Off to School
Planning For College Doesn’t Always Go By The Book; Be Prepared For Bumps And Detours
Gracy Helm had her mind made up. Or so she thought. During her senior year of high school, she knew she wanted to either go into fashion design or the ministry. She applied to several universities, both locally and as far away as California, and received numerous scholarship opportunities.
When the time came, she decided to stay closer to home and attend Oklahoma State University. Helm went to orientation, signed up for a dorm room with a great friend and all was set.
“Then, in June of the summer before college, I had a change of heart,” she said. “I decided I wanted to go to TCU (Texas Christian University).”
Helm and her mother made the drive, took the tour, and she fell in love with Ft. Worth, the campus and surrounding neighborhoods. She was set to move in August.
“I spent my first semester of college at TCU, majoring in fashion merchandising, and it didn’t take me long to realize that this over-priced private school wasn’t for me,” she said. “I transferred to OSU in January of my freshman year. That first semester I spent every weekend back home in Edmond and dreaded going back.”
But by the start of her sophomore year, everything changed. Helm embraced her college career, becoming involved in numerous activities similar to those in youth ministry she had been involved with in high school. She met life-long friends, and says she has “absolutely no regrets about making that transfer.”
Helm most certainly is not alone when it comes to leaving the nest and finding the next right fit, nor is she alone in wanting to return home on the weekends.
Caleb Cash, coordinator for student engagement for orientation and parent programs at University of Central Oklahoma, says the most important thing to remember is “don’t stress.” And that advice is directed to both students and parents.
“Your student is in the hands of trained professionals,” he says. “We know what these students are thinking. There’s so much more freedom in college.
“The biggest thing with parents is, how do you give your students freedom while also learning and coaching them through the collegiate experience?” Cash said. “What I recommend to students is to embrace it all, go into it with an open mind … talk to your parents on a regular basis and let them know what’s going on and also give them information on how they can help you.”
He said they encourage students to stay on campus, get immersed in the culture that’s been created and engage in campus activities, go out and make friends at events.
“There are programs happening every night for students to go out and get involved in the student culture,” Cash said.
As for finding that right fit, Julie Bramble, assistant director of college counseling at Heritage Hall, says the list of questions to be answered is seemingly endless. For some it’s geography: warm or cold; near or far, rural or urban. For others, it’s about a specific major.
“Some students long for big D-1 football games, Greek life and a nearby Super Target, while others would be at a loss without nearby mountains to climb and sleepy small towns to explore,” Bramble said. “While the thought of heading off to college can be intimidating for students, most relish the opportunity to choose where they will wake up and attend classes for the first time in their lives.”
He’s Leaving Home
Amy Urbach, office manager at Urbach Law Firm, understood her son’s calling to attend culinary school from the time he was in junior high school. Like Helm, they toured local universities, as well as culinary schools in Texas and New York.
Her son, Shawn, decided on The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY.
“The application process to The CIA is extensive,” Urbach said. “My daughter, Shawn and myself spent an entire evening at a coffee shop filling out the application. We had a great time and had a lot of fun with it, as well. I’m certain it brought down the stress level for Shawn for us to help him through the process. I still remember the moment he hit the submit button. And we were all very excited when he received his acceptance letter.”
But then reality hit.
“My son was moving clear across the country,” Urbach recalled.
As the family prepared for the long trip to New York, they made it as fun and adventurous as they could along the way.
“We got Shawn settled into his dorm over the weekend, and that following Monday he started classes,” she said. “His dad, stepmom and I went to the parent orientation meetings that day – lots of information, great day of touring the campus, going over the class schedules, how to encourage and support our kids through the process.
“Students come from all over the world, so they are very good at educating parents and family on what to expect for our students.”
But the day before Urbach was scheduled to return to Oklahoma, she says it sank in and Shawn realized how far he would be from family.
