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East Side Goes Ivy

by Tigerlily Theo Hopson

Lavon Sykes, Milani Aviles, and Tigerlily Hopson with their acceptance letters.

As the snow dusted the street outside, I stood in between my mama and my brother. I stared at the blue admissions portal link embedded in a Yale email. My hands shook and my heart pounded. Finally, I closed my eyes and clicked. Dancing bulldogs welcomed me as “Congratulations!” and “Yale Class of 2025” flashed across the screen.

Tears began to run down my face as I curled up in my mama’s arms. I did not understand. How could I, a low-income girl who struggles with dyslexia, get into Yale? My thoughts immediately ran to the warm quote covered walls of East Side, the brightly decorated classrooms, the teachers, and the staff. It was East Side who had helped me find my voice and led me on the path to my dreams.

There is a school for everyone. This is what my East Side advisor Adriana told me in 10th grade, and it has always stuck with me. For students who have sixties and for those who have one-hundreds, everyone can find a college fit. Not everyone yearns to enter the stuffy ivory tower of the Ivy League, and for good reason, but for those who do it is important to know it is not an unreachable goal.

Since 2008 up until this year, there have been 922 graduates of East Side and out of that four (0.43 percent) have been accepted into Ivy League schools. Between 2012 to 2014 three students gained acceptance to Cornell University (one acceptance per year), and in 2018 one student gained acceptance to Yale University. However, this December, the graduating class of 2021 had three students gain early acceptance to Harvard, Yale, and Cornell, setting a striking precedent that East Siders can go Ivy.

Many East Side college applicants, myself included, come from low-income families and have parents who did not graduate from college. With no connections to well-known universities, less support at home, and fewer educational and extracurricular opportunities than those who go to private or specialized high schools, gaining acceptance to prestigious colleges often feels impossible. Lavon Sykes, who was accepted to Harvard University, was shocked when he opened his admissions portal: “I stared at it for like ten seconds, just struck. It was unbelievable.”

Milani Aviles had to wait five hours before opening her Cornell admissions portal, since she promised to open it with her sister in Texas. When she finally reached her destination she ran into the house, opening the portal as she went. As she read the admissions decisions she stuttered, and her family cried. Soon everyone was jumping up and down with joy. “It was unforgettable,” she said.

For Lavon, an appealing factor of Harvard was its financial aid offering, which upon his acceptance proved to be as generous as it was said to be. Many are scared away from Ivy League colleges because of the near 75,000 dollar per year price tag, but in reality, they have some of the most generous financial aid programs in the country because of their large endowments. For students whose parents make below a certain benchmark (usually 65,000 dollars), the school will cover all expenses through grants, leaving the student loan-free.

Jerome Furman, East Side’s college counselor, evaluates colleges like domiciles. He compares a school with a high-acceptance rate to living with one's parents, a school with a middle acceptance rate to renting an apartment, and a school with a low acceptance rate to buying one’s first house. All of these options are valid, but it is important to find what type of school (or “house”) will fit best with one’s preferred lifestyle in the next phase of one’s life.

“Buying a house” requires a lot of preparation, planning, and hard work. Jerome recommends starting the application process as early as possible, targeting and finding a specific school of interest, and applying early which raises one’s chance of acceptance considerably. “Students need to know that every year is significant and waiting to get your act together in senior year is too late!” Jerome said.

Milani expressed a similar sentiment: “My main advice is don’t slack off, don’t procrastinate. What saved my life is that I finished my college essay in the summer… I tried to get everything done as early as possible.”

Lavon said that at the beginning of high school he did not think a lot about college, and instead focused on having fun, making friends, and exploring his interests. “I stuck to doing things that I loved. Luckily for me that’s one of the things colleges look for. They love to see commitment and they love to see that you are following your passions and becoming good at what you set your mind to,” he said.

Although specialized high schools such as Brooklyn Tech or Stuyvesant may offer more Advanced Placement courses and other opportunities, at East Side students are receiving more support. Brooklyn Tech, for example, has a student body of almost 6,000 kids, yet according to the students Lavon has spoken to they only have one or two guidance counselors. “They tell me regularly that they don’t get any help on anything. They do everything by themselves or with the help of Google,” Lavon said.

At East Side, on the other hand, Jerome offers each student individualized attention and guidance. Starting in 11th grade, he begins conversations with students on what they are looking for in a college and sends out Google Forms to gain more information. In 12th grade, he creates a relationship with every student— meeting once a week with each person, editing essays and supplements, answering questions, and helping students fill out financial aid paperwork. Milani said that without Jerome, she would still be stuck on the FAFSA. She said from day one Jerome was like, “I’ll bring my fifty, you bring your fifty, and that’s how we’ll get this done.”

On a similar note, the way East Side teaches, project-based instead of test-based, helps students gain real-life experience and grow as critical thinkers. Students are always asked to push themselves, and although there are limited AP options, East Side students have access to College Now classes and honors seminars.

Each and every teacher and administrator at East Side cares for their students, and that makes all the difference. “I am pretty sure my mom always saw me going to like Stuyvesant, but I am really happy and she is happy herself that I stayed at East Side. It has really nourished my potential and helped me grow,” Milani said.

As exciting as universities like Harvard, Yale, or Cornell are, the idea of attending a large wealthy predominantly white institution can be intimidating. Milani expressed that her biggest fear is imposter syndrome. “What if I am not enough?” she sometimes wonders. “Am I really up for an Ivy League school when I come from such a small public high school?”

Lavon believes Harvard will be a big culture shock: “I will be out of my element for a lot of things. You know, a poor Black kid who goes to Harvard which is predominantly white, a lot of legacy kids, a lot of rich kids… But I think once I get there I will find my community.”

No matter what college you are striving for, if it is CUNY Hunter or Harvard, East Side will back you up. Each student has different needs and goals, and East Side teachers and staff will help every student find a school that will meet these. Jerome voiced that his number one job is reminding students, “That they have someone in their corner supporting them, even if I am the only one. In the end, I have students who have been told that they ‘can’t’ their whole lives, let me be the one who says that they ‘can!’”

Our dreams have no boundaries, and if you are a middle or high school student who dreams of the Ivy League, then you too can accomplish that dream. This year three East Siders took a seat at the table of three prestigious universities, and next year it could be you.

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