I Turned Down An Ivy League. Was It A Mistake?

They say hindsight is always 20/20. Removed in time, space, and dimension from the reality that informed your past, you are able to look back on your life with clarity and objectivity. It’s easy to say, if I had known then what I know now, I would have chosen differently, and somehow my life would have ended up better. The problem with this logic is, you are not the same person as you were back then. You easily forget the circumstances, the sentiments, the people and the internal life that shaped your past actions. So playing the shuda-wuda-cuda (SWC) game is not constructive self-reflection. It is a slippery slope that often leads to regret, shame, anger, bitterness, and depression.

I spent the whole day today playing SWC. It all started when I woke up at 10:30am to a phone call from my boss, Dr. Chow. Her credentials:

  • Graduated with a BA from Columbia and PhD in sociology from U Penn
  • Former Stanford admissions officer and lecturer
  • CEO of Ivy Academics, a Bay Area college admissions and test prep company (the one I presently work for)

As Dr. Chow and I spoke about college admissions strategies and this past application cycle’s statistics, the conversation naturally looped back to my own days of applying for colleges. Dr. Chow had been my teacher and mentor back in high school. My brothers and I started SAT English test prep with her in second semester of 8th grade, and in junior year of high school, she mentored us through the college application process. In large thanks to her, we got in to some decent schools. My college decision ultimately boiled down to three choices: UC Berkeley, UCLA, and Cornell. All great schools, in their own right, and I was privileged to have my pick.

Dr. Chow had always pushed for Cornell– albeit the lowest ranked Ivy, and what elitists deem the “fake” Ivy, but an Ivy nonetheless. A Columbia graduate, she recognized the weight of the Ivy League label, as it paved the path for her own career as an educator and businesswoman. According to Dr. Chow, had I chosen Cornell, I would have been “ensconced in a network of movers and shakers”. It’s not so much the academic caliber of Ivy’s, as it is their name and powerful alumni network, that set them apart from prestigious public universities like LA or Berkeley. The network will help you tremendously in landing a job, especially your first job out of college. The Ivy League name is gilded and glorified, and with it comes a veneer of power and elitism. Steeped in a tradition of intellectual vibrancy and opportunity, Ivy Leagues carry with them a legacy of trailblazers– Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the Obamas, Meryl Streep, Jeff Bezos, and Anderson Cooper, to name a few. Attend an Ivy, and you know you have big shoes to fill– a realization and responsibility that serves as fodder to your fight for success and achievement.

You may wonder, then, why I chose UCLA over Cornell. Here are some reasons that shaped my decision.

  1. UCLA gave me a scholarship. Cornell had also given me some scholarship money, but it did nothing to offset the exorbitant cost of out-of-state tuition. To go to Cornell would entail taking out student loans, which certainly would not set me up for success post-graduation.
  2. UCLA was great for pre-med, which I had been, going into college. It had a world-renown medical school and myriad opportunities for undergraduate research, volunteering, shadowing– basically everything you needed to be a successful pre-med student. Thinking I’d be in school for several more years, it didn’t make sense to pay triple the tuition at Cornell, if I could get the same– if not better– quality of (pre-med) education at UCLA.
  3. LA had a vibrant dance scene. Going into college, I had ambitions to continue competitive ballroom dancing alongside my studies. I had assumed that because LA was the nation’s capital of commercial dance, it must have a strong ballroom dance scene. (I’d later find out that this is not the case.)

The day I received my Cornell acceptance letter, I went home and called up the lady who had conducted my Cornell interview– an alumna named Leticia who, now in her forties, is some big-shot finance director at a fancy-shmancy firm. I first thanked her for her input that influenced my acceptance (regardless of how small a role it played). I then expressed to her my conflicted feelings about choosing a college. My mind had been set on either LA or Berkeley. Then Cornell entered the picture, which complicated things. Leticia’s response:

“If you chose Cornell, hated it, and decided to transfer to UCLA after a year, that pathway would probably be easier than if it were the other way around.”

I remembered her words when, during fall quarter of my sophomore year of college, I decided that I hated UCLA and wanted to transfer schools. I was no longer pre-med (I had quit after two quarters), so the primary appeal of UCLA– its rich pre-med resources– was rendered null and void. *Also, the ballroom dance scene in LA was shockingly disappointing. UCLA’s fledgling ballroom dance team did not challenge me, there were zero partnership prospects, and the nearest ballroom dance studio was 10 miles away– quite the commute, when you live in LA and don’t have a car. Mainly, I was disappointed that my fantasy of living the premed-dancing dream in the City of Angels did not come to fruition. I was now neither premed, nor dancing. So I decided to transfer to either Cornell or Columbia. At least there, I’d be in New York, the true mecca of competitive ballroom dance, which is what my heart yearned for.