“He panicked and said he changed his mind and said he didn’t think The CIA was for him,” she said. “Now, two-and-a-half years later, he will laugh about it and say how silly that was. I really had to talk him through some anxiety and fear he was having before I left.”
Naturally, this made Urbach anxious, too.
“I cried the entire train ride to New York City and the entire flight home to Oklahoma City. The flight attendant brought me an entire box of tissues, and I had to apologize and explain to my seat mates.”
In the weeks that followed, Urbach says Shawn really struggled and was insistent about coming home.
“His sister told him ‘no,’ his dad told him ‘no,’ his stepmom told him ‘no,’ I told him ‘no,’ and his best friend told him ‘no,’” she said. “Once he got settled in, he became more comfortable, and now he can’t wait to get back after a visit home.”
Urbach’s daughter opted for a local college experience at University of Central Oklahoma, where she is currently working on her master’s degree.
“These were two totally different experiences for us,” she said. “If my daughter had wanted to attend an out-of-state college, I would have been more than willing to encourage her to do that. I think that it’s really important to encourage your kids to do what they want to do, even if it doesn’t seem conventional, traditional or practical.”
Bramble advises visiting college campuses, as it’s the best way for students to identify a good fit. As they tour and take in information sessions, they can really get a sense for whether they can see themselves there.
“Some students even report that ‘A-ha!’ moment as they step onto a campus,” she said. “Even those students who bleed OU crimson and cream or have been OSU Cowboy-ed up since birth may want to investigate a few other college options to make sure they are making an informed choice.”
Another issue Bramble stressed is today’s “great debate” about the value of attending a highly prestigious, big-name university to ensure future success. Some, she says, will argue that an Ivy League education is worth the exorbitant price tag; others advocate for a slightly less competitive environment where talented students can earn substantial merit-based scholarships and be a bigger fish in a smaller pond.
For more information on that front, check out Malcolm Gladwell’s “David and Goliath.” As written in “Peterson’s Newswire: The Real Guide to Colleges and Universities,” “[Gladwell] puts forward the notion that students should not necessarily go to major, prestigious universities just to take advantage of that prestige. Instead, students should go to universities where they are likely to truly and notably excel.”
One example Bramble gave was a student turning down Vanderbilt for Rhodes this year.
According to Marshall Gray, director of college counseling at Heritage Hall, it’s not a highly complicated process to get into a state school.
For example, at OSU, a simple search on the school’s website outlines the three different criteria for getting accepted.
“When they give you these black and white things, it’s really nice because there are no tricks to it,” Gray said. “The challenge is when you start to look at more selective schools. As far as tricks or things that are hidden, look at what GPA really means.”
Gray explained that different high schools calculate GPAs in different ways. Some throw out athletics and arts courses, looking only at core course GPAs.
“When I sat down with a student and hand counted a GPA for them, after stripping out arts and athletics and things like that, it can kind of be a pretty drastic difference in terms of … if you have a weighted GPA and then get bumps for AP and honors courses.”
For example, he mentioned a high school in Tulsa that gave four points for an A in a regular course, five points for an A in an honors course and six points for an A in an AP course, resulting in quite lofty overall GPAs.
“Typically, OU and OSU are going to strip all that away and take it back down to four points for an A,” he said. “So what the numbers are when you’re looking at the … student, that’s not necessarily the way the school is looking at it.”
Additionally, he points out that while community service is an important component to the application process, don’t over-do it.
“There’s this idea that your student has to be involved in tons of different things to get into a college, or get into a good college,” Gray said. “In this day and age, more often than not, colleges love to see students with a passion. They love to see students who commit to something, who are excited about something. You’re much better off to have a four-year history of significant commitments to a small number of activities where you really poured your time and energy and emotion into it than have a resume that has tons of stuff that a college is looking at and knowing that you couldn’t devote too much time to them.”
Yolo: You Only Live Once
When it comes to deciding the best time to start the search, Bramble said it all depends on the student’s aspirations.
