June 28th 2013. The day I have dreaded for many years has finally arrived. Just kidding. But I have really been dreading this day for about two weeks. The extended sampler application was due on June 28th. My goal was to get five applicants from schools all over Mississippi; I only got four. I really had no idea how hard it would be. I remember as I was applying for the Live It grant, people kept asking me “what happens if more students want to come than five?” or “why just five?”
My response was always the same: it’s better to start small. And I didn’t realize just how small I would have to start. I knew I would have to bring Macalester to life by explaining the world at 1600 grand ave and making it come to life o a wide range of students. As a Californian attending Mac, the “you go to school where?” question is not unfamiliar to me. I am used to explaining that Macalester is a small liberal arts school in Saint Paul. And usually, those buzz words do it for people. But I had no idea how little that would mean to anyone down here.
I had to start even smaller. My explanations began with what a liberal arts school is and where Minnesota is. These pitches didn’t just explain what I was offering, but the advantages of a small liberal arts school in Minnesota. I was expecting my target audience to be familiar with at least the idea of liberal arts, or the advantages of northern cities. None of this was true. I spoke with students I thought would be a perfect fit for Mac who’s parents had forbidden them from going out of state. Students who were convinced that Minnesota snowed from September to May, the whole time school would be in session (but really, how wrong is that?) Students who thought that liberal arts meant a degree in liberal studies or that you can’t study a hard science at Mac. I felt like I assuaged every concern in the book.
Luckily, I ended up with a decent sized list of 13 students interested in applying to attend the extended sampler at Macalester. I was pretty proud of myself. I felt like I had defied the odds by finding really motivated, smart students, who were willing to leave Mississippi and the south, at least for a weekend of learning. And yet, I didn’t realize just how much more work I would have to do. I called kids to follow up once they received their application for the extended sampler, many of whom had already changed cell phone numbers. (many lower income kids have phones with prepaid minutes, and are always buying new phones and numbers to get cheaper minutes etc.) I emailed the list only to get mailer daemon returns on a third of them. Those that I did get in touch with weren’t walk in the park phone calls either. Many of them said their parents did not want them to apply and were not going to let them attend the extended sampler. I realized that just like I often came home interested in one career or college or idea or future for myself in high school, many of which my parents ignored, I hadn’t managed to refute the misconceptions of liberal arts and Minnesota to these parents. And finally, I hadn’t realized what the school’s role was in this process. Many kids explained that they wouldn’t be able to meet the deadline, because once the schools closed for the summer, it was almost impossible to request for them to send transcripts. I promised to intervene on their behalf, beseeching secretaries to help me out, only to be put on hold for half an hour. Simply said, I hadn’t realized what I was up against. There was a steep learning curve; with every student, I better understood how to talk about Macalester and the process.
And yet, I cant help but feel a little bit disappointed that only four students applied. I wanted my recruiting efforts in Mississippi to be a symbol that the college and students at the college valued students in Mississippi and believed in them enough that this was worthy of Macalester’s recruiting efforts. And yet, it is so hard to come into an already engrained system and try to change it from the top down. I am an outsider, coming from a college. I can only recruit from a select pool of applicants—those both interested and qualified. I wanted my visits to schools to symbolize a commitment to education in an area that not many people have committed to. And yet, I can’t change a culture with my recruiting. I have to acknowledge that Macalester does not recruit in Mississippi likely because the pool of qualified and interested is smaller than in other areas; it makes sense. And as much as I want Macalester’s recruiting to symbolize something, I also realize that it must be disappointing for them to recruit in an area where kids don’t even trust you’re representing a real school, or you didn’t just end up there because you’re lost. My trouble recruiting students has also reaffirmed the importance in the second part of my project: working with younger middle school students on educational enrichment and college access. It really does take a village to raise a child ready to go on to bigger and better things. Moreover, it takes a cultural mindset to raise a village of those children ready to achieve more.
I hope my work with younger students in the delta paves the way for Macalester recruiters in the future.