This post was written by Kevon Manners, a rising junior at Queens College. It was originally published on The Prospect, a college admissions and high school/college lifestyles website. You can follow Kevon on Twitter and The Prospect on Facebook or Twitter.
So last week I finished my sophomore year of college. I got a little story to tell.
About two years ago today I was still in the midst of my college process. I was torn in between two schools: my second choice, Goucher College, and fourth, St John's University. Unfortunately Goucher's tuition (even after scholarship) was still too much for my parents to afford. They didn't want me to have too many loans to pay when I graduate, so I had to cross it off. That left me with St. John's at the end of my senior year of high school. It was a good school that I liked and visited that I wouldn't need to pay board for. We were still working on an appeal letter for a scholarship I applied to, but that was the plan.
Of course, I was thrown another curveball a few weeks later when they rejected my appeal letter. St John's was really my last option for schools that I applied to that would still take me nearly 2 months after the May 1st decision deadline. I had no other choice but to scrape the bottom of the barrel and dust off my CUNY application. There were a few CUNY schools I applied to that I didn't even bother checking the status on. There was a green check next to Queens College so I said, "Hey that sounds close. Sure." I literally said, "Um, okay sure" to my choice in higher education. Ha.
That was the easy part. You see, I came from a school where if you go to CUNY, you're either poor, want another chance to apply to your favorite school, or a bum. For me, I guess it was a little bit of all three. Explaining my 'choice' to my friends and classmates would be difficult. So I didn't. I lied to a lot of my closest friends about where I go to school instead. I figured if I could keep up the St. John's facade for another year while I applied to a more favorable school to go to for my sophomore or junior year, I would be in the clear.
Obviously that didn't happen so I started telling people the truth over last year's winter break and that summer. Luckily I didn't get many harsh reactions (to my face, at least). Most people understood or didn't care enough to have a negative reaction.
Now, going into my sophomore year, I had a problem.
Sure, I hated Queens College and wanted to leave ASAP, but I wasn't cool with everyone WANTING me to. When I talked to my college advisers, they just told me it'd be a good "stepping stone" and needed to remind me that wherever I transfer to would be the only school written on my degree. When I visited Packer (my high school), most teachers gave me the "Oh, okay... " response when I told them where I go to school. That hurt a little, because I didn't want to just tolerate half of my college experience. I wanted to LIVE it, like everyone should. I didn't want to keep resisting new friendships and hiding that I'm a dancer, or artist, or musician in fear of getting too attached to those programs.
I auditioned for an a cappella group in the fall. They're the Queens College iTones. I can say that that was the beginning of my transformation into a Queens College student. Being a part of something bigger than myself that I could share not only with the people in my new community, but with 17 other people that love it just as much as I do is invaluable. That kind of love and support was exactly what I needed at that point in time to continue my college career. And the networking was crazy. I didn't know so many great people go to this school until I met some of these guys' friends. I finally felt like I was at a home-away-from-but-not-to-far-from-home.
Now, there was just one more piece to my college self-acceptance puzzle: the CUNY Service Corps. I applied to the Corps last spring, just hoping for a job and something to do with my acquaintance-less free time. What I got out of it this year was immeasurable. The opportunity to understand what it's like being an educator at Make the Road New York was a necessary turning point in my career as a student. And leaving work every week knowing that I helped someone new to this country feel like it isn't so bad here after all was the icing on the cake. Service is one of the only reasons I am where I am today and to dedicate my time to giving back over a lengthened period of time closed the circle.
What really drove the experience home for me was a speech given at the CUNY Service Conference by CUNY COO and Vice Chancellor Allan Dobrin. He was the most laidback, off-the-cuff of the speakers, but he was the truest. He told us the reason the Service Corps (from his perspective) was created: It was an attempt to remove the stigma that is associated with CUNY schools and their students, the exact reason I made myself so miserable for the past two years of being associated with this institution. He wanted the rest of New York City to understand that we CUNY students are just as effective, intelligent and crucial to this city's future as, let's say, a Colombia or NYU student. He also made an effort to detail how driven we are, due to some of our less-than-favorable living situations growing up and the responsibility a lot of us have to our families. While the words were meant for encouragement and closure, they were more inspiring than anything else to me. Vice Chancellor Dobrin illustrated what my place is in this city as a college student and backed it up with the 288 hours of service I did two semesters prior.
After that, this whole college thing finally made sense to me. It's not all about how much money you spend over four years, or how nice your campus looks, or how many celebrities went/go to your school. It's about how you live it, and at the end of day, how that living makes you FEEL on the inside. I know of people who go to the school they paid/will pay $30,000+ for that semester and stayed in their dorm all day, drank, and slept through all of their classes, met no one new, and ended up failing out. I also know of people who go to the school they paid $6,000 for that year and have a 3.8-4.0 GPA, are in several honors programs, in leadership of 2+ clubs and part of Greek life. Okay, they drink pretty often too BUT THE POINT IS the true value is in what you make of your college years. Not how many zeros in debt you are after.
And I am in no way trying to rag on private colleges. You guys have some of the best schools in the country, point blank -- best professors, best facilities, best clubs, best food, best reputations, the list goes on and on. But don't hate the little guy for being the little guy. We may not be pretty, but we have great personality.
And I wouldn't feel comfortable ending this without detailing how special QC is as its own school. We did get featured in the NY Times last year for being awarded second best "bang for you buck" higher education in the U.S. (second to Amherst). I guess it is cool to know I'm not entirely wasting my time waking up for my 8 a.m. class, but the most impressive thing I have found about this school is its diversity. It seems like something small, considering I've survived one semi-diverse private school already mostly unscathed, but it's not to be overlooked. Walking into a class and seeing 4 hijabs, 3 yarmulkes, and a few snapbacks among the heads of my classmates, along with someone in a wheelchair that had little problem getting to that class is truly a blessing and one thing I can say I will leave college a better person after experiencing. It's cliché, but I leave campus everyday feeling proud to be an American.
So, to conclude, I wrote this long-winded Facebook status-turned-essay I guess because I felt like I owed it to some of my friends as an apology or just an honest explanation. Or maybe I'm trying to inspire someone. I don't know. But do take away this: College can suck. Or it can be awesome. But that's mostly up to you, just like the rest of your life. You can decide you hate yourself everyday because of your school or job or home and need to escape to somewhere more comfortable, or you can accept the Terms & Conditions and make the best of it.
I was upset about where I go to school for a long time, but I decided that seeing different faces wherever I go on campus, saving my parents and myself tens of thousands of dollars, giving back to the city I grew up in for as long as possible, and kissing my mom goodbye every morning are things that are important to me (or at least important enough to tolerate four years of Queens College and its crowded high schooler-filled buses for) and here I am, pretty happy about my future. There's a lot more I can be doing for myself (studying a little harder, getting a little more involved on campus, thanking God a little more), but I definitely feel like I'm on the right track to somewhere, which is good enough for me. So the next time you step onto your campus, or through the doors to your college, or even hit the log-in button to your online class, remember why you're there and what you're going to do with it.
That's all I've got for now. Count your blessings y'all.
Queens College, Class of 2016. Let's go Knights.