The Undergraduate…On to Plan B

Jessica Salley in Harvard Magazine:

UnderI cannot remember the exact moment when I decided it was my dream to be a Rhodes Scholar. I think I was in fifth grade. It was around the time the Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen movie Winning London came out on home video.

…During the past three years, this fantasy crystallized into something more concrete: I could apply for the Rhodes. I had a decently high GPA, leadership positions, and a unique project in mind. I thought the fact that I am from Louisiana, a chronically underrepresented state, would give me traction, and I spent countless summer hours writing draft after draft of my recommendation requests and personal statement. Our House tutors informed us all, of course, that the Harvard nomination process is nearly as cutthroat as the Rhodes competition itself. Of about 100 prospective applicants, they would endorse fewer than half to submit their materials to the Rhodes committee.

But I had faith. I could envision myself in front of the Rhodes interview committee, wearing those penguin-esque robes to Oxford matriculation, walking on the shores of the River Thames, engaging in spirited debates with accented men in pubs. And, impossibly slim as I knew the odds were, logically, I thought that wanting it as badly as I did would be enough to see me through. At 11:28 a.m. on Friday, September 13, after 15 hours of pacing my room, attempting fitful sleep, and checking my e-mail so much my phone battery was half-drained by the end of my 10 a.m. class, I received a short message from my House fellowships tutor informing me that Harvard would not be endorsing my application for the Rhodes. My tired brain registered what this line meant. Not only had I not won the Rhodes, I wasn’t even allowed to apply. I stopped reading after the second line. Instead, I behaved exactly as I would have in fifth grade: I called my mom and burst into tears. My mother’s response, too, was the same as always. She reassured me that life is not always fair, but this didn’t mean no graduate school anywhere would accept me. When my heaving sobs dwindled finally to a quieter form of crying, she reminded me, “You can’t win every time.”

More here.