docudrama vividly recounted the lengths to which wealthy and influential parents went to secure spots for their children in some of the nation’s most-selective colleges and universities.

Some paid millions of dollars to buy the help of those who could game the system when it came to admissions to schools including Yale, Stanford, Harvard, USC and many others.

Fifty people – including parents, test administrators and college coaches – were charged in the scheme, which involved hiring people to falsify SAT results, wrongfully secure accommodations for standardized testing and pay off coaches to fraudulently recruit students for sports at which they had no college-level expertise.

At the center of the scandal was a for-profit college consultant who parents paid to bribe coaches and college administrators, establishing a “side door” by which the super rich could push their children to the head of the college admission line.

As college counselor, none of this information was new to me. But I was particularly struck at the end of the docudrama as a group of admissions officials, test administrators and others layered context onto the chaos that too often surrounds the college admissions process, especially when it comes to the scramble to gain access to the nation’s so-called top-tier schools.

“What are we doing to these kids by pounding them into the ground with Top 25 (colleges in America), Top 10, Top 5, because ultimately where you do go to school has little or no affect on what will happen to you in the future,” admonished Barbara Kalmus, an independent education consultant featured in the film.

Added Daniel Golden, author of The Price of Admission, a powerful book on how big money buys big access to top schools: “Forget about USC, go someplace else. You can get a great education almost any place if you want it. The parents in this case didn’t believe that.”

This time of year, those words are particularly meaningful.

As of the end of the week, barreling toward the end of this unprecedented school year, our 21 seniors had racked up 103 college acceptances.

Some of those areto the very same top-tier schools that were the focus of so much attention in the docudrama. But many more are to colleges and universities that don’t make any national Top 25 list, but which our students are eager to explore and perhaps attend.

So yes, Johns Hopkins and UCLA and NYU (all top 30 colleges on U.S. News and World Report’s latest rankings of best national universities) make this year’s list of OVS college acceptances.

But so does Montana State University, a majestic campus in Bozeman where one of our seniors plans to study photography. And Pepperdine University, where one of our seniors is looking at film studies while another is considering business school. And Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, where one of our seniors wants to pursue environmental studies and journalism.

As always, our goal remains to help students find and gain access to their “right fit” colleges and universities, those schools that that are going to fuel their ambitions, sharpen their talents and shape them into the adults they were meant to become.

It’s both easy and crazy making to run to the rankings and compare our acceptance list against those at other schools, keeping a keen eye on those colleges the outside world considers prestigious.

But that does our students a disservice, and it cheapens the curriculum and values that we at Ojai Valley School work so hard to promote.

At OVS, we provide a challenging academic curriculum designed to prepare students for college. But that preparation also includes teaching students to climb a rock face and ride a horse and belt out a solo in the school musical. It involves pushing students to get out of their comfort zones, to contribute to and become part of something larger than themselves, to expand their perspectives and see where and how they fit into the larger world.

In that way, college preparation never stops as OVS.

This week, as many of our seniors enjoyed a gentle rafting trip down Utah’s San Juan River, our sophomores took the PSAT while most of our juniors sat for the first time for the SAT. The juniors also are in the midst of working through the college counseling curriculum, preparing to take on the application process next year.

There are more than 3,000 colleges and universities in this country, and the students will spend a lot of time figuring out which of those will fit best with their talents, interests and passions.

But in so many ways, those choices are simply an extension of a philosophy they’ve been living as OVS students. It’s quite a journey, and I’m lucky enough to be along for the ride.

Dreams Fulfilled

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The OVS Cross Country Team (left to right): Coach Apple Alvarez, Tracy Zeng, Ally Feiss, Gilim Bae, Sunny Chang, Winnie Chang and coach Fred Alvarez — Photo by Momoe Takamatsu

When I was in high school, a time so long ago my students will assure you dinosaurs roamed the earth, I was a pretty fast runner.

I ran cross country and track all four years, and eventually got IMG_2656fast enough that I was able to run Division I cross country in college. But for as fast as I was in my high school years, I was never the fastest on my team, not to mention my league.

I was a middle-of-the-pack runner, good enough to earn a varsity letter three out of my four years, but not good enough on my own to earn a post-season CIF berth, the holy grail of high school sports in California. And my high school team, filled with runners faster than me, was never fast enough either to qualify collectively for CIF.

That was the dream for every member of my cross country team, and one that for me had obviously gone unfulfilled for decades.12208743_747617005343947_8825205504728621762_n

Until this past weekend.

On Saturday, for the first time in Ojai Valley School history, our girls’ cross country team competed in the CIF Southern Section preliminaries, a race that drew more than 3,000 high school runners from across Southern California.

Decked out in their new OVS jerseys (thanks Mr. Floyd!), my five girls toed the line against 148 other runners from 22 schools, nearly every one with a larger student population than ours. My runners were nervous. I told them there was no need to be.

IMG_4572 (1)Because as far as I was concerned, we had already won. Our victory was just getting to CIF, for being a team that sweated and bled and cried together to accomplish a goal that at the start of the season seemed unattainable.

I told them not to worry about how they placed, or how the team finished. I told them before they started to have fun, and to remember to look up at some point during the race and remind themselves where they were, and what they had accomplished together.

And I told them this: I have never been prouder of any team I have coached, and no team I have coached has ever displayed more heart.

These girls this season gave me a great gift. Yes, I finally got to go to CIF, only three decades later than planned. But there was more to it than that. I got to see these athletes develop a power they never knew they had, the power to come face-to-face with adversity and keep moving forward.

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Junior Gilim Bae was the top runner for OVS, running a personal best at the Riverside course — Photo by Momoe Takamatsu

I got to see a group of girls – three from China, one from Korea and one from Ojai – make the always mysterious transformation of going from strangers to friends to sisters. They will have this bond the rest of their lives.

Through a flurry of fortunate circumstances, I got to coach the team this year alongside my eldest daughter, a talented young woman as smart as she is dedicated to the teaching profession. Her star is rising, and I beam with pride. My heart nearly bursts when I think of the role model she provided these high school runners this season.

And I got to forge deep friendships, the kind that will last forever. In a world where so much goes wrong on a daily basis, a world where the spotlight shines too often on misery and the prospects of doom, what these girls achieved this season was commendable, and should be celebrated.

What greater gift could there be? Thank you girls for a phenomenal season. Go Spuds!

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Freshman Tracy Zeng (left) and junior Winnie Chang gut it out on the Riverside Cross Country course — Photo by Momoe Takamatsu