Those planning to apply to highly competitive schools should start building the strongest transcript and resume possible in their freshman year.
“The process really begins in earnest for most of our students at the beginning of junior year when they have an opportunity to meet with representatives from over 50 colleges who visit our campus each fall,” Bramble said. “Junior year – and the preceding and following summer – is a popular time to visit college campuses and, ideally, juniors will have taken the ACT or SAT at least once before summer break.
“It’s important not to wait until senior year to begin thinking about college, as many students will submit applications in the fall, by the November early action or early decision deadlines.”
Have Fun, Work Hard, Take Risks
For many students, the question of paying for college is also part of the equation. Enter Cassie Gage, a freelance public relations specialist living in Norman. She knew what she wanted to do with her life by the time she was in the ninth grade. She wanted to work in sports. She graduated high school with honors, but faltered when it came to standardized tests, such as the ACT.
She also knew paying for a college education would be on her dime. But a door opened for her when a local community college offered a small scholarship to do sports public relations for them.
“I never even looked at four-year schools out of high school and after that meeting,” she said. “I could not have gotten in with my ACT score, and I even had to take a remedial ACT to get into community college.”
Although she qualified for federal aid through FAFSA, still, that combined with her small scholarship wasn’t enough to cover the cost of school.
“I had been looking for other aid opportunities since I knew the cost was on me,” she said. “The sports PR part of the equation really prevented me from getting a job to supplement my income. I looked for aid on every website imaginable. I applied for just about anything I qualified for. I came across this scholarship called the Gates Millennium Scholarship one day. It’s run by Bill and Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffett. They literally changed my life.”
The scholarship was designed for minorities who need financial assistance, and she qualified as a Native American, with her father being a full-blood Cohaire Indian (North Carolina).
While she was a registered member of the tribe, the Cohaires are recognized by the state of North Carolina, but not by the federal government, she said.
“That last little bit was my hiccup,” she said. “Coming from a non-federally recognized tribe eliminated me from consideration for a lot of scholarships. But not this one.”
She applied, got accepted, and it covered two years of community college, and went on to cover the next three years at a university.
Gage graduated from college debt-free.
“The best advice I can give is to not rule something out,” she says. “There are scholarships out there for everyone. Do your best to get scholarships first to minimize what you have to pay back later. I got lucky. I’m thankful for Microsoft – even though I have an iPhone.”
Gray says whether or not you have financial support, there are some important things to consider. For instance, if you’re going to a college where you’re above average, not only are you more likely to get more scholarship money, but there are other perks as well. If you’re going in as an elite compared to your peers, if there is a special opportunity, a faculty member is likely to go to you because you’re a rockstar and suggest that you participate.
If you are a star at the school, and an alum is visiting the campus, you’re more likely to be the one the president is going to ask to have dinner with this alum, or be recommended for an internship, or represent the school at a conference.
“These are job-creating, resume-building opportunities that you might get if you go somewhere that you’re above average,” he said.
Also, standardized test scores aren’t as important today at several schools.
Gray says there are now more than 900 schools where a student can get in without ACT scores.
“Don’t put too much emphasis on standardized testing,” he says. “Many schools are going against the standardized testing requirements. Why put the students through all the stress and agony of it?”
Helm, who currently is working at the District Attorneys Council as a grant programs specialist, but as of press time will have secured a position as executive assistant at Positive Tomorrows, working in the “giving-back” field in which she has always thrived, says college was the best experience of her life so far.
“I would go back in a heartbeat if I could,” she says. “I experienced true heartbreak, and made some of the best friendships I’ve ever had.
“The main advice I’d give someone heading to college is to live every moment,” Helm said. “Don’t think you have to have it all figured out when you’re a sophomore, because honestly we’re all still figuring it out. Have fun, work hard and take risks. It’s worth every minute.”
If you’re interested in heading back to college in Oklahoma yourself, or finding the right fit for your kids in an OKC-area private school, explore our guide to private schools and higher ed by clicking here.