I didn’t think I should have to pay for college.
I also didn’t think my parents should have to pay for my college.
So I decided I was going to go on scholarships.
Winning general scholarships is well-nigh impossible. I mean those scholarships that are open to anyone in the world as long as they can write a 500-word essay on why they deserve the money.
Let’s face it: you’re a white, Jewish, upper-middle class, private-school kid and you’re competing with kids who are clawing their way out of the projects, escaping abusive homes, or overcoming severe disabilities. Or maybe even kids who had to run ten miles across the Serengeti to school every day, being chased by soldiers with machetes.
You have nothing to compete with. It’s hopeless.
The way to win scholarships is to compete with a smaller pool than the whole entire world. For example, with students applying to your college only. Or with students studying your major. (Or both.) Or, in the case in question, with students in your high school.
The New York State Lottery gives a 3-year scholarship to a single graduating senior from every school in the state every year. I found this out in 12th grade from my mother’s friend, I think. I definitely didn’t hear about it in school. That’s actually the point of this story.
In order to complete the application, you had to get it signed by your college adviser. I was in Bais Yaakov. I had no college adviser. So I went to the office and asked who could sign my application. The secretary informed me that Mrs. Sharpe took care of these things for the seniors. So I went to Mrs. Sharpe and had her sign my application.
A couple of days later the Head of Chesed walked across the classroom to talk to me.
“I heard you were also applying to the Lottery Scholarship,” she said.
“Yeah. It’s $1,000 for three years. It’ll help pay for seminary and college.”
“Mrs. Sharpe told me about that scholarship.”
I was puzzled. But over the course of the conversation what she meant became clear: Mrs. Sharpe hadn’t told her about the scholarship. Mrs. Sharpe had intended to give her the scholarship. By informing the Chesed Head that the scholarship existed, and not a single other student in the senior class, Mrs. Sharpe had created a zero-competition field for her selected student.
“Well, it’s about community service,” the Chesed Head pointed out. Indeed, the scholarship was called “Leaders of Tomorrow” and the essay was about how you were going to make the world a better place.
If anyone was well-positioned to write about how they improved the universe, it was someone who had coordinated community service for an entire school of 250 students. It was not the slacker student who had passed off helping of her Israeli neighbors with their homework (for pay) as chesed. (That was me. Well, the school-provided options of visiting old ladies and so on were really not my speed. The school didn’t have any chesed options for introverts.)
The gauntlet had been thrown down. May the best student win. Obviously, the Chesed Head thought she was still the shoo-in. But I was determined. Also, I was affronted. How dare Mrs. Sharpe decide who should get the scholarship? Weren’t we all going to seminary? Plus, the three-year scholarship would be wasted on someone who wasn’t even going to college after.
I did win the scholarship, in the end. Based on my work with the Israeli neighbors, I wrote a great essay about the struggles immigrants face coming to America in pursuit of a better life. I noted the language and culture barrier, not to mention the generational gap, that turned harmonious existence frustrating. Everything, from disputing a gas bill to redirecting children from bad company was a difficulty to be surmounted. I wrote — lying through my teeth, but hey, it’s a scholarship essay — that I hoped my college degree would enable me to work with the immigrant population to ease their transition. (To be fair, I’ve donated to literacy centers using money I earned because I have a degree. That counts, right?)
The scholarship was great — it helped cover part of my higher education. But even better was giving the finger to Mrs. Sharpe and her pet scholarship recipient.
(This was over a decade ago. I doubt Mrs. Sharpe would be able to get away with this kind of thing in the modern age of internet.)