Giselle grew up in South Los Angeles, just a mile from the University of Southern California, one of the campuses called out in the news last week after federal prosecutors exposed a scheme in which they charged more than 50 people who conspired to cheat the college admissions system.
Giselle’s life couldn’t be more different from those of the teenagers whose wealthy parents allegedly paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to get their kids into elite colleges. But she does share one thing with them: A desperate desire to get into college.
Just days after news of the scandal broke, I spent a weekend with Giselle and 40 other young people at a retreat my summer camp runs for college-bound kids in underserved communities. In contrast to the parents who paid private consultants to create phony versions of their children to impress admissions officers, we were trying to encourage our young people to discover, reveal, and care for the most authentic versions of themselves.
What I heard was overwhelming and inspiring. Giselle, for one, hopes to be the first in her family to attend college. In no position to purchase the effort, she has worked hard for years to earn a 3.92 grade-point average, she has gotten herself to college application workshops, and she has put hours into filling out stacks of paperwork required to apply for financial aid.
“I want to put myself out there by embracing who I am without feeling judged,” said Giselle, who expressed appreciation for the support she got at the retreat. “The boost in confidence made me believe in myself even more, giving me the motivation to apply to colleges despite a fear of rejection.”
In neighborhoods where it’s a stretch to afford an SAT-prep class, let alone hire a high-priced admissions consultant, even thinking about college can be daunting.
“Recently with my senior year experience I have been feeling alone and lost in the college application process,” another student at the retreat said. “It’s been scary.”
On Sunday morning, I took a hike with T, who told me that he feels particularly marginalized. Living with five siblings and his mother, he has no communication with his father.
“As a young black man, I’m constantly told to hide my emotions,” T told me.
He recognizes the destructive behaviors he takes on instead and is trying to find the courage to overcome his fears, make healthy choices, and pursue his passions for running and poetry.
In fact, he has done well enough in track and field to earn an athletic scholarship to a university in another state—the good old-fashioned way. T will need to improve his grades before he can start, and appreciated the time at the retreat to regain focus.
“Camp has been my safe space to quiet the chatter of my mind, expose parts of my inner soul, and give me a push to step out my comfort zone and find peace in a beautiful environment,” he said.
Through efforts like this retreat, my colleagues and I are trying to empower underserved teens to combat the stereotypes and systemic injustices that hold them back. Again and again, I saw them draw on tremendous conviction to tell their stories and share their true selves. Alexander shared how he looks to his Hispanic single mom and Michelle Obama for the motivation he needs to stand up for himself, maintain a high GPA, and pursue veterinary medicine. Desiree, who aims to be a heart surgeon, is excelling at a medical magnet school and a hospital internship, and finding her voice as a young, bisexual black woman.
Fear of failure is a force we must all confront, regardless of socio-economic bracket. As parents, guardians, and educators, we want our kids to be healthy and prepared to survive and thrive in our world despite the challenges.
T, for one, worries that another student will take his spot on the college track team before he can turn his grades around. As we hiked in silence, I feared that his sweat and tears would go to waste while a privileged kid who has never run a lap on the track steps up to the start line in his place.
Still, amid the challenges and setbacks there are remarkable success stories—like Giselle’s. On the very day our retreat began, she reported, she had received acceptance letters from UC Santa Cruz and Cal State Fullerton, bringing her total admissions to nine schools. The headlines may be about fraud and deception, but students like Giselle show what students can do when they dare to be their truest selves.
Dr. Zach Lasker is director of Camp Bob Waldorf, a division of Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles. Camp Bob Waldorf provides opportunities to both Jewish and multifaith families in need of financial support and positive role models.