“Really, you’ve never heard of the ‘Taiga Biome’? It’s a subartic forest, the largest one on the earth.” Jasmine told me.
“Sorry, news to me. Maybe the word Biome didn’t exist when I was in high school?” I replied hopefully.
Jasmine laughed, then whipped the laptop into google mode in under 10 seconds and told me that the term “Biome” was first used in 1916.
Since I did graduate from high school well after 1916, I laughed in return, but tried to defend myself.
“O.K., let me explain. They didn’t even have environmental science back when I was in high school. The first Earth Day was when I was a senior.”
Jasmine looked at me with understandable bemusement.
Here we were:
Me: a 62-year-old Caucasian woman, clearly out of touch, at least when it came to biological habitats, who has lived for over 30 years in a close-in, upscale DC suburb.
She: a 17-year-old African-American woman, a senior in high school, who lived in a part of lower-income Washington DC beyond my typical paths.
I sat down next to Jasmine last night in a conference room in a DC office building to start a conversation with her about her college applications. At first she claimed she was too busy to talk, she was doing research for her senior project, the “Taiga Biome”.
Like college bound 17 year olds everywhere, she preferred doing just about anything other than focusing on her college applications.
This fall I started volunteering with a non-profit group in DC that helps 1st generation and/or low-income teens get into and stay in college. The group, let’s call it “CAP” – College Access Program – starts with kids nominated by their DC public schools and pairs them up with academic mentors through high school to make sure they stay on the college track. In junior year, CAP ramps it up, adds in college visits, seminars, test prep, scholarship info – and here is where I came in – and brings in college advisors.
I was honored when CAP asked me to be a college advisor, but anxious. How could I connect with these kids?
The high school kids I had college counseled in the past had parents a lot like me – highly educated, well read, totally versed in the college planning culture. Their kids had the ins and outs of the college process embedded in their DNA, from AP to IB, from test prep to individual tutoring, from early decision to early application to single choice early application and back again. They knew the lingo, they knew what was expected of them. I was one of these parents not so long ago. And my kids were those kids.
Jasmine and most of her CAPs classmates didn’t grow up with the for-sure vision of college in their future. This was newer terrain for them, they were feeling their way. They knew I was there to help them. But as uncertain as I was of what I could do for them, they were wary of me, too. Why should they confide in me? I had to find some common ground.
So I tried to make a connection with Jasmine by talking to her about her school work. The Taiga Biome. Well, that was a flop.
Better to try, I thought, to just dive into a subject I did know well. How to write a college application essay that would capture her heart and mind in under 650 words.
The best part of the college planning process for me had always been helping 17 year olds with their essays. Let me clarify, I did not and do not “write” these essays. The kids write every word. Before the writing starts, we brainstorm. Call it weird but I find it fun to help a high school senior come up with five or six paragraphs, a story, a vignette that will show (show, not tell) a very busy college admission staffer who she is and what she will contribute to the campus. It is a story about you, I tell these kids.
I tried again.
“Jasmine, can we talk for a few minutes about your college applications. I know you have a list of schools, but where are you on your college essays, on your personal statement?”
Jasmine looked down, hoping perhaps that the answer to my question might spring from the photo of the trees of the Taiga Biome on the laptop screen.
“No”, she said very quietly.
“That’s fine, no problem. I can help you with that. Do you have any ideas of what you want to write about?”
“No”, even quieter this time.
“Tell me about what you did last summer, tell me what you like to do when you are not in school, tell me what makes you happy – or sad.”
We chatted for a bit, Jasmine still looking down at the laptop, looking anywhere but at me. But at least we were talking. She told me she was on her high school’s track team.
“That’s good. I have a nephew who’s on the cross-country team at his high school. Similar sports?”
“Cross country is longer; they have hills. I run shorter distances on a track, it’s flat.”
I was impressed, since I think that going down stairs to our basement to do the laundry should count as a valid form of exercise. I asked Jasmine, “What do you like about running?”
Jasmine, for the first time since we started to talk, looked up and turned her face towards mine.
“I find it soothing.”
I paused. “Jasmine, I’m not your therapist. You don’t have to tell me why you find it soothing – but I think a college admission person would be interested to know why you find running to be soothing for you. What is going on in your life that makes you want to run, to be soothed, do you think you could write about that?”
” I like music, I find that soothing too.” she said in a more confident voice.
And that was that. Well, maybe not so fast. Jasmine hasn’t written her essay yet. But she had her topic, her way into herself.
Yes, I thought, all 17 year olds are alike. The CAPs kids are just like every other teen, no matter their parents’ income level. While they may be comfortable texting every single thought they have to their friends, to sharing their opinions with the world on social media, they are inherently private. Few 17 year olds want to dig deep, to self-reflect, to figure out what makes them “tick” – and then write about in a personal essay. And even fewer want to share that with a complete stranger called a “college advisor.” I knew that going in but didn’t really appreciate that until Jasmine and I started to talk.
I learned what the Taiga Biome is. And Jasmine is learning how to write about herself. I call that a connection.