It’s April, and that means many American high school seniors are making some big decisions about college. Even though it’s been 21 years since I was a high school senior, the month of April always reminds me of that hopeful, exciting time in my life. Back in the spring of 1990, I was a graduating senior at Gloucester High School in Gloucester, Virginia. I was very excited about the prospect of going away to school and had applied to four public universities in Virginia: James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Mary Washington College (now the University of Mary Washington) in Fredericksburg, Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, and Longwood College (now Longwood University) in Farmville.
My first choice school was James Madison University, a.k.a. JMU. I had my heart set on going to Harrisonburg, though in retrospect, I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps it’s because JMU had a reputation for being a really fun place to go to school. Maybe it’s because it’s in Harrisonburg, which is in a beautiful mountain setting. Or, I might have been guilty of seeing my higher education as a status symbol. Back in 1990, people who got into JMU were regarded as good students and getting accepted to JMU was considered an accomplishment.
As it turns out, JMU rejected me… and so did Mary Washington and Virginia Tech. Truth is, I wasn’t a particularly good student in high school. I didn’t have great grades or high SAT scores. I wasn’t really popular or pretty, nor was I very involved in student activities. So JMU, Mary Washington, and Tech all passed on admitting me. I was a little humiliated by the rejections, but not particularly surprised by them. At least Longwood had accepted me.
I won’t lie. I was initially a little disappointed that, by default, I was “forced” to go to Longwood. I remember feeling resigned to attending Longwood for my freshman year and perhaps transferring to a “cooler” school later. However, for many reasons, Longwood turned out to be a great school for me. Here are some reasons why I’m glad I went to Longwood.
I benefitted from Longwood’s small, friendly, warm environment.
When I was a student at Longwood, there were only about 3100 students on campus. Most of the students lived on or near campus, so it was very easy to meet people. Most of my classes were small, with no more than thirty students in each section. It was easy to get to know my professors, most of whom had doctoral degrees and taught their own classes. Several of my professors even invited students to their homes, which allowed us to develop strong relationships. I graduated from Longwood in 1994 and visited the campus in 2000, where I was promptly recognized and welcomed by several faculty members who had taught me.
Longwood gave me a place to develop my talents.
I went to Longwood as an English major because I hoped to become a writer. But when I was at Longwood, I found out that I also have a fair amount of musical talent. I found this out because I had to take an arts class as part of my general education requirements. Before college, I had never been a singer; but I chose to take a voice class. My professor told me I had a beautiful voice, a huge vocal range, and perfect pitch. She asked me if I’d consider taking private voice lessons. I did, and that led to an audition for the Camerata Singers, one of Longwood’s choral ensembles. I was accepted into the choir, and that led to exposure to wonderful music, travel to interesting places, and some lifelong friends. I still sing today and have had the chance to share my love for music all around the world. Had I gone to JMU, I’m not sure I would have had the opportunity or the courage to explore my interests in music.
Longwood gave me a lot of bang for the buck
Five years after I graduated from Longwood, I began classes at the University of South Carolina for a dual master’s degree program in public health and social work. I had come a long way from the high school student who was rejected by three undergraduate programs. However, because I had been an English major at Longwood, I did have to take a couple of undergraduate psychology classes as prerequisites for my social work program. In the course of taking those courses, I learned that I got a lot more for my money at Longwood, simply because there weren’t nearly as many students sharing the professors. Don’t get me wrong– I did enjoy my graduate studies at the University of South Carolina, but the experience wasn’t nearly as personal. What’s more, many of my professors at USC complimented me on my ability to write, which I’m proud to say was enhanced by my time at Longwood.
And Longwood still cares about me, even though I graduated…
From 1995 until 1997 I worked as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Armenia, where I taught English to Armenian children. One of my side projects in Armenia was collecting books in English for the school where I taught. I wrote to the English department at Longwood and they sent me several boxes of textbooks for the teachers and students at the school where I taught.
In 1999, I was working as a waitress in a restaurant in Williamsburg, Virginia, trying to earn money before I started my graduate program. Phyllis Mable, who was then the Vice President of Student Affairs, happened to sit in my station one day. Ms. Mable had been at Longwood for a very long time and was there when I was a student, so of course I recognized her. I told her I was a Longwood graduate, planning to attend graduate school in the fall. A couple of weeks later, I got a lovely handwritten letter from Ms. Mable, wishing me luck and letting me know that the Longwood community was proud of me.
The next year, when I was a student at USC, I got a letter from Longwood’s then president, Dr. Patricia Cormier, who wanted to know what the alumni thought of Longwood’s impending name change from Longwood College to Longwood University. I told her that I had many fond memories of Longwood College, but I knew that in order to keep growing, Longwood should become a university. Dr. Cormier wrote me back and thanked me for my comments, then said that after I earned my graduate degrees, she hoped I would someday come back to Longwood to teach! I’m not sure if I’ll ever be a teacher again, but I was deeply touched by the sentiment.
So there you have it…
No, I didn’t get into my first choice school, but things have turned out just fine for me. The 18 year old me wanted so badly to go to James Madison University, but the 38 year old me is very proud to be a Longwood graduate. I’ve gone on to do some great things with my life and my time at Longwood has been a major reason for that success.
So to any high school seniors out there who don’t get into their top choice school, I’m here to tell you not to sweat it. There’s a good chance your second, third, or maybe even your fourth choice school might be just the right place for you.