Dave Eggers’ WACAC speech

A few weeks ago Dave Eggers spoke at the Western Association for College Admission Counseling Annual Conference and IDEA Institute 2014. He did so under the auspices of ScholarMatch, the college-access organization in San Francisco, and did so to help highlight the crucial but often unheralded work of college counselors in high schools in California and nationwide. According to a recent study, the ratio between public high school students in California and counselors is 945 to 1. This is an untenable situation if we’re serious about making college accessible to all. College counselors are the essential link between students—especially low-income students in public schools—and their chance to achieve higher education. To address this, that 945 to 1 ratio must be addressed and reduced. In the meantime, these counselors do heroic and life-changing work every day.

The text of the speech follows…

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Hi everyone.

It’s a unique honor and pleasure to be speaking to you today. I’ve been hearing the word WACAC for many years, and just a few months ago I finally realized it was an acronym, and not a Star Wars vehicle from The Empire Strikes Back.

For what it’s worth, I went to public schools all my life and when it was time to go to college, I took the bold and brilliant step of never meeting with my college counselor. Not once. I barely talked about college with my parents, and I showed my essay to no one. Not one person.

So now when I preach to high school students about the need to seek out help and expertise from trained college counselors, I know a thing or two firsthand.

In light of that, I thought I would explain my journey through the world of college access.

About twelve years ago, I met a former high school teacher named Nínive Calegari and together she and I started a nonprofit writing and tutoring center called 826 Valencia. My teacher friends would tell me they had 189 students a day, and they just couldn’t provide all the one-on-one attention they wanted to—especially to the written schoolwork of students struggling with English. So we raised an army of tutor volunteers who could be called upon by teachers to assist with student writing, but with anything, really—from research papers to personal essays to math, poetry, history, science, anything.

Because of zoning obligations on our street, 826 Valencia was forced to have a retail component to the operation. And we decided to sell pirate supplies. Supplies for the working buccaneer. Has anyone been there? Yes? Then you know we sell planks, peg legs, puffy shirts, lard. We used to sell cannonballs, but our wholesaler was killing us on the shipping costs. But yes, we run a pirate store, and the retail component actually pays the rent on the building. I am not kidding.

So with 826 Valencia, I became acutely aware that addressing needs in our education system sometimes required unusual approaches.

I also learned how quickly the services of a nonprofit can grow to meet the needs of its constituents. Within months we went from a drop-in tutoring center to a center hosting daily field trips, evening workshops, book publishing programs, student newspapers — it never stops growing and evolving.

Within the first few months, back in 2002, I started teaching a class called the Best American Nonrequired Reading. This was about 22 students a year, drawn from schools all over the Bay Area. We would meet one night a week, and read contemporary fiction, journalism, comics, and essays for an hour. The second hour was devoted to talking about what we’d read.

Very soon I was being asked to write college recommendations for these students, and though I was happy to be asked, I also became aware that every year, many of the students in the class had no way to pay for college, even when they got in—especially the AB 540 students.

So through 826 Valencia, we decided to give out five $10,000 scholarships.

The process was open to my Best American Nonrequired students, sure, but also open to all students at public schools in San Francisco.

For those five scholarships, we received 150 applications. Of the applicants, the overwhelming majority would be the first in their family to go to college. All were from low-income homes. And their stories were unbelievable. A young woman who learned to run the family finances at age nine because her parents spoke no English. A young man who took care of her three siblings when her mom, a single parent, was diagnosed with lupus. A young man who had been sent with his older brother up from Mexico, and they were living in his uncle’s garage. The older brother worked full-time so his younger brother could attend high school—which made the younger brother that more determined to get a college degree and make his brother’s sacrifice mean something. (That last young man just graduated from Sonoma State, by the way.)

And for the first time, I saw what you all see every day. That there are so many gloriously talented young people who have struggled against tough odds to achieve great things in high school, only to find that financially, college is still out of reach.

But we had our five scholarships, right?

For about eight years, there were about ten board members and donors in the room, and we would work through 150 applications. At the end of the day, we would give out our five scholarships, and leave profoundly inspired that we could help five gifted kids on their way, and utterly brokenhearted knowing there were 145 we could not.

But along the way something happened. Just about every year, one of the donors on the scholarship committee would be so upset that we couldn’t give a grant to a certain student that this donor would find the money him- or herself. This donor would stand up and say, “If I found the $10,000 somehow, can we give six scholarships this year, and not five?”

