Monday, January 24, 2011

One-On-One, One by One

I wish I could turn the clock back to college. I never wanted it to end. I’m infatuated with my alma mater and, when the time comes, I want my ashes scattered across a certain spot of my campus’s botanical gardens, where I used to nap, eat burritos, and daydream about moving to the English countryside in between classes.

I sometimes send the university’s Annual Fund committee a check for $50, but I mainly give back to the school that has given so much to me by serving as an alumni admissions interviewer. Every admissions season, I interview a few of the local high school seniors who have applied to my second home. I’ve been stuck with my fair share of unimpressive clowns, who don’t know what state the school’s located in or who respond to my open-ended questions with one-sentence answers. But I usually end up meeting 17- and 18-year-olds who kind of blow my mind – the two young women I spent Saturday morning with fall into this category.

When I arrived at the café 10 minutes early, I saw another person on the other side of the room who also looked like she was waiting for someone. I initially ruled her out as even possibly being a high schooler waiting for a college interview because she looked too pulled together and mature - she was more likely to be one of the Columbia grad students who live in the neighborhood. When we finally got down to business, she turned out to be smarter and more interesting than any of the neighborhood Columbia grad students that I’ve dealt with – at age 16. After the interview officially ended, we sat around for another 30 minutes, idly chatting about the recent gentrification of West Harlem (and about a little fix I got myself into on the island of Puerto Rico last fall), until my second interviewee showed up.

The next kid looked and sounded exactly like the actress who played the lead role in Juno. She was much less calm, cool, and collected than the first interviewee, in a way that was refreshingly charming. She’s already been served a heavy dose of suffering, the magnitude of which I didn’t have any experience with myself until my mid-20s. So she now has that cynically optimistic bent toward self-assured risk-taking that usually only takes root in those who feel like they have nothing left to lose.

Hardly any of the kids I interview end up getting in. But the ones I like know that those rejection or waitlist letters aren’t my fault. I always tell my favorites just how special I think they are. And then I save their names and e-mail addresses in a carefully labeled folder, because I might need one of them for a job one day.

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