Pacific Ocean spray tickles my nostrils, fills my lungs. I am standing atop a small, out-cropping cliff along the beach of the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, relishing in the surreal moment. My fellow scholars—my dear friends and now travel buddies—are behind me, laughing and capturing the view on their cellphones. With the ocean spanning miles and miles before us, I feel limitless and empowered to aspire to the fullest of my imagination...
As my third and final year with the Collegiate Scholars Program comes to a close, I find my thoughts returning to one of the most exciting weeks of my high-school experience: the Collegiate Scholars West Coast College Tour of August 2015. About forty CSP scholars and staff members flew into Los Angeles, where we stayed in Santa Monica for about half the week before taking a bus up to coast to the San Francisco Bay Area. We visited nine different schools of all types—from big name universities like UCLA, USC, and Stanford, to the smaller liberal arts colleges of Pomona and Pitzer. When we landed in California, I already had my heart set on certain schools like Pomona College and Stanford University with the certainty that, as a senior, my final college list wasn’t going to change very much. However, I was pleasantly surprised when the University of Southern California made an outstanding impression on me. While the size of the school was larger than most of the institutions I’d been considering, I was excited by their overwhelming school spirit (Go Trojans!), and their renowned School of International Relations (which still remains my intended major). Visiting USC and Pomona College proved invaluable during my college interviews with their admissions officers. There’s a big difference between reading about a school online and actually experiencing its campus and classrooms.
One of the things I appreciate about Collegiate Scholars is how the program takes work and play hand-in-hand. While most mornings and afternoons were devoted to experiencing the different colleges and universities, we would spend the evenings exploring what fun Los Angeles and the Bay Area had to offer (and there is indeed plenty). In Southern California we hit big-name destinations like Santa Monica’s famous 3rd Street Promenade, the Santa Monica Pier (the one you see in just about every California movie), the Grove, and Laguna Beach. Laguna Beach was definitely one of the more memorable experiences; there’s nothing quite so surreal as swimming in the ocean with friends while admiring a West Coast sunset on the horizon. The Bay Area proved to be just as exciting as Los Angeles, yet it had its own unique culture and atmosphere compared to the Orange County vibe. That’s one of the things I love about California: it is so vast and diverse that depending what area you’re visiting, you feel like you’re experiencing a different state altogether. While around San Francisco, we spent time at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk; explored the Mystery Spot (what can only be described as a gravitational phenomenon in the middle of a Redwood forest); roamed the Fisherman’s Wharf downtown; and, of course, visited the Golden Gate Bridge. We dedicated one day free of college visits to an event that, up until the day of, was only referred to as the “Mystery Event” by staff (super hush-hush information). We scholars spent months speculating what the event would be (“trapezing” and “zip-lining” were scholar favorites), but when we arrived at the location, it turned out to be even better. The “Mystery Event” was at Google Headquarters.
Google Headquarters? That’s right—Google! What high school students from Chicago get their own personal tour around the fantastic Google campus? We were able to explore many of the facilities and ask dozens of questions. During lunch, we networked with current staff to ask about how they came to be hired at Google (it wasn’t easy, that’s for sure!). I always figured that a career with companies like Google couldn’t be in my future for my lack of interest in business and technology, but I discovered that if I pursued it I could be hired in various departments such as People Operations or their legal team. Everyone we encountered treated us not like immature high schoolers but as the outstanding prospective college students we are. It’s one of the great benefits of traveling together as a program; we get to demonstrate what stellar scholars we truly are.
In addition to networking at Google, our Manager of College Advising, Ms. Whitney Capps, organized a networking dinner for us and old college friends of hers at the Cheesecake Factory. I’ve always been anxious about networking and making those important first impressions, but the dinner turned out to be more fun than intimidating. I spoke with an alumnus of USC who received three different degrees from the school and later opened her own therapy practice. It was a fascinating experience (definitely beat the cheesecake!) and gave me the confidence to be more open to networking opportunities during my senior year.
The visit to California proved invaluable to me. I was able to have an amazing trip with my fellow scholars and get to know the underclassmen better. More importantly, I was able to get to know California and realize it was somewhere I’d be happy to live and study. That certainty proved crucial when it came time for me to sign the binding Early Decision agreement to Pomona College as a Posse Scholarship finalist. After visiting in person, I had no doubt that Pomona was the school for me.
Now, several months later, I’m a Posse Scholar, and I’ll be headed to Pomona in Claremont, California on a four-year full tuition scholarship. Now that I’ve experienced California for myself—from its exciting culture and vistas to its outstanding professional opportunities—it feels less daunting and distant. Come Fall 2016, California won’t be a vacation spot or college tour destination, but the state I’m ready to call home. I would never have made it this far, enrolled at the college of my dreams, without the tools and support the Collegiate Scholars Program has given me.