So I walked around with that knowledge for a while.

The human connection, between a student and donor, created a new opportunity.

There were students out there who were so inspiring that when potential donors got to know them—as you all in this room get to know applicants—they would be moved to action. And one more student would get on that ladder to college.

That was the impetus behind ScholarMatch. It was conceived as a crowdfunding website where student profiles would go online, and donors could get to know the students a bit that way, and get inspired enough to donate. The donors would be connected to the students, receive updates about the scholars’ process, and be available for career advice and professional connections down the road.

So I asked some high school counselors in San Francisco for their advice, in particular Joe Albano from Mission High. Every year, the applications from Mission High were so well-prepared that I knew Joe was an extraordinary college counselor. So his guidance was crucial to putting the site together.

I’m not a digital native, and some of you may know I’m skeptical of digital solutions to human problems. But forgive me for thinking, when we started ScholarMatch, that this would be an easy, turnkey, mostly-digital solution. I figured students would upload their profiles and then donors would read the profiles, donate many thousands, and we pull it all off with a staff of two or three. How hard could it be?

Many of you are laughing. You should be laughing. We were very naïve.

What we found was that, first of all, a good majority of our students didn’t have computers at home. So they were doing their profiles at school, in spare minutes between classes or after school, and they were sending their profiles to us incomplete.

Time and again, the students needed one-on-one help just to get these profiles done. So they’d come into the ScholarMatch office to work on their profiles, and once they were with us, we would find that very often their college goals were misaligned with their true potential. Everything Caroline Hoxby at Stanford has recently proved, we were seeing every day. These students’ grades and scores would be excellent, but they hadn’t considered any private schools, any highly competitive colleges, and almost never any out-of-state colleges. Very often, they would be applying only to two or three very local public universities, schools that often didn’t have financial aid to give, and were often misaligned with the students’ career goals.

So our staff would spend hours on expanding their college options. They would spend hours on their essays, which in many cases the students hadn’t shown to anyone. We would spend hours—many hours—on explaining their options, the FAFSA, financial aid possibilities and loan pitfalls. On average, it would take 8 hours per student just to get their profile online and to make sure they were getting at least closer to applying to a suitable range of colleges.

Eight hours! Eight hours, shoulder to shoulder, one human working with another human. So what started out as a digital idea in the end required a human solution.

ScholarMatch still has that digital element, but now the majority of the work is human to human. And there’s one human in particular I want to highlight.

His name is Noel Ramirez and he’s the head of our college success program. He’s the reason I’m here right now. After working in admissions at Marquette University and the University of San Francisco, he stepped over to our side of the process, trying to get low-income, first generation students into the right colleges. He comes to this convention every year.

I should mention that the Executive Director of ScholarMatch is a brilliant mathematician and former high school teacher named Diana Adamson. She knows where every penny is, and can plan a student’s four-year financial needs in minutes—she’s that kind of scary-smart math brain.

But when we realized ScholarMatch was going to be a primarily human-to-human operation, we knew we needed an experienced college admissions professional, and that’s where Noel came in. In fact, when he came in, he was wearing a suit and tie. There is no one before or since who has entered our building wearing a suit and tie. So we knew he was the real deal.

I have to say that Noel didn’t know I was going to talk about him today. He’s a modest guy, and I know he would pooh-pooh the idea of me taking time to highlight how important he is to us and to the students we work with.

I did show Noel a draft of this speech, but that draft didn’t have him in it yet. I showed it to him last Thursday, wanting his feedback, and what I got back was this:

“Dave. I will read this as soon as I can. Right now though I’m trying to locate one of our students who attends Seattle Pacific University. When I know she’s safe I’ll get to the essay.”

That was the first I’d heard about what had happened in Seattle. But it was not the first time I’d seen how personally Noel takes his work, and how profoundly seriously he takes his responsibility toward the students.

We currently have a cohort of 124 students in colleges nationwide, and Noel immediately knew who our student was at Seattle Pacific, and called her cellphone, her dorm room, emailed her, Facebooked her.

Within an hour he had learned she was safe.

Only then did he read my speech and make, oh, a hundred or so corrections.

The man knows his stuff. He knows the statistics, he knows the admissions system and financial aid, but more than that, he knows the souls of the students we serve.

Every day he demonstrates why his work—your work—is an art, it is a science, it is demanding, it is profoundly rewarding, it is life-changing.

