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Celebrating Olivia

Last September, I wrote about a leap I took pairing with three students to support their college application process. Two weeks ago, my "star" of the three, Olivia, was offered a place in both Harvard’s and Yale’s freshman class. Today, she toured Harvard; tomorrow, she visits Yale, and as I said to her Sunday night, there are only good choices to make.

Harvard or Yale would be a challenge for anyone, and an elite school in the Northeast will represent a very new environment for Olivia. I have offered to support Olivia as an advisor through the next four years. She has welcomed my offer, and I am committed to ensuring she will thrive and succeed.

Below is the recommendation I wrote for Olivia’s Common Application after knowing her for a month. The words still resonate.

Dear Ladies and Sirs:

I write you as a Strive for College Advisor to Olivia <last name omitted>. I am working with Olivia on college applications and hope to continue to mentor her around college persistence once she matriculates. As context, I am a 51-year-old mom of nineteen-year-old twins who attended a private secondary school in Durham, NC and now study at Rice and NYU. I am primarily a stay-at-home mom, but I attended Amherst College, Harvard Business School and have volunteered working with for-profit and non-profit organizations throughout my kids’ upbringing. I provide this context, as I believe it will allow you to qualify my recommendation’s validity, given I am not one of Olivia’s teachers.

I have only known Olivia since September 2021, and many would say that isn’t long enough to provide a recommendation letter. Maybe that would be true if I didn’t have my twin nineteen-year-olds or if I hadn’t been so recently involved with their college application process. Maybe it would be true if I hadn’t taught three terms at Duke’s Trinity College in settings where I was able to assess at least seventy-five undergraduates via their written word, their communication skills and their conscientiousness when it came to hard work and deadlines. And maybe that would be true if I weren’t also a Strive for College Advisor to two others this year, allowing me to compare Olivia to two potential peers. The fact is that, while I may only have known Olivia for a short time, I can stipulate without any doubt that she is a superstar, and her emotional intelligence, as well as her raw intelligence and ambition, will result in significant future success.

I don’t have many stories to relate about Olivia, but the one that resonates most for me is when she first shared her personal statement with me. I had already completed a video-based, get-to-know-you session with Olivia and had heard about her dad’s work as a mechanic and her step-mom’s work as an administrative assistant, about her younger sister that she is close to and her brother in the service. She had told me about her school activities and her academic achievements, and she listed a set of colleges which were ambitious for anyone no matter their stats. She spoke with ease about it all, and to me, she appeared to be a great candidate for any school, perhaps even more so as a first-generation applicant, and frankly as someone who had excelled despite less-than-easy obstacles – small town lower-resourced schools, non-college educated parents, low enough income to qualify for free lunch. What I never expected was that on top of all of this, I would discover in her personal statement that she had lost her mother at age eleven, and that instead of giving into that loss, she had actually redoubled efforts to succeed in her family, in her community and in her education to make that loss mean something.

I love that Olivia is willing to push for what she dreams and ignores circumstances that, for many, would be insurmountable obstacles. I love that when she sends me draft essays, they are grammatically and punctually correct, well-phrased and certainly full of feeling. I love that she is open to my feedback and wants to improve her work, that she knows she is super smart but isn’t boastful about it. I love that in the middle of one of our video sessions, she is interrupted because a new gifted student has come to the school, and the principal wants her to meet Olivia, to model Olivia. I love that she is open and as she gets to know me, tells me about homecoming and visits to family in Dallas and work at the thrift store where she volunteers. And I love that she is not just on time with good work, but works faster than I can absorb it sometimes, that she isn’t at all afraid to ask for my time when she is stuck and sees the value of brainstorming when she isn’t sure what topic makes sense for an essay. I love that she happily proofs over and over to make sure she will show her best work to the colleges she is so excited to potentially attend. I love Olivia’s consistent demonstration of her potential in all the ways I describe above.

I have only known Olivia for a short time, but I can tell you that you ought to invite her into your community. I feel certain that she will make whatever community she joins very proud to have her as a member.


Lauren Whitehurst

I am treading into new territory as I work to support Olivia in college. She will be the first in her family to attend university; she grew up in a small town and in modest circumstances and with a close and supportive family who never imagined she would venture this far from home. Harvard or Yale will likely present her with challenges that I am not sure she even understands yet. I want to help her walk the bridge into her new world proudly. I also want to set a net to catch her if she needs it. And I want to do all of this without her feeling any loss of confidence in her abilities and potential.

Olivia and I know each other far better than we did when I wrote her recommendation. She trusts me more and is willing to divulge more vulnerabilities. She is clearly excited, but I think she is also both a little unsure and a little afraid. I hope she leans into those feelings and allows me to celebrate her triumphs with her, as well as ease the path through her trepidations. So far, I just keep telling her that she deserves the opportunity she has earned through hard work and diligent application of her intellect.

Truthfully, I too am excited, a little unsure and a little afraid, but in my case the fear is about failing Olivia. Sure, I’ve graduated from college and graduate school, and I have been supporting Jack and Emma at university for almost two years already, but this feels different. I was raised with a no-doubt assumption that I would go to college and with an eye to preparing me for that experience; I raised my kids the same way. Olivia is not my child, and she has not been steeped in college-bound family life with parents who know from experience. I’ve asked Olivia to trust that I can fill that navigation role for her when she needs it. In essence, I’m taking a new leap. I am sure I will misstep or trip along the path as I learn how to fulfill this role for Olivia without overstepping or under-managing. That said, I believe our partnership will overwhelmingly result in more good, than bad – for both of us.

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