In the span of one week, I wrote the essays, gathered my rec letters, submitted the application materials, and hoped for the best. A month later, I found out I had gotten into Cornell again, and was waitlisted at Columbia.

When I told my parents of my intention to transfer schools, they completely opposed the idea. They didn’t understand why I would uproot my life of two years at UCLA, where I had a good thing going, and move across the country to start over. I tried to make a case for transferring. But as much as I longed to leave LA, even I could not rectify the glaring hole in my grand plan: money. Move to New York for school and dancing, but how to pay for it all? I realized that my decision to leave UCLA was short-sighted, impulsive, and unrealistic. The airy-fairy dream of a silly 19-year-old girl. So for the second time, I turned down an Ivy League school and remained at UCLA, from where I graduated in 2019.

I told all this to Dr. Chow over our phone call this morning. She replied that my decision to turn down an Ivy League was an opportunity loss. “If I were your mother,” she said, “I would have pushed you harder to choose Cornell.”

I hung up the phone, distraught. What if she was right? Had choosing UCLA been a mistake? I spent the rest of the day playing SWC and cogitating the following reasons for why choosing Cornell would have been a better move than UCLA.

  1. Ivy League name = connections = career success = Happy Bel
  2. Cornell is in New York. I could have gone to NYC every weekend to take dance lessons from world renown teachers. I would probably have a competitive dance partner by now. = Happy Bel
  3. I quit pre-med two quarters in to UCLA. Without its premed leverage, UCLA and Cornell stood on a level playing field. According to usnews.com, Cornell’s overall, undergraduate ranking is higher than UCLA’s. So objectively speaking, doesn’t that make it a better, more prestigious school, and hence a school I should go to?

For argument’s sake, let’s just say I had gone to Cornell, milked the shit out of their rich and powerful alumni network, landed my first six-fig job right out of college and fast-tracked my way to financial independence. Maybe I’d be in NYC right now, working a corporate job whilst living the dancing dream. Or maybe I would be in exactly the place I’m in right now, living at home amidst a global pandemic. No amount of SWC-ing could lend me the answer to an impossible question.

One thing I do know, is I would have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, regardless of where I went to college. At least I was diagnosed when I was in California, close to home, instead of across the country. Things could have gotten really ugly, had I been at Cornell during the time of my diagnosis. Cornell is insular and isolated, four hours removed from the city. Winters are cold, dark, and depressing. Cornell is infamous for its **high student suicide rate. It’s happened often enough that in 2013, the university installed nets underneath the bridges spanning campus, from which many students have jumped. 3,000 miles away from home and slowly losing my mind… maybe I would have jumped.

At the end of the day, this entire discussion of whether I should have chosen Cornell over UCLA is moot. I can’t change the past, so why obsess over hypotheticals, when the only direction I can go in life is forward? The discussion is also quite elitist. It’s like wondering if I should have bought the $3000 Louis Vuitton bag, instead of the $1500 Prada. They are both name brands, both expensive and shiny and glamorous. You can’t go wrong with either, and are privileged to have either option at your disposal.

I will end this post with the following. UCLA is a great school. “The number one public university”, as fellow Bruins so hardily caption their graduation pictures. I have no shame in being a Bruin, and actually have a tremendous amount of Bruin pride– so much so that I will accost anyone on the street who dons UCLA attire, as if graduating from the same college automatically makes us BFF’s. So yes, I consider myself very lucky to be a Bruin, and the purpose of this post was not to hate on UCLA, but to explore a parallel universe where I had chosen a different university to attend. And explore it, I did. Now I return to the realm of reality, not begrudgingly, but at peace with the path I have chosen.

If there is anything I’ve learned through my struggle with mental illness, it is this: without health, nothing else matters. Not your alma mater, career, network, or net worth. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Harvard graduate or high school dropout. The Ivy League name cannot save you from death and suffering. Never forget: you are a human being, above all else. Where you went to school is not a measure of who you are as a person. So stop this pointless game of SWC. Count your blessings, fly forward on the path you’re destined, and just be happy.

-Bel

*I realize how spoiled and whiny I sound, here. Writing is truth-telling, and that was the truth I felt in that moment. Nothing more to say about that.

**actually, Cornell’s student suicide rate is no higher than the nationwide average. The misperception of a high suicide rate has been attributed by some to the public nature of suicides in the gorges.

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