Monday, August 3, 2015

Incredible Learning Chance: What Being an ILCer Means to Me

The Ivy League Connection. I first heard these three words together four years ago, when I was in the 6th grade and my older sister was a sophomore at ECHS. I learned that this organization had given her a scholarship, and this meant I would have my parents all to myself for 3 weeks in the summer while she studied at Brown University. I didn’t think much of it at the time; I knew it was an exciting experience for her but I didn’t really know the details. I remember that she always had to do random things that we’re ILC related, and that sometimes she wore really fancy clothes. Even though I observed all this, I didn’t understand what the ILC experience was until she came back. I had missed my big sister, and as we rode back home from picking her up at the airport, I hung onto every word as she told us about her trip. It sounded like a fantastic adventure, and as an 11 year old girl who loved travel, I knew that in four years, I was going to try and participate in one of these special journeys.

Fast forward 3 years, and it’s the summer after my freshmen year at El Cerrito High School.  One of my upperclassmen friends has just returned from an Ivy League Connection trip to Columbia University, and she tells me all the details over a long run together. I’m impressed by all the new insights she has from college touring, enthusiastic about her adventures in New York City, and interested in the academic experience she gained through her economics course. I can tell she’s been impacted by the trip, and she’s so positive about it and urges me to apply for the program next year. She insists that it’s an amazing opportunity and an incredible experience, and I’m anxious for sophomore fall to come so that I can attempt to be involved with this program.

Jump ahead one more year, and here I am, just returned from my trip to University of Chicago. I did it! I got into the Ivy League Connection, I went on a trip to a prestigious university, and I received all the terrific experience I was expecting and more. I’m proud to be an ILCer, and looking back over the process it took for me to become one, I realize how much it’s affected me as a person.

Back in the fall when Don first came to El Cerrito High School to share the assembly on the Ivy League Connection, I already knew I was interested. After the presentation, I remember talking with my friends excitedly, and having this nervous feeling in my stomach–I wanted so badly to get in for one of the programs, and was scared to face the disappointment I knew was a possibility. In the back of my mind, I wondered if this mix of excitement and angst was what applying to college felt like.

After pondering over the possible programs, I wrote essays for the ones that really appealed to me, desperately hoping that one of my works of writing would be good enough to grant me an interview. Even as I put full effort into each essay, I tried to remove myself from the process so that I wouldn’t be too dejected if I faced rejection. Luckily, my essay for the University of Chicago was good enough, and I got an interview. I agonized over this, hoping that I’d be able to conduct myself in a composed, intelligent manner despite knowing I’d be twitching with nerves. Sitting in a classroom at El Cerrito High School, I reviewed my notes but also began to get to know the other applicants. It felt great just to chat with them, and I was excited at the prospect that these people could potentially be cohort mates. Meeting new people is special, and even in those few hours of waiting I learned many new things. I was the last person to be interviewed, and as I waited the long minutes before the panelists told us their decision, I told myself that even if I didn’t get in, my attempts at getting into the ILC had already made me a better person. Writing the essays had made me focus on work outside of school, as well as reflect on how to represent myself in just a few hundred words. Preparing for the interview had forced me to be self aware and think on my feet, and I knew exposure to these skills would be useful for me even if I didn’t get into the ILC. Finally, the panelists returned from the interview room and listed who had been accepted....and as I heard “Tamika Whitenack”, I let out a giant internal sigh. Following this relief at not having to suppress disappointment, I immediately began to feel giddy with excitement. I was officially an ILCer now, and the experience of that identity would soon begin.

Being an ILCer is so much more than just going on a trip to a university. To begin with, we needed to fill out the online application for our courses and actually get accepted to our schools. This was a stressful process, but beneficial because I think it mimics the real college application process. I had to write more essays, reach out to teachers for letters of recommendation, and fill out health insurance forms. There was an abundance of paperwork and forms to decipher, and we were lucky that Don helped us figure everything out and communicated with UChicago to ensure everything was in order. The Ivy League Connection is also all about sharing our experiences and creating a college going culture in our community, and we are the ambassadors upon which this task is bestowed upon. I first felt the weight of this responsibility after our blogging tutorial, when it hit me how each blog I wrote would need to be a story explaining the full effect this experience was having on me. I was a little worried that I would struggle with blogging, either spending too much time worrying about wording or not having enough to say. However, I was also excited to blog, because I love writing and I believed writing every day would do wonders for my writing skills. Indeed, the process of blogging, though routine at times, was a big part of my experience as an ILCer. I’m glad that the ILC has this requirement for blogging, because it helped me to better my communication skills. Additionally, the reflective thinking I used to write each blog made me appreciate my experiences that much more.

As part of the Ivy League Connection, we also had several events to attend in the spring before our trips in the summer. At our One Market dinner, I got a taste for what University of Chicago would be like, and started learning how to behave appropriately when talking to alumni and distinguished adults. At the school board meeting, I felt a sense of unity with all the other ILCers, and the duty we had to represent our district well and return to spread our knowledge with our peers. At our meet and greet dinner, I got a glimpse at what it would be like sharing meals with the members of my cohort, and how we would become an efficient traveling troupe together. At the final orientation, I was reminded again how much work the ILC requires to run, and was thankful for Don, the chaperones, and the ILC sponsors for making it possible. Each of these events was a crucial part of being an ILCer that pushed me view myself and my role in my community in a larger context.

Finally, being part of the ILC made my trip to the Midwest different from all the other students in programs at University of Chicago. Our cohort started the trip with college touring and dinners, and these experiences were unique and beneficial for all things college related. It was cool to be able to introduce myself to people at UChicago on the first day of orientation and explain to them that I’d been traveling with a group beforehand and visiting schools, and that I’d gotten to talk to alumni and admissions officers over elegant dinners. These special opportunities are a feature of the Ivy League Connection that directly impact the college concerns of the ILCers, and I think they were one of the most important aspects of the experience for me. Additionally, my identity as an ILCer made my experience in my course at UChicago slightly different from the rest of my peers there. I was proud to be there on a scholarship, but this also meant I felt like I had something to prove, and always worked hard to achieve in my class. Sometimes I felt the disparity between my background and the perspectives of other students; it would be interesting to hear a classmate remark in surprise at the number of African American people inhabiting Hyde Park. My high school has a large African American population, and being exposed to the views that other high schoolers in the country and around the world have was an enlightening experience.
New friends from UChicago
Overall, I think being part of the Ivy League Connection gave me a much richer experience than just taking a college level course at a university would have, and I feel that I grew vastly as a person because of it. This experience has given me so much, and I know that it’s my duty to give back to my community with what I have gained. I hope that I have already done an adequate job of representing our district during our trip to the Midwest, leaving honorable impressions with the colleges we visited and informing the other students I met about my high school culture. The magnitude of everything I witnessed on our trip has inspired me to try and do something bigger with my last two years of high school, not just to look good on college applications but because hearing all the accomplishments and ideas of students and professors at the colleges we visited was motivating and empowering. Ultimately, I think the greatest role I hope to play as an ILCer is the role that past ILC alums played for me: to introduce and explain the Ivy League Connection and all the college and personal growth it has to offer to my classmates and to encourage them to take this chance. High school is a time when we are given lots of choices to make and lots of opportunities to participate in, and I think having someone tell you how important it is to take advantage of the good choices and the beneficial opportunities makes all the difference. Once again, I have to thank everyone who makes the Ivy League Connection possible because it is a one of a kind program that helps make our district better. I have had a spectacular experience as an ILCer, and I intend to share this experience and spread my new knowledge with my friends, classmates, school district, and community. 

Thank you ILC!

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