I’m a poor kid at an elite college. Bribes are not the reason my wealthy peers are here.


In this well-written perspective from a student at the University of Chicago, we are happy to see that he recognizes that education is not found in the library alone, but also through the wealth of experiences found in life.  Dylan Hernandez’s writings exemplifies that there is good found in most people (donors, instructors, fellow students) and it is valuable to align yourself with those veins…to become the best possible version of yourself.  Don’t let the media, or some of the products coming out of Hollywood, bring you down, or let you feel lesser about yourself.  Stick to your direction, uphold your character, do the right thing, and you will gain respect among your peers, and with yourself.  Here’s Dylan’s piece:

Media coverage of college admissions bribery scandal mischaracterizes my lived reality of compassion and competitiveness on the quad.

Two years ago, I wrote about my bootstrapped path towards higher education coming out of water-crisis plagued Flint, Michigan. I learned college admissions tends to favor students who won the birth lottery, students groomed by credentialed, powerful parents, grown in elite zip codes, and benefiting from travel athletics, and access to private lessons, tutors and consultants.

Thankfully, old-fashioned standbys like good character, community engagement, Horatio Alger hustle and a well-equipped public library still allow modest-born teens to compete with our more privileged counterparts.

Working evenings at a grocery store deli counter didn’t generate the sort of dough I needed to cut in line and bribe a squash coach, so I played the hand I was dealt and was lucky enough to get into a fantastic school, the University of Chicago.

As I read about the college bribery scandal, I was surprised that the central theme of the news coverage suggests selective universities are fundamentally rigged playgrounds for vapid jet-setting brats, perpetuated by a sharp-elbowed donor class conspiring with administrators. 

However, while that narrative has generated a lot of ink and pixels, it’s a bit inconsistent with my experience. So I’d like to dispel some of those notions for others trying to ascend from humble backgrounds.

Elite colleges have diverse, talented students

Here at the University of Chicago, currently ranked No. 3 by U.S. News & World Report, nothing in my purview suggests the college didn’t make an honest and sincere effort to curate a diverse, broadminded and curious assortment of students. Everyone, including much-maligned student athletes, is extraordinarily clever, service-minded and shares a deep passion for learning. It’s no secret top colleges have a lot of upper- and upper-middle class students; it generally takes financial wherewithal and parental involvement to prepare a student for a place like this. So, sure, lots of my affluent peers wear $1,000 Canada Goose and Moncler parkas — but nobody cares (or even notices) I’m wearing a modest L.L. Bean version.

I’m firmly within the lowest socioeconomic cohort on campus but I don’t detect an undercurrent of snotty elitism. Where you’re from or what your parents do doesn’t help or hurt anyone’s social or intellectual clout. The ethos here is brainy and supportive, not shallow.

A compassionate, generous student body

Before I even stepped on campus, native-Chicagoan freshmen offered tours of the city and introductions to the transit system on our class Facebook group. Last quarter, after I was irritated with an exam score, two classmates immediately offered to help me. These students, graduates of fancy Manhattan prep schools, weren’t seeking a “tutor to impoverished Flint kid” line for their resume. Instead, they had genuine compassion for a fellow classmate.  

High-level administrators have responded to my emails in minutes. Professors always make time outside of posted office hours. I even introduced myself to an alum and major donor who lives near my dorm — he’s since invited me to sporting events, glee club performances and taken me to a fancy private dining club. (Who knew there were such things as finger bowls?)

What this scandal does tease out is the anxiety among upper- and upper-middle class parents to secure (or elevate) the social position of their children. There’s no defense for fraud or bribery and universities and the College Board must address these vulnerabilities, but it is human nature for well-to-do “type A” parents to give their polished and motivated children an edge. That’s here to stay. But students like me should never assume wealthier peers are resting on their laurels. In my experience, they’re fierce and savvy.  

Poor students’ road to success 

Coming from someone who didn’t have family and high-status networks to draw on, it is unbecoming to vilify students who do have those privileges. Don’t delude yourself pretending we’re all coming from the same starting point, but don’t let reality sap your optimism, either. Instead, confront the inequity by out-working, over-preparing and tapping resources. It can be stressful knowing a few tiny mistakes might close doors and my chance at ascent could vanish. 

But there is a way forward. Students like me must work hard; remain affable and appreciative; be a quick study; surround ourselves with sharp, humble peers and compassionate, wise mentors; and — this is key — capitalize on donor-supported resources.

A generous anonymous donor to my university funded the Odyssey Scholar program, which offers modest-background students guidance with papers, resumes, interview prep, financial support for unpaid summer positions and various networking and leadership opportunities. Using these resources can help students like me develop that confidence peers from more privileged circumstances tend to have.

I don’t have any passport stamps, but will soon. Odyssey and other gifts from friends of the university will help me study abroad for a quarter or take a week-long exploratory “trek” to places like Singapore, Sao Paulo, and Jerusalem. And a Chicago-based billionaire recently gifted $125 million to the economics department to expand research, scholarship and bring aboard leading faculty I’ll have the privilege to learn from.

As far as I can tell these donors don’t have ulterior motives. They seem like altruistic people who’ve generously showered students like me with the resources I wasn’t lucky enough to be born into. Their donations give an unimaginable level of access to ideas and experiences few from where I’m from will ever know. They’ve changed my life.

Last month we were on spring break and I didn’t have the disposable income to join friends on an expensive holiday to Turks and Caicos or a posh ski resort and that’s perfectly okay. I used my free time to read ahead, shadow a university donor at his office and send out some thank you notes to those who’ve helped me on this journey.

Dylan Hernandez is a first-year undergraduate student at the University of Chicago. 

  • 04/20/2019
  • Dylan Hernandez