by Sonny Stephens
Austin High School, Maroon News
Growing up, I had big dreams: Become an engineer. Become a movie star. Become the president. You name it.
I always wanted to be the best at whatever I did. And, as an only child, I have been naturally well-receptive to praise.
When I was in the second grade, I won the Ivy League Award at the end-of-year celebration. At the time, I had no idea what the “Ivy League” was. I soon learned that the Ivy League was a collection of eight of the oldest, most prestigious schools in the nation: Dartmouth College, the University of Pennsylvania and Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Princeton and Yale universities.
Early on, school was easy. Over time, I increasingly desired to attend one of the prestigious institutions, following my high school graduation.
My dream school was Columbia. New York City. Culture. Prestige. Columbia seemed to have it all. It also seemed attainable.
Schools like Harvard, Princeton and Yale make up the "Holy Trinity." They were schools that I never imagined myself getting accepted to, even under the most ideal circumstances.
So, Columbia was the goal. If I could make it there, I would be satisfied.
A Great-grandmother's Inspiration
Upon beginning high school, I was still caught up in my middle-school obsessions: popularity, fitting in and avoiding embarrassment. College was at the back of my mind; I just wanted to get by.
At this point, my great-grandmother was still living with my family. She serves as my chief source of inspiration to this day. Her greatest dream was to watch me graduate from high school.
She passed away during the spring of my freshman year. From that point on, my perspective and focus began to shift. No longer did I care so much about getting by and fitting in. Instead, I wanted to fulfill my great-grandmother’s dream by graduating—and doing so as the most successful student possible.
Transition from Junior to Senior Year
Of course, I did not make it to the Ivy League easily.
As cliché as it sounds, high school truly has been a roller coaster. The past four years have been filled with high anxiety, tension and drama. However, I have learned so many things throughout the course of my high school experience.
I have learned that there is power in community, friendship and family.
Junior year was by far the most stressful year of my life. Everything felt like it had a stake in my future. Any mess-ups I made would, indeed, affect me. But, I found endless solace and support through my amazing friends. We all did so well together because we were all going through the same things.
Junior year was my year of sleepless nights, but it also was the year I became the Student Council president. Although my first two years of high school were bumpy, I found that the final two years were shaping up to be formative and momentous for me.
Once I had made it to the process of writing my actual applications, I was weary of thinking about where to apply. Was I really Ivy League-material? Whenever people would ask me what my top choices were, I was wary to say they were Harvard, Yale, Columbia or Stanford. Any time I mentioned an elite school, I would get a look of doubt—eyes that would say, “Okay, but where do you really think you are going to end up?”
So, I would avoid conversation and thoughts of college, just focusing on the things right in front of me and blurring out whatever was on the horizon.
This was much to the chagrin of my family.
I did not apply to any school early. I was far too wary of putting my entire life down on paper. I was wary of the academic load, which does not diminish senior year. In fact it only gets harder. I just did not feel ready.
It was not until October that I finalized my list of colleges: the University of Texas at Austin, the University of California at Berkeley, Michigan University, Rice University, Georgetown University, Stanford University—and Columbia, Princeton, Harvard and Yale. This list consists of a majority of “reach schools,” as it would for any student. If I could reach Columbia on the hierarchy, I would be satisfied.
In November and December, I dedicated a majority of my time to crafting the best applications possible. For the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, I did not even leave my house. After I submitted each application, I would pray for the best with my family. They all sat with me through this process. They also helped make sure that the essays I was writing sounded like me.
My first acceptance came from UT Austin Dec. 18. It was expected, but appreciated.
January was the interview season. I met with alumni from all my top choices (except Columbia) to make my case and to determine whether I was a good fit for the school.
Time was moving fast. I always was wondering if there was something more I could do.
I came from school at about 7 p.m. Feb. 11. I was excited already because my letterman jacket had arrived. It fit perfectly, and reinforced my abiding love for Austin High School. I ate dinner and then started doing homework in the living room. I kept being pestered by my grandfather about household chores. He needed me to bus my table, put away my shoes, etc. He came into the living room again and said my mom was on the phone and needed to talk to me.
My mom was in tears, sobbing into the phone. I thought something terrible had happened. Finally, after pleading for her to explain to me what was going on, she cried out, “You got into Yale!”
It did not sound real at first. It did not sound like words that would register in my head. I visited Yale over the summer and fell in love with the school. It felt so ideal that it seemed absolutely unfeasible as a choice for me. It represented something so much more.
The next two months were unreal.
So much stress had been lifted off my shoulders. I began to imagine my future at Yale. I imagined who I could become at Yale—and I fell in love with that person.
I received another “likely” letter from Columbia. My childhood dream came true. My top two choices wanted me so badly that they sent me letters saying that they had full intention of accepting me.
March 31 was Ivy Day. After this day, I would know exactly what my options were. I had good feelings going into the day, even though I had been rejected by Stanford and had been waitlisted at Michigan.
I knew that, at worst, I would end the day with acceptances from my top two choices.
I opened Columbia first. As expected, I received my formal acceptance. Next was Yale. A giant “Congratulations!” and an adorable bulldog appeared on my screen, as expected.
Princeton denied me, but I immediately moved on. At that point, I did not have a good feeling about the school, especially following my interview.
I opened the Harvard link and saw “Congratulations!” in bold. I flew back in my chair and felt absolutely stunned.
I called my mom and she decided to leave work early because she was overcome with emotion. We went out to dinner and reminisced on this amazing journey through high school.
We had done it. During the past 18 years, she has been my best friend through everything. And, now I have made her so proud.
Today, April 29
I visited Yale and Harvard this past week for Bulldog Days and Visitas, the universities' respective admitted-student programs. I had an amazing time and met amazing people at both schools. I cannot believe I have these two schools to decide between.
My decision: Yale. Go Bulldogs!
Photos: (Top) Senior Sonny Stephens and his mom, Raquenel Jackson, at a celebratory brunch at Austin High School. (Bottom) Newest addition to Yale University's freshman class. Photos courtesy of Sonny Stephens and Maroon News.