Little Details (3/26/09)

One good turn …

March 26, 2009

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

I still have the acceptance letter from the Ivy League school. I thought they’d made a mistake by admitting me — a student from an obscure state college — to their graduate program. I expected a telephone call rescinding the offer, a curt apology for the oversight. I withdrew $200 from my savings account and sent in the non-refundable deposit without thinking.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s former National Security Advisor, was on the faculty. I indulged the fantasy of becoming his research assistant, translating Polish-language texts to further his research in international affairs.

It wasn’t meant to be. Four paragraphs into the letter, the graduate program “regretted” their inability to offer me fellowship funds. The next paragraph, cautionary in tone, estimated living expenses — on top of stratospheric tuition — would run hundreds of additional dollars per month.

A second acceptance letter arrived from a quality, albeit less prestigious program. I did the math. With a tuition fellowship, a loan and a part-time job, I could swing it. Attending my dream school would have required embracing a financial nightmare. I couldn’t fathom the level of debt I’d have to assume. I ended up in Pittsburgh instead of New York City. I fell in love with my studies and the handsome doctoral student who lived upstairs.

My nephew had his own dream of attending a prestigious prep school. He did all the right things. He studied hard, earned excellent grades and performed loads of community service as a Boy Scout. He took the entrance exam, earning one of the top scores.

The acceptance letter arrived. A partial scholarship was dangled. Although the gesture was appreciated, it was a mere chink in impenetrable armor separating him from a stellar high school education. He needed a full scholarship if he was ever to grace the halls of the esteemed institution from which young men headed to places like Boston College, Holy Cross and Stanford. His parents, neither of whom attended college, didn’t realize there might be room to negotiate.

The application was withdrawn. My nephew accepted the seeming inevitability. It was on a visit to Boston that the topic came up and I asked my nephew and his parents if I could make an overture to the school. My background in college admissions told me there might be some wiggle room.

With their permission, I penned a letter to the headmaster. I was able to depict a young man who stayed the course when the world around him crumbled. His sister, suffering from a chronic illness, went through a series of dismaying hospitalizations. With his parents enmeshed in her care and the requisite wrangling with insurance companies, he managed to do his schoolwork, prepare meals and get himself off to school each day. When his parents’ marriage ended, he started working to ease financial stresses at home. When an unmet mortgage displaced his family, he lost his backyard framed by tulip trees but not his desire to study and achieve. Good grades are one thing. Good grades when life throws you a curve ball are entirely another.

The headmaster called me the day he received the letter. I acknowledged I shared more than perhaps he wanted to know. I explained I did so with my nephew’s permission.

“We really wanted him to enroll,” the headmaster said. “Why didn’t his parents say they needed more financial help to make this happen? We met with some families three and four times to figure out aid.”

The headmaster’s call, although reassuring, couldn’t help the fact that all of the financial aid was disbursed for the year. My nephew had to wait another year and attend the local public high school cited by state officials for crumbling facilities. He studied hard, joined the band and made friends. He earned straight As and sent the prep school quarterly grades with a note expressing his hope to attend the following year. He asked his teachers for letters of recommendation.

My nephew is now a junior at the prep, attending on a full scholarship. He studies hard, plays rugby and made the National Honor Society. He’s made a strong connection with a history teacher considered the most demanding academic on campus. He waits tables on weekends.

What’s the beautiful piece of this story? My nephew’s scholarship is funded by an alumnus, a self-made millionaire, who received an academic scholarship that enabled him to attend the school decades ago. One good turn truly leads to another.

As college acceptance letters arrive in coming weeks, families must be encouraged to realize that sometimes there is room to negotiate. Too often, too many of us think “no” means “NO.” Sometimes it means maybe.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at or