One meeting with Noel can forever change the trajectory of a life. I’ll give you an example that happened just a week ago.

We had a low-income first generation student come into the office one day. I’ll call her Hope. Her parents were immigrants, spoke no English, and had little savings. She was attending a very large public high school in San Francisco, an excellent school open to all San Franciscans—she did not have to test into it—and she’d excelled there.

She sat down with Noel for a few hours to talk about colleges. She came back with her applications and aid forms. He helped her fill them all out—another couple hours. She came back again and again. Noel copy edited her essays, went over every page of her application. Eight hours on one student.

Hope’s first choice for a private out-of-state college was Boston College. Boston College had strong programs in the subjects she wanted to study, and she wanted a small school where she could benefit from small class sizes.

But she got waitlisted, and because she had no expectation she’d get in, she accepted an offer to attend a far bigger school closer to home—a school that offered decent but not great financial aid. She would have to find about $10,000 a year. Where? Well, Noel got to work on that.

Then one day a few weeks ago she got a letter saying she was off the waitlist — that she’d gotten into Boston College. Then, a few days later, she found out that they were offering her a full ride.

She was floored. Noel was floored. I mean, what could be better? End of story, right?

Not quite.

Hope was scared, hesitant. She’s only 17 and has never been to Boston. She’s never left the state! This is a big scary decision. So when she came in to see Noel with her letters from BC, she was still leaning toward staying in the Bay Area.

So Noel sat her down, talked to her about her plans and hesitations. He brought in another ScholarMatch student, from the same high school Hope went to—but one year ahead. This student was going to college in Pennsylvania. She’d made the leap to going to college across the country. Pretty soon Noel has all the ScholarMatch staffers talking to Hope, telling her it’s okay, that she can do it. That it’s okay to go to her dream college on a full ride.

But still Hope is unsure.

This is a dilemma so many of you know. You know that high-achieving low income kids often don’t apply to highly selective colleges. You know that they rarely apply to schools out of state. Caroline Hoxby has proven this, thank god—proven what we’ve known for years.

But less known are the cases of students like Hope. She applies to the selective out-of-state college who wants to pay her way… but she’s still hesitating.

How could this be?

So now, in the ScholarMatch offices, Noel looks at Hope, and takes a piece of paper, and writes a word on it.

He slides it across the desk. Hope takes the piece of paper, turns it over. The word on the piece of paper is FEAR.

Reading that, Hope just collapses in a mess of tears. She’s blubbering. And now everyone at ScholarMatch is crying. Everyone’s a mess.

It was fear that was holding Hope back.

Fear of going so far away, yes. But more than that, fear of failing.

And fear of being deserving of such kindess and generosity from this college so far away. Could she really deserve such a gift? Could she live up to their expectations? Was she worthy of the faith of so many people?

Yes you are, Noel said. Of course you are. Of course you’re worthy.

Finally Hope dried her tears and said Okay. I’m going. This is where I always wanted to go, so goddamit, I’m going there.

(She didn’t say goddamnit. She would never say that. But I like that word.)

The point is that this happens every day. Every day Noel makes some teenager cry. I’m kidding. Actually, I’m not entirely kidding. He really does get to the bottom of these young people, and often their decisions are emotional ones. So there are tears in many of these meetings.

And now Hope is going to Boston College. And all ScholarMatch has to do is cover her plane ticket.

There are so many heroes in that story. There’s the teachers at her high school who encouraged her. There’s her high school guidance counselor who first mentioned Boston College to her, and who sent her to ScholarMatch when she needed extra financial help. There’s the admissions office at Boston College, who took a chance on her. There’s the financial aid office at BC, who knew how much it would take to get her on campus and gave her that offer. And then there’s Noel and the rest of the ScholarMatch staff—I have to name them, Monica Mendez and Selina Weiss, both heroes with beautiful souls—who gave her that final nudge.

This was the work of a lot of people. This was the combined efforts of a lot of caring human beings invested in Hope’s success.

I know the brochure for this conference has all kinds of social media symbols on it, and those tools will surely be a valuable part of the process in the future.

But nothing will replace the human part. The Noel Ramirez part. The part you all do, on every side of the process. If we’re going to level the playing field for low-income students, and make college truly democratically accessible, it’s going to take a latticework of compassionate individuals like yourselves, working together, shoulder to shoulder, human to human. Looking for the Hopes of the world, and lifting them up.

There is no more important work a human can do, and I’m very proud to be among you today. Thank you.