“What school did you go to?”
A fellow British international student I’d just met asked me the question. To the untrained ear, this seems like a simple thing to ask; but in reality, it belies the classism tied to applying to Columbia as an international student, particularly from the U.K. The question presumes that the respondent went to a recognizable (i.e. private) school and that they’re very likely to be middle- or upper-class with some sort of wealth (or a least a scholarship). Think Eton, Harrow, Cheltenham—places that eight times out of 10 look like a “Harry Potter” set.
It is telling that at the official Columbia welcome reception in London, we had to write our schools on our name tags, so that we didn’t have the bother of asking each other “the question.” I scribbled my name down, confused because I knew that my school was unrecognizable because it is a public school (we call them state schools in the U.K.). I didn’t know the drill. But after I heard “the question” being tossed about between British international students during my first week here, I learned what it really meant.
So now with this acquaintance, I played this tired game.
“I... um... went to a school in London,” I replied.
“Yeah…” He was expecting a name.
“Uh… Norbury Manor? Well, its full name is Norbury Manor Business and Enterprise College for Girls but nobody actually calls it that.”
“Yeah, you’ve probably never heard of it. It’s a state school.”
“I went to a state school as well!”
“Hey, no way!”
We were both surprised because a state-educated British international student is hard to find.
You see, I am not meant to be here at Columbia. That doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be here—“meant” and “should” are two different things. I should be here because I have the academic and personal qualities that earned my spot at Columbia just like every other student. Now, “to mean” is to intend something to occur or to be the case. I am not meant to be here because there are no expectations for people of my demographic to be at Columbia, and there are very few mechanisms in place to help us get here. Kids from Thornton Heath, Croydon—particularly ethnic minorities—don’t go to Columbia. Our (very high) glass ceiling stops at Oxford and Cambridge. Ivy League schools are a separate building.
Self-belief, marred by systems of classism and racism, is one of the largest obstacles when applying to elite universities for people of my background. Before I was told by a teacher that I was smart enough to go to an elite institution, I never even thought to imagine myself in those spaces because I was not represented. The majority of people from Britain going to these colleges are middle- or upper-class and white, which meant that I barely knew of people like me who also attended. The shame is, I was just as academically capable of going to top colleges before and after I was told—the only difference was that I wasn’t aware. Here lies the disparity between state and private school students: Private school students see their classmates, friends, teachers, and, likely, family members attend top colleges. So, they have little difficulty in imagining themselves going as well and also have the resources and information to get there. The situation couldn’t be farther from that of working-class state school kids. There are many gifted working-class, first-generation and/or state school students who don’t realize their full potential because they don’t realize they have such potential.
So, starting my Common App was one thing, but financing my application made me realize that I was participating in a system that was not designed for me to succeed. The mounting costs of SATs and ACTs, application fees, and the exploitative costs of a visa (which alone costs just under $500 just to get an interview) creates a formidable barrier for state school students. This proves all the more frustrating especially because low-income international students could benefit from the need-blind financial packages offered by top U.S. colleges, which can be better than those of U.K. universities. While it’s well-known that colleges use full-tuition-paying international students to line their pockets, there is funding available for bright lower-income pupils as well.
I was lucky enough to have received a grant from my school for academic excellence, so I used that money, along with non-federal fee waivers to complete my applications. Of course, I worked extremely hard to push through my application, but I can’t ignore that somewhat exceptional circumstances (my grants and particularly encouraging teachers) led me here. Now, at Columbia, I really want to encourage my friends back home to apply to American schools, but I feel it would be irresponsible for me to urge people to apply knowing the possible financial burden and lack of resources that they might face.
To be clear, I’m not advocating for Ivy League schools to take on more international students. That would be unfair to American applicants, especially considering that the percentage of international students admitted to U.S. colleges is already very high. What I want is to level the playing field in the British education system to allow more socioeconomic diversity amongst British international students—to let merit be the deciding factor of who can apply and be admitted instead of what high school they attended.
One organization actively seeking to improve social mobility is the Sutton Trust, a phenomenal charity that provides not only free residential trips for state school students to top U.S. colleges but also ongoing support throughout their college applications. Within five years, the charity has sent over 200 students to U.S. colleges, a sizeable amount of which attend Ivies, demonstrating that the only thing differentiating state and private school students is opportunity. Unfortunately, I didn’t know the Sutton Trust even existed; so while the charity is doing great work, we should do more to promote its services.
The process of deconstructing this inequality doesn’t start with Ivy League admissions—state school students seem to have a good chance of getting in if they do apply, and I’m thankful for the support I’ve received from Columbia and the International Students and Scholars Office. The work lies back home, pioneered by organizations like the Sutton Trust, in providing state school students with the same self-expectations, knowledge and financial support as their private school counterparts.
An Ivy League education isn’t the only definition of success, but it should be a path to success that’s available to everyone. If you happen to be or know a British state school student who has their sights on American college, please research the Sutton Trust or you can write to Liberty at firstname.lastname@example.org for advice on applying. Liberty Martin is a Columbia College first-year from Thornton Heath, South London, who is currently looking to major in creative writing. Her column Views from the Seven runs alternate Fridays.