MICHEL MARTIN, host:
In about a month's time, some two million high school graduates will become college freshmen. For many, where they go to school is the result of proximity or luck, or family tradition. But for others, particularly middleclass and affluent Americans, the goal is to get into the college or university of their choice and that is an increasingly expensive, time-consuming, and tense process.
But what actually is that process really all about? Pulitzer Prize-winning author David L. Marcus wanted to know, so he spent a year tracking a successful guidance counselor, Wade Smith and a group of students at Oyster Bay Senior High School in Long Island. It's a detailed and surprisingly emotional account of just what it's like trying to get into college these days.
David Marcus joins us now from Long Island, and he's accompanied by Kevon Mespa(ph), one of the students whose story is featured in the book. Kevon Mespa is now a student at New York University, NYU, which we hoped turned out to be the right fit. We'll find out. Thanks to you both. Thank you for joining us.
Mr. KEVON MESPA: Thank you.
Mr. DAVID MARCUS (Author): Thank you.
MARTIN: David, how did you choose this particular location for the book? Why did you go there?
Mr. MARCUS: Michel, I just kept on hearing about this amazing guidance counselor and I was doing a series of stories for a newspaper, Newsday, and I just decided to take a look. And when I got to school I love this guidance counselor. He just got immersed in the lives of his kids.
MARTIN: Tell me a little bit about the high school that you found to tell the story. Tell me a little bit about the area.
Mr. MARCUS: Well, it's on the North Shore of Long Island, so it's about a 45-minute train ride from New York City, and people think that the North Shore of Long Island's very rich and very white. But, in fact, it's a very diverse school like a lot of suburban schools have become, with kids from all kinds of backgrounds and all kinds of aspirations. And you have kids who have no intention of going to college, and then you have kids who have to get into an Ivy League school. It's really a remarkable array of kids.
MARTIN: Kevon, tell me a little bit about your family. And, by the way, you're not Kevon in the book. David used pseudonyms for all the students in the book. But now that you're kind of grown and out on your own…
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: ...you're allowing us to use your real name which we appreciate.
Mr. MESPA: Yes, definitely.
MARTIN: So just tell me a little bit about how, if you don't mind, how did your family wind up in this community? And when did your parents start talking to you about college?
Mr. MESPA: Well, my parents at different times immigrated into the United States from Iran. My father before the revolution, my mother after the revolution, and they got word of a tiny town called Oyster Bay and they decided to settle. And that's where my brother and I grew up for our whole lives.
MARTIN: Did you always know you would go to college or did you always assume that you would?
Mr. WRIGHT: Well, definitely college was always a must regardless of what we study. And as my parents always say, no matter what you do in life you're going to go to college and be the best at whatever position you get.
MARTIN: David, one of the students you followed in the book is a young African-American woman name Rihanna(ph) and you wrote in Rihanna Tyson's background, college was almost a foreign concept. Her mother never attended one; neither did her brother or step-dad. As for her biological father, he was seldom part of her life. Only her step-brother had gone and now Rihanna was trying to be the second.
And so, talk to me about that, that there are still a lot of kids for whom college is just not part of the equation until they get right to the portal.
Mr. MARCUS: There are so many kids and this school encourage kids whether you're already, especially if their parents did not go to college, this guidance counselor said to kids like Rihanna, you got to go. You've got to get a bachelor's degree. And fortunately, her mother realized it and she did go to school. She's doing really well.
MARTIN: Was it hard for the guidance counselors - and, Smitty, the guidance counselor who you focused the story on also had a staff - but was it hard for him and for some of the other guidance counselors to work with all those different sets of expectations?
I mean, you had the so-called helicopter parents or hovercraft parents who are all over it at every stage, have, you know, opinions about everything. And then you have kids like Rihanna for whom, as you said, college is a foreign concept. Was it hard to mediate those very different attitudes about the process?
Mr. MARCUS: It was really difficult for them. And what they found is that they had to get to know the kids first of all. But then they had to call the parents in and say, you know, just tell me who you are and tell me what your dreams are, and they had to work with that. And they had an odd thing. Sometimes a kid really wanted to go to a fancy college and Smitty, the guidance counselor, would say, you know maybe that's not what you need. Maybe you just need a small place where you can really thrive.
And sometimes kids set their expectations too low, on the other hand, and he would say you're really together. You're really smart. You're going to thrive at college. And a lot of these kids just didn't like high school but now that they're in college and they can just study what they want to study, they are just doing great.
MARTIN: Give an example though, if you would, about exactly what it is that Smitty does? Maybe people wouldn't understand exactly what these guys do.
