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September 16, 2008

The Dream Realized

Nick Diaz

A young man, (let’s say “George”), a former middle school student of mine, was doing fine in high school until the spring of his senior year at a Frederick County public high school, many years ago. He was near the top of his senior class, and his list of activities – curricular, extra-curricular, and service-oriented – was impressive. It appeared to all at the time that he would go to a great college and do important work.


His dreams were those of many high school academic stars in the college-conscious United States. He would go to one of the Ivy League schools, or maybe to the University of Virginia, Vanderbilt, or Duke. He would go on to graduate and/or law school. He would argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, or maybe win an Academy Award. The presidency was not impossible.


Then the letters began arriving from the very selective colleges he had applied to. Each was distressingly thin – a rejection. He could not believe it. Had there been a mistake?


The gut-churning truth, when it reached him soon after, was even worse than not knowing.


One of the teachers he had asked to write recommendations told George he had decided, on his own, that no matter how much the teenager believed in his dreams, the teacher thought they were out of whack. The teacher had told the colleges that George was a nice enough young man and worked very hard for his grades; he did not, however, have the intellectual capacity to flourish at such schools. He was not Ivy League material.


There are many young men and women in the same situation as the school year begins and seniors concentrate on their college searches and application processes. The USA, my adopted country, is one built on supersized ambition. The 120-pound water boy thinks he can be quarterback. The book store clerk dreams of writing the great American novel. The high school dropout is certain he will win a Grammy and live in Bel Air; after all, if Will Smith did it, so can anybody.


The college admissions process is designed to bring all those hopes in line with reality. This young man’s teacher probably thought he was doing him a favor. If he went to Harvard, the teacher figured, he would only be disappointed and struggle against his limits without any hope of reward.


I think in this year of intense competition for places at a few select colleges, with some students nursing their wounds from being rejected or deferred early decision, and others waiting anxiously for news when the regular decisions are made by March, it is a good time to tell the rest of George’s story. As the new school year gets under way, it is gratifying to hear how one young man cast off the burdens of the past.


The huge tub of bile that fell on George’s senior year had an extraordinary effect on him. Thankfully, it did not stop him from getting an excellent education and finding a way to make a difference in the lives of many people.


George went on to apply, and gain acceptance, at a state college across the Mason-Dixon Line; it was at this institution that he earned his bachelor’s degree in engineering. After working at several small engineering firms where he did design work, and becoming proficient at this discipline, he decided to start his own firm. By this time, years after his senior-year disappointments, he had gained enough self-confidence and had acquired engineering design and management skills that allowed him to make such a bold move.


Last time I heard from George, he had sold his firm, realizing a large profit which would allow him to engage in philanthropic and service work for the rest of his life. That’s what George has been doing since then – hasn’t done a day’s work for personal profit since the mid-90’s. He’s set up a foundation that helps underprivileged students reach their potential through scholarships and various other programs.


High school seniors, don’t let the disappointment of rejection by your chosen elite colleges keep you from continuing to work hard in your pursuit of excellence. Graduation from a common, ordinary Pennsylvania state university did not prevent George from achieving professional and personal success in his life. At one time, George was convinced his world had come to an end; now, his world is just beginning.


It does not matter where you go to school. What does matter is what you do when you get there, what you do after graduation, and what you do with the gift of time – millions of dollars worth of time, that most of us have been blessed to receive.


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