By John Keilman Chicago Tribune
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) While it can be painful to be rejected by your dream school, finding an alternative route can be as fulfilling as following a predetermined path.
Kelley Kitley grew up in Chicago yearning for a life on the stage, and spent years honing her talent through voice lessons, private coaching and loads of school and community productions.
So when the time came for her to apply to college, one school topped the list: New York University, a few subway stops from the grand theaters of Broadway. There, she figured, she would study with some of the country's great teachers before starting her career on the boards.
But that's not how things worked out. The school didn't just reject her, it didn't even allow her to audition. "I was devastated," Kitley recently recalled. "It changed my whole trajectory in life."
College admittance season, the time of year when high school seniors learn if they've gotten into the schools on which they've pinned their hopes, is winding down. For many, the news has been bad.
The country's most selective colleges have acceptance rates around 5 percent, and many state universities, once viewed by some as fallbacks, are getting pickier too: The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for example, rejects about 2 out of 5 applicants.
The college admissions cheating scandal that erupted recently with allegations of six-figure bribes, SAT chicanery and Photoshopped athletic profiles offers an extreme example of how desperately some parents try to spare their children the indignity of rejection.
But interviews with Kitley and other Chicago-area adults who had to regroup after their college snubs suggest the pain can be fleeting, and that finding an alternative route can be as fulfilling as following a predetermined path.
What I want high school seniors to hear loud and clear, in the wake of the celebrity college cheating scandal "(Students think) to have that (college) name is what's going to make their lives smooth sailing, which we know is not true," said Laura Docherty, college counselor at Fenwick High School in Oak Park. "It's what you do with what you have."
Kitley, for example, enrolled at a Minnesota liberal arts school after she was rejected by NYU, but after an unfulfilling freshman year, she volunteered as a bilingual tutor in San Jose, Calif. There, she kindled an interest in service and returned to her hometown to attend the University of Illinois at Chicago's Jane Addams College of Social Work.
Today, she's a psychotherapist and social worker in Oak Park, Ill., and ironically enough, is married to an actor. Witnessing the intermittent nature of his career, she said, has convinced her that her long-ago rebuff might have been for the best.
"The biggest takeaway is don't beat yourself up if you don't get into that school," she said. "It might be a blessing in disguise."
Jamie Dougherty, who graduated from Naperville North in 1997, fell in love with the University of Notre Dame when she visited on a beautiful summer day. The campus was gorgeous, the people friendly _ she even liked the school colors.
When the skinny envelope arrived, informing her that she had not been selected, she was blindsided. The possibility of failure hadn't even occurred to her.
She ended up going to the U. of I., where she studied speech communication, joined two dance teams and had a great time. She went on to coach a college dance team, work in HR and today is a stay-at-home mom with three kids.
Even had she gotten into Notre Dame, she thinks she likely would have come to the same place in life. But every now and then, she admits, she wonders about what might have been.
"If I said no, I'd be lying," she said. "I think it's a pretty special place, and I think for people that are able to get in and enjoy it and get that degree, it's a neat thing. I think I would have loved it. Am I melancholy about it? No."
For some, U. of I. was the dream school that remained out of reach. David Larry, who grew up on the South Side of Chicago and graduated from Morgan Park High School in 2008, wanted to go to Champaign to study journalism and become a sportswriter.
But the crushing rejection email made him recalibrate quickly. He went to UIC and studied English, and when his mother heard about a job opening in one of the city's social service agencies, he applied and got the position.
Today he's still a social worker with side gigs as a DJ and photographer, and is grateful he didn't leave town for college.
"The path I ended up on is the path I was supposed to end up on," he said. "I was in Chicago at the right time for that (first job) opportunity. There's no telling what would've happened if I were out of the city."
Sometimes it's not rejection that keeps students out of dream schools, but finances. Jessica Cabe, who grew up in Machesney Park, got into both U. of I. and Illinois State when she graduated high school in 2009, only to turn them down when she didn't receive the financial aid she needed.
Instead, she went to Rock Valley College in Rockford, where she studied with people from widely different backgrounds, many of whom were significantly older. The community college also gave her the chance to participate in extracurricular activities from student government to jazz band.
Even though she went on to finish her bachelor's degree at Northern Illinois University, she said, she felt the deepest connection with her original classmates.
"I met kids who were at Rock Valley for financial reasons like me, or because they took some time off after graduating high school, or because they still hadn't figured out what they wanted to major in," said Cabe, who now works in public relations for the Chicago Loop Alliance.
"I shared classes with single mothers and fathers, with people of a variety of religious backgrounds and class backgrounds. It was a beautiful learning experience."
When it comes to college rejection stories, few people can top Chris Stewart. Ahead of his high school graduation in 2012, he applied to six schools, from the rarefied University of Pennsylvania to South Carolina's Clemson University, figuring his stellar academic record would see him through.
But he didn't get in anywhere. Even Clemson, which has about a 50 percent acceptance rate, had already filled its freshman class by the time he applied. He was so humiliated by the rejection, he said, that he tore off his shoes and hurled them over his backyard fence in an incoherent burst of rage.
Stunned and deflated, he slouched into his hometown college of the University of Texas at San Antonio. But it was there that his long-held interest in politics flared into action.
He volunteered to work on several campaigns, and by the time he graduated, a job was waiting for him at city hall. In 2017 he moved to Chicago, where he works for the nonprofit International Interior Design Association, and two weeks ago he was accepted into a graduate program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, where he'll study voting rights and urban land use.
Even though he's about to attend a university with a gold-plated name, he said he doesn't expect it to give him a sense of validation. His college rejections taught him to look for that within.
"At the time, I definitely didn't see it this way, but it caused me to go out and find some hustle," he said. "It taught me to build something for myself."