Mr. MARCUS: Well, I'll give you a couple of examples. First in the case of Rihanna, she had a full schedule at school and then she would go to a pharmacy, to a drugstore and work for hours and hours after school and they wouldn't let her cut back her hours because, you know, it's a big chain and they had their sort of way of doing things.
And Smitty, Mr. Smith went in the afternoon on his own time. He drove over there. I was with him actually, and he went to the manager and he said, look, this young lady wants to succeed. I'm asking you to help her. I'm asking you to cut back her hours until her college essays are done in two months. And the manager hemmed and hawed but finally agreed.
And the second one and I don't want to put Kevon in the spot because I did use a fake name for kids in the book but they're real kids. Kevon went to Mr. Smith a few weeks before school started, senior year started and Kevon told him that his father had been hit by a train and killed. And Kevon's father was a beloved, beloved person in the community, and Mr. Smith made sure I think that Kevon knew that people in the school knew what had happened and cared about Kevon. And that makes a huge difference.
MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about that Kevon and, so David thank you for opening the door there. I did want to ask what difference that having guidance make? What did they help you do that you think you might not have been able to do without their help?
Mr. MESPA: I know for people, like in my case, that fall and summer was quite turmoil. I wasn't just another case of them to help me to get into college. They saw me, they saw my family. They knew what background I came from. They knew the situation I was in at home. And so, you know every time I would meet with Smitty it would not just be a hundred percent of the time talking about my applications.
He'd always ask, you know, 30, 20 percent of our time would be just discussing my life, see how I was doing, how I was handling at home. And so, they really helped me get through everything emotionally including the college admissions process.
MARTIN: So the and now inquiring minds want to know, you decided to go to NYU. Is it the right fit?
Mr. MESPA: You know, yes. I actually found out on my father's birthday, which was very sentimental to me. You know, I really saw it as kind of a sign almost and I knew it was meant to be, and since the day I stepped in I guess the doors, I can't say on campus, but the doors of NYU, I could never see myself anywhere else. It was one of the best decisions I've ever made in my life.
MARTIN: Sounds like another win for Smitty, huh?
Mr. MESPA: Yes.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: David, right? Right?
Mr. MARCUS: Oh, definitely.
MARTIN: But David, again, talking about one of the things that Smitty, the guidance counselor whom you followed does, he has an extensive network of contacts with colleges and university admission officers around the country. He is able to go to conferences where he can kind of work on his network of contacts. And, again, it raises the question of equity.
I mean, and you mentioned in the book that there are a number of parents who perhaps, may even students who grumble about affirmative action and think that that's unfair. But does anybody think, gee, is it really I don't want to call it gaming the system, but when you have a person who's been paid by taxpayers to do all this and that they're kids whose guidance counselors are also being paid by taxpayers to do all this and presumably can't perform at the same level, where's the equity in that?
Mr. MARCUS: Michel, I can't agree with you more. I mean, I think if we would have an honest discussion about education and health care and other issues in this country, we would say that the equity is a huge, huge problem. And we have to rethink how this whole college process goes. It's not fair that the rich get so many advantages and those whose parents have gone to, you know, the same college for generations are legacies.
MARTIN: What are some of the other things that you took away from your year at Oyster Bay about the college process? Particularly the things that people who might just be starting this process might want to know?
Mr. MARCUS: Well, I'll tell you the positive. It was just, it was an incredible thing to watch kids like Kavon mature and think about who they were and who they want to become and that's what the college process, the application process could be.
If we do it right, it's about dreaming. It's about figuring out who you are and where you're going, and it's also about realizing that sometimes you have to make some sacrifices. Sometimes you have to take a year off and work before you can go to college in this economy. And I happen to think that's a good thing, frankly.
MARTIN: Kavon, final question to you, do you have any advice for people who are just starting this journey that you have been on?
Mr. MESPA: Just remember that applying to college is not one thing that has to be accomplished and put aside. You have to remember that it is a process for a reason. You learn a lot about yourself and you realize what you want in life a lot of times. Maybe not, you know, precisely for the rest of your life but you, you know, you learn more while immensed(ph) in it than you do afterwards.
MARTIN: That was Kavon Mespa. He's a New York University student. He was one of the students profiled by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David L. Marcus in his new book, "Acceptance." A legendary guidance counselor helped seven kids find the right college and themselves. And they were both kind enough to join us from Long Island, New York. Thank you both so much for joining us, and good luck to you.
Mr. MESPA: Thank you.
Mr. MARCUS: Thank you.
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MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.