by Alan finder P’08
illustrations by Jon Krause
Taaha Mohamedali is telling a story about a young man named Ricky. It’s a moving tale delivered by a captivating narrator, and Mohamedali has his audience rapt, silent in their seats, leaning forward to hear more. He tells the students about a trauma early in Ricky’s life, how he channels that hurt into things that are positive, tutoring younger students after school.
Mohamedali’s audience learns Ricky’s mom abandoned the family when he was a boy. “He told me, ‘My mom was never here for me. Never. And I don’t want these kids to feel this pain,’” says Mohamedali, a senior assistant director of admissions at Lafayette.
He pauses, allowing that to sink in for a minute. Then he poses an unexpected question. “What does Ricky have going for him? He has a narrative. He has a sense of self. That’s important. That’s what I want to know. What are you doing? Why are you doing it?’’
He wants to hear their answers, these students at the Thomas Campus of Mastery Charter School in South Philadelphia—inner-city teenagers from homes that are not affluent, usually overseen by single parents. He wants them to think hard about their own narratives, about what they might gain from four years at Lafayette and how they might attract the attention of the admissions office for a coveted spot in the Class of 2020.
Then he makes it personal. “If you do apply, I’ll be the one reading your application,’’ he says. “I’m ready to fight for you.”
Beginning in the dog days of late August, just as first-year students are trickling onto College Hill, Mohamedali and 14 of the others who helped determine the makeup of that incoming class, are just heading out. They’re hitting a road that starts in Easton, Pa., and also ends there, but first must wind its way along a carefully chosen, always eventful, often rewarding and sometimes wearying route by which next year’s class is recruited and selected.
These admissions officers make their rounds, of course, even as they cast their gaze much farther afield to meet with high school students across the country and around the world in ways and places that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
One of Mohamedali’s colleagues, Alex Bates, an associate director of admissions, is heading off for a blurry month-long whirl through China and Europe, visiting with potential students in such far-flung places as Beijing, Shanghai, London, Brussels, Zurich, and Istanbul.
“We’re a beautifully resourced, powerful liberal arts college that I think is beginning to lengthen its stride and really grab the spotlight that it deserves.”
– Matt Hyde, Dean of Admissions
Their colleague, Kaitlyn Zerbe, an assistant director of admissions, is chewing up miles, too, through Tennessee via Nashville and Chattanooga to southern California. Once that’s done, she’s in Fairfield County, Connecticut, and at the myriad high schools in northern New Jersey that make up her core region.
Mohamedali’s verve and originality come out on his stops in Raleigh, Durham, and Charlotte, N. C.; Charleston, S. C.; McAllen, Dallas, Houston, and Austin, Texas; and Hartford and New Haven, Conn. He also spends many weeks visiting high schools in his core regions, Philadelphia and the outer boroughs of New York City.
Other admissions officers deliver presentations in their travels to Denver, Chicago, Atlanta, Michigan, Kentucky, and Florida.
Then there is the coast to visit and, lately, that can refer to the coast of Africa as well as the West Coast.
Each officer visits as many as 120 schools in the first months of the school year.
Matt Hyde, Lafayette’s dean of admissions, likes to call his ambassadorial squad the “purveyors of vibe,” each delivering messages in powerful and unique ways. This intensity is purposeful. “We are really asserting ourselves on the national and international stage,” says Hyde, who, along with Greg MacDonald, vice president for enrollment management, has overseen this ambitious goal to produce a more diverse and academically nimble student body and to raise Lafayette’s profile at home and abroad.
Many signs indicate it’s working. Five years ago, 5,700 high school seniors applied to Lafayette. This year, 8,119 students applied, a 43 percent increase.
“Lafayette, for a long time, behaved like a poor regional college,” Hyde says. “And we’re so much more than that. We’re a beautifully resourced, powerful liberal arts college that I think is beginning to lengthen its stride and really grab the spotlight that it deserves.”
In mid-November, after months of intense travel, Lafayette’s admissions counselors abruptly shift gears, going from bright lights and big cities to much of their time alone, reading and evaluating applications, as many as 15 to 20 a day.
“That’s not an easy switch from extrovert to introvert,” jokes admissions officer Taaha Mohamedali.
The daunting task of reviewing so many applications doesn’t happen in a vacuum though—there are other responsibilities, too, including hosting information sessions for prospective students and interviewing applicants. Officers spend innumerable hours in front of computers, in offices, and at home, reading and evaluating applications.
On these days, Mohamedali awakens, brushes his teeth, and begins reading applications by 8 a.m. Eight hours goes to reading applications; the remaining waking hours are divided among other
work responsibilities and a small window for home life.
If he can, Mohamedali takes a break at midday to play pickup basketball. Then it’s back to the computer.
“We’re all reading all of the time,” says Zerbe. Gallons of strong coffee help her get through the nights, weekends, and holiday breaks she and her colleagues need to devote to the Herculean task: Each officer is responsible for reading 550 to 600 applications between November and March.
Sometimes, the decision to admit or not is clear-cut, and a counselor can make the call immediately. But there are thousands of applicants for whom the decision is not obvious. These go to what are known as the committees—small groups of four to six admissions officers who meet over the winter months for hours on end.
“These admissions officers make their rounds, of course, even as they cast their gaze much farther afield to meet with high school students across the country and around the world.”
Four counselors gather around a conference table one afternoon in early March, laptops in front of them, looking at complete application packages. They sift through dozens of candidates who would require significant need-based financial aid if admitted.
