My Rocky Road to the Ivy League: The Dream is Not a Fairy Tale

by Vida Biggins By the age of 14, I’d already checked every box on the list of criteria for the st...

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by Vida Biggins

By the age of 14, I’d already checked every box on the list of criteria for the stereotypical lost cause. I was a black girl with a father who was drug-addicted, abusive, and absent. Check. I was molested by my favorite cousin. Check. I dropped out of high school after one semester in the 9th grade. Check. That was right before I aborted the baby I discovered I was carrying a few months later. Check.

I’m not rattling off all my dirty laundry for the sake of pity, but as proof that no legacy is beyond repair. I began to rebuild my legacy a couple of years ago when I decided to quit my retail job, get a GED, and go to school to become a doctor. I’ll admit it. It’s a pretty awesome story. But since the fairy tale of the lost cause suddenly turning her life around is so cliché, I’d like to make a deviation from the typical narrative that comes with stories like mine.

Quite honestly, it’s not my successes that redefined me most. In fact, at every step along this journey of mine, at some point, on some level, I’ve been unsure. Like the first time I picked up that 5 pound study guide for the GED exam. I wasn’t excited and I wasn’t ready. Frankly, I was frightened as I flipped through those pages. It’d been nearly 10 years since I’d even looked at a quadratic equation or wrote an essay. But I did it anyway.

After that, I decided to quit my retail job to go to school full-time. I didn't know if my decision was stupid, crazy, or little bit of both. Apparently, one of my co-workers couldn’t have agreed with me more. After hearing the news, her response was: “That’s a great idea… if you have the intelligence for it.” So I asked myself: How could I --a 9th grade dropout who’d finally found a decent paying job-- