I was a senior at North Carolina A&T State University when my professor, a Black woman, sat me down with the director of admissions at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and asked me why I wasn't applying. Yes, I had a 3.7 GPA, but I had barely managed to pay for undergrad and I was ready to make money. After being admitted, I realized that a lack of confidence had also been a factor. I'm glad my professor knew to save me from myself, because the truth is, Ivy League schools are looking for our students to attend. But there is a distinct path to get there. Here's how to begin:
1. ENCOURAGE LEARNING
"Preparation starts with the parents getting their kids engaged in a learning culture early in their school career and supporting them through the process," says Sheryl Tucker, a member of Cornell University's board of trustees. Tucker encourages parents to discuss community and world issues at home, connect with teachers and get children involved in extracurricular activities and learning centers such as Kumon and Sylvan Learning Center. "We assume there's only remedial work going on at these centers," says Tucker. "But kids who are getting into the Ivys are using them to learn strategies and get ahead."
2. FIND THE RIGHT PROGRAMS
The Oliver Scholars Program in New York City identifies gifted Black and Latino students from poor, working- and middle-class families and mentors them from the seventh through the twelfth grade. Scholars gain entry to resource-rich high schools and 100 percent go on to college, 32 percent to Ivy League schools. "We look ahead and say, 'Who do you want to be in 10 or 20 years, and what do you have to do to become that person?' " says executive director David Addams. Starting early gives students time to receive solid academic support and positions them to get into the best high schools. Talk to school counselors to find similar programs in your area.
3. BUILD A SUPPORT SYSTEM
"The typical kids who get into an Ivy League school have a village that has helped them get there," Tucker says. "I don't care who they are or what economic background they come from, they have been supported." Tucker was part of a tribe of working moms who researched colleges, financial aid and student life and then shared the info with one another. "When my kids graduated, I thanked every mom because each one did something to help my child," she says.
4. NETWORK STRATEGICALLY
The University of Pennsylvania and Cornell University have support centers for various minority groups. Columbia University has an office of multicultural affairs with programs for undergraduates and for accepted students of color who have yet to make their college decision. "Our Family Tree Mentorship Program works with our Black Alumni Council to provide undergraduates with mentors to discuss identity, emotional health, community consciousness and more," explains Terry Martinez, interim dean of student affairs at Columbia University.
5. SEARCH FOR FUNDING
Most Ivy League schools have billion-dollar endowment funds, allowing them to offer generous financial aid packages. At Harvard University, for example, families earning less than $65,000 are not expected to contribute to college costs. A typical financial aid package can include grants, scholarships, loans and work–study. Visit fafsa.ed.gov, studentaid.ed.gov and ed.gov/ope/trio for guidance on financial aid and student assistance programs. For me, attending Columbia J-School was an investment in myself. Now, at 23, I have my master's and work at ESSENCE—my dream come true. The Ivy League has produced and continues to produce some of the world's top professionals. We deserve to be a part of that number.