Preparing for College Ridiculously Early Because Who Knows When Life Will Get in the Way

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Najwa at DC Prep - UChicago

While attending Osterholz American High School in Bremerhaven, Germany, where my dad was stationed in the army, there were several historical events that took place that had a subtle yet adverse impact on my life’s trajectory. And when we returned to America, there was another explosive one that ensured it didn’t get back on track.

This is a story about how unintentional failures at my high schools led me down a path that I am intent on making sure Najwa doesn’t have to travel.

Being a military brat is challenging. Your entire existence orbits the whims of the U.S. Military Complex. And I mean everything.

The War, The Wall, The Refugees

It was August 1990 when the Persian Gulf War got the green flag. I was starting my junior year in high school, but like every other student, the last thing we were thinking about was our studies. Up until then, I was a straight A student. A nerd. I’m not going to say my dad volunteering —

Wait. Let me expand on that.

Most of the military service members were either wanting to join the fight and were waiting for the call or hoping not to go but reluctantly willing if they were called. My dad, who always dreamed of being a soldier, raised his hand, figuratively, and volunteered to join another unit to ship out to the war.

There’s a huge sense of pride in my dad’s patriotism, but at the same time — SERIOUSLY!?

Anyway, back to the story…

I got two D’s that year. I could’ve worked harder, but no one was taking school seriously from the students, the teachers, the single parent left behind or especially the guidance counselors.

It’s not to say the counselors abandoned us. Quite the opposite. Their hands were full helping students having anxiety attacks, quelling fears that very easily could become reality with a well aimed bullet thousands of miles away. And then, I remember the first dad that was killed in action, how the school went from your typical high school to abject confusion. I’m not sure how any of us knew what to think. Let’s just say, schoolwork was not a priority anymore.

Then the Berlin Wall came down. All these tiny cars rolled through town with what we saw as Germans but what West Germans saw as East Germans. More confusion to a confused set of American kids. They were trying to rekindle in between spurts of fighting against each other.

Mix that in with the fall of Yugoslavia and wave of unwanted refugees. When you get anxious American high schoolers whose parents are dodging Scud missiles, mixed with East Germans now fending for a new life after escaping a brutal communistic existence, mixed with refugees who had virtually nothing and surrounded by an unwelcoming party, mixed with West Germans who were forced to host us all against their will…

Well, it created a combustible situation. We fought a lot. For no reason. Our off-base housing had neo-Nazi scares where the Polizei had to post a few guards to keep us separated. We fought Turks at amusement parks, a sad competition of who was more angry than the other.

Our guidance counselors had their hands full.

Back to the Land of the Free

My dad made it back safely, though he had a harrowing story or two with who knows how many he didn’t share. For those families remaining, in other words our parents came back alive, we were being shipped back to the States in droves. It was at the beginning of my last year in school and we high schoolers were being ripped apart from each other after somehow supporting each other through a pretty rough couple of years.

No problem, though. At least we were escaping the testosterone-filled mosh pit of a bunch of angry teens of different races and heading back to the melting pot of America.

However, returning to America as families who defended the American Way meant nothing to those whose lives weren’t as affected. We went to war. We kicked ass. What’s the big deal? I naively believed we were all on the same team so imagine my shock of the racial hate that followed when Rodney King took a beat down.

I need to get my grades back in order; I’m wondering if my dad has Gulf War Syndrome or PTSD; I’m wondering why my white friends aren’t as friendly as they were back in elementary school.

But with the hate being tossed back and forth between everyone, the counselors weren’t really thinking about me and my problems. Though I had those two D’s, just about every other grade was an A so I wasn’t even a priority. I didn’t need the attention as much as others. Like those who were being racial harassed or failing school altogether.

What College Am I Going To?

Ok, let’s get to the point.

My parents didn’t go to college, let alone graduate high school. My dad had one goal, to be a solider, and that only required a GED. And with his single-minded focus, he accomplished that. My mom had that Korean work ethic. You work hard and then harder. And that’s the warm up to working even harder.

They relied on the schools to guide my brother and me to college. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a single conversation with a single guidance counselor or teacher or administrator or faculty member about how to get to college. And when I say I heard nothing, I mean:

  • I never heard of the PSAT, SAT or ACT.
  • I didn’t even know you had to apply to colleges and get accepted.
  • I didn’t realize that UNC-Chapel Hill was a premiere college as opposed to a really good basketball team.
  • I didn’t even care about college.
  • Let me repeat that — what’s the big deal about college?

We’re Not Waiting for High School

My point? The odds of me relying on a school to help my daughter get to college is zero. And the odds of me waiting for high school to bring it up is zero. See, Najwa has three new vocabulary words [technically four but you get the point] in her repertoire of words:

College Application

The plan is when Najwa reaches the 9th grade, we’re going to start applying for colleges. We’ll get rejected, but not because of her grades or lack of effort. Colleges just don’t accept students four years away from graduating. But the exercise will be to develop the muscle memory that goes with the whole college application process. She’s going to research colleges and explain why she wants to attend them. We’ll make trips to college colleges to tour them.

The school(s) she select shouldn’t be because such-and-such are going there, or it’s a party school, or always wanting to live on the west coast. Which schools have the programs that will help you achieve whatever goals you have in life!? Three words previously added to her repertoire of words are Stanford, MIT and Columbia. She already tells people she’s going to MIT. In a few years, she should be able to tell me why those schools and those schools will have heard from us.

Internship

Being a recruiter for many many many years, I’ve talked to many many many hiring managers and HR professionals and department managers and I can’t reiterate enough how an internship makes a potential hire stand out. And not just any internship. One that is aligned with the goals of the company you want to work for in the career you want to develop.

Najwa will be applying for them as a junior and senior in high school. She may get none of them, considering most want juniors and seniors in college, but we’re going to go through the motions and if all we get is a summer hire job, we’ll take it.

Scholarship

Recently I looked up how much it’ll cost to afford MIT in the year 2029. Even give or take a thousands dollars does nothing against the total cost of $352,000.

What more do I say? Najwa will be applying for college scholarships, well, we might start in the 6th grade. Why not? I’m not expecting her to get $350k worth of scholarships, but that’s the goal. A full ride at her school of choice is ideal, of course, and every one of those $250 scholarships she gets from years of applying will mean she won’t have to get a job while in school. At least not a crappy one.

I was robbed my last two years of high school. My guidance counselors simply weren’t there to provide guidance as they, understandably, had bigger issues to attend to. My parents also had bigger issues to attend to from fighting a war and being there for warring sons whose dad was off fighting a war.

I thought college was automatic if you did well in school I was naive. I didn’t realize that until much later in life, took notes of what I learned, and when Najwa was born, well, that’s not going to be an issue with her.

I recommend to all daddies to start talking about college with your kids now. If they’re still in elementary school like mines, just plant words in their vocabulary which won’t sound foreign when they need them. Take some practice shots. Apply for colleges, internships and scholarships early, as in the 9th and 10th and 11th grades. When it’s time to do it again as a senior in high school when it counts, no guidance counselor required.

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