Frank Bruni

by Vivian Henoch

Not everyone can go to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown – name the “college of your dreams.” That we know. And not every student – no matter how exceptional, how extraordinary the effort – gets into the college of his or her first choice. That’s the lesson that’s tougher to learn.

Give in a quick read, give it some thought.

For anxious parents and their teens caught up in the competition and frenzy of getting in to the “right” college, New York Times op-ed columnist and best-selling author Frank Bruni has written the mantra in his wise and well-researched book: Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be. An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania.

 A journalist for nearly three decades, Bruni has interviewed and profiled hundreds of extremely successful people in business, politics, education, arts and entertainment. Reflecting on what those people have in common, he finds no pattern in their education, “no single juncture, no one crossroads, on which everything hinges” as a measurement or predictor of success. “Why then the obsession with the Ivies and the rankings of other highly selective colleges of perceived caliber?” he asks. “If the real world shows time and time again that you can reach the mountaintop via so many different paths, why do we believe and communicate to our children that it’s all made or broken by whether they go to a certain school?”

Frank Bruni
Hitting home, Frank Bruni spoke of the pressures that hold college-bound students in tighter and tighter grips.

Bringing the message home: It’s time we talk

Admittedly targeted to a privileged minority of American families, describing a kind of angst that holds students in a tighter and tighter grip as college tuition continues to rise and acceptance rates plummet, Bruni’s message certainly hits home in Michigan. In conjunction with the Detroit Jewish community’s Youth Mental Health Initiative, Bruni recently drew a crowd of more than 600 parents, students, educators and mental health professionals for an event hosted by the Jewish Federation at Congregation Shaarey Zedek. The evening was generously subsidized by the Susie and Norman Pappas Challenge Fund.

“It’s time we talk about the madness surrounding the college admission process and the negative mental health effect it has on many of our students,” said, Todd Krieger, Senior Planning Director at the Jewish Federation. Attending the event, Kelly Melistas, a psychologist with Henry Ford Health System, noted, “We’re here to hear what Frank Bruni has to say.  We work with a lot of kids experiencing the things Bruni writes about. We’ve decidedly seen an influx of kids with anxiety and depression.” Commenting on the number in attendance, Tina Sula, Chief Development Officer, Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital added, “There’s so much interest in the subject, yes, but even so much more need in the community to address the issues. I think the Jewish Federation and Henry Ford and all the partners in this initiative working together can make the transformation possible.”

Frank Bruni
Frank Bruni signs copies of his book after his presentation.

Four take-aways from a talk with Frank Bruni

What’s in a ranking? Don’t equate exclusivity with quality.

The admissions game is too flawed and too rigged to earn the credit it has been given today. There’s a whole industry devoted to prepping and packaging students.  We are teaching that calculation matters more than passion, that packaging matters more than substance, and that life yields to these tiny scripts we can plot out: that if you do x, it leads to y.

You can look at the stats and crunch the numbers in any different number of ways, by any measure, and reach the conclusion that we should not be so enamored with the lists published and touted in the media every year.  If it is not the case that getting into a school with an acceptance rate below 15% is going to profoundly transform your life, then why put our kids and our society through a rigor that is entirely unnecessary?  And in the service of that, what sort of damage are we doing?

The “best” school isn’t always the right school for you.

A huge story in the New York Times Magazine, one of the most read articles in the last year – was all about increased anxiety and depression among college students.  If you talk to mental health professionals in schools, mental health centers are seeing more students than ever before. They are seeing students with more severe symptoms than ever before.

The good news: Attention to the mental well-being in students has increased exponentially.  He hears much more conversation about sleep habits, about recognizing mental health problems early on.  That we’re getting better at this really quickly is extremely encouraging, though there cannot be enough vigilance.

It’s not the school that is going to transform your life. 

What we need to do – as parents, teachers, guidance counselors, colleges and the media as well – is to change the narrative. We need to take all this energy, all this agitation that we invest in the question of how to get into a certain school and direct it to other questions. We need to consider with our kids: What really is the right school for you?  What school makes the most sense? What are the ways to use your college years most to your benefit?

College is a singular opportunity to rummage through and luxuriate in ideas, to give your brain a vigorous workout and your soul a thorough investigation, to realize how very large the world is and to contemplate your desired place in it. College is not a goal in itself, a border to be crossed; it is a land to be inhabited and tilled for all that it’s worth.

Take the time you need to find yourself.

Life doesn’t follow a script.  Every turn on the road isn’t all or nothing, pass or fail.  Bruni’s advice to young people: Be open to serendipity and spontaneity; be willing to experiment when life gives you circumstances you are not prepared for; take the time to recognize and own that special combination of what you love and what you are good at. College is supposed to prime you for the next chapter of learning, and for the chapter beyond that. It’s supposed to put you in touch with yourself, so that you know more about your strengths, weaknesses and values and  . . . set you on your way in a tumultuous, unpredictable world.

Final thoughts

In summary of the evening with Frank Bruni, Todd Krieger shared the following story that signaled success and one small victory. “After Bruni’s presentation, a mother told me that her son has become increasingly anxious over the college application process. Though she assures him time and again that not getting into the school at the top of his list is not a sign of failure, the message just hasn’t resonated. His anxiety has continued to increase. While hearing Mr. Bruni speak, the mother told me that she could feel her son’s anxiety lift in real-time. As I watched the mother and son leave the synagogue with smiles on their faces, I knew Bruni’s words had hit home, and our work has just begun to lift the anxiety of all the kids in our community who are struggling.”