Matt Hyde reads aloud from an essay written by a young woman from New York City. She’s enthusiastic and detailed about the courses she would like to take at Lafayette. “She’s done her homework,” says Hyde. He also notes that she is African American and has excellent grades and SAT scores. A brief discussion ensues, and finally he says, “I’m thinking a good, strong commitment here.” The others nod assent; she’s admitted.
Alex Bates initiates a discussion about an applicant from an elite prep school in Manhattan. She is a good student at a very rigorous school, and she had a strong interview with a Lafayette alumnus. “She’s a really compelling kid,’’ Bates says. Her essay, in which she wrote about the upheaval caused by her family’s eviction from their home, persuaded him that she deserves serious consideration. He says he was impressed by her ability “to maintain any semblance of normalcy, and to do very solid work at a school like that.”
It’s compelling but not immediately unanimous. Her application moves into the “likely” pool, meaning that a final decision will come in a week or two, when the committee determines the final applicants to receive major financial aid.
These committee discussions are in turns dynamic, emphatic, thoughtful, and freewheeling, with everyone offering opinions and asking questions. The goal is consensus—and to get there virtually any aspect of a student’s application can come into play.
There’s lots of empirical data, from an academic rating that combines grades, class rank, and standardized test scores to ratings that assess someone’s personal qualities and leadership potential. Even so, the committees’ deliberations often hinge on subjective judgments. Will an applicant bring unusual skills or perspectives to the campus? Will he add a spark? Will she bring more of the broad diversity Lafayette seeks from differing racial, ethnic, geographic, economic, and cultural backgrounds?
Some decisions are reached after relatively brief discussions, while more questionable or unusual applications can provoke lengthy conversations. During a committee meeting in December, Zerbe brings up an applicant for Early Decision who displays fairly strong academic credentials, but almost no extracurricular activities. “I think academically she would do well here,’’ Zerbe says, “but she’s done nothing else.”
“So what if you are that sort of person, who just wants to read a book?” Hyde asks. A few colleagues say they would be more inclined to admit her if her academic record were truly outstanding. Hyde reads from her essay and wonders aloud if she might rise to the occasion. Lafayette needs more students like this young lady, more “free thinking, intellectual types who would up the verve in this place,” he says. “We might not be the school for them, but we could use more students like this.”
The argument is compelling but not conclusive. Her application is deferred until the regular round of admission decisions in February and March. Zerbe presents another applicant, one who did have a very solid academic record at a New Jersey high school until her grades fell off after several family tragedies. Zerbe argues that she deserves admission based on her overall academic performance, strong personal qualities, and enthusiastic recommendations.
“So is this one of the ones you’d lie down in traffic for?” Hyde asks her.
“Yes,’’ she says, without hesitation.
Hyde nods. She’s in.
Dona Rehm, an assistant director of admissions, brings forward an applicant with excellent grades but only adequate SAT scores. Her recommendations and an interview were impressive, and she also has unusual and varied interests—she’s both a ballerina and a karate black belt. The discussion gets even more spirited as the committee tries to reconcile her classroom performance with her test scores.
Finally, Hyde makes the call. He reads to everyone a note he is typing into his computer: “Black belt, ballerina, done.”
More than seven months after the cadre of admissions officers left Easton to meet potential applicants, the journey reaches fruition. The college mails out letters—1,955 in total—offering students admission to the Class of 2020. About 300 students have already been accepted in the two Early Decision rounds in December and February. Once the students offered admission in March decide where they will enroll, the admissions department hopes to have assembled a class of about 635.
Min Liang will be among them. She finds this out by getting a call to the principal’s office at her school, Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem. Alex Bates is there, ready to hand deliver a large envelope containing her acceptance letter. The surprise ceremony, organized by the CollegeBound Initiative, which provides guidance counselors to help students navigate the entire college admissions process, leaves Min both tearful and ecstatic.
“I just started crying,” she says. “It was the breaking point: I was going to college. It just shows that your hard work pays off and that people accept you for who you are. It was amazing.’’
Henry Condon will be a classmate of Min’s. Kaitlyn Zerbe has been excited about Henry since she met him while visiting his high school in Nashville and learned he was seeking a small liberal arts college that also offers engineering. Later, on an overnight visit, he fell in love with Lafayette.
Then came the notice that he had been offered admission on a Marquis Scholarship, valued at $24,000 per year. “I was really, really excited,’’ says Henry. “It just seems a great fit for me. Lafayette is the one place that I can see myself really enjoying.”
Among the incoming first-years is Ricky. The young man from south Texas whose story Taaha Mohamedali told in his visits with Philadelphia students is also known by his full name, Ricardo Ferrer.
Ricky was among those admitted in Early Decision. In his hometown of Brownsville, he’s a passionate volunteer, tutoring younger students and working in a soup kitchen. The reason, he says, is simple: “I really like doing something for someone else.”
He decided to apply to Lafayette, where he hopes to study engineering, after Mohamedali visited his high school and after he attended the Our Beloved Community conference, a daylong series of discussions about race and social justice at Lafayette. “It was beautiful,’’ says Ricky. “The community, the people there, they made you feel so comfortable.”
After his acceptance letter arrived in mid-December, Ricky wrote a heartfelt note to Mohamedali. It reads, in part: “I’m not sure words suffice to express the joy that I felt when I opened my acceptance letter. What I can tell you, though, is that it’s been a great journey. From hearing about the school, to meeting you and eventually falling in love with the campus, it’s all been simply splendid. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to thank you enough for helping me throughout this whole process. You’ve been a great influence and played a big role in me choosing Lafayette…and I couldn’t be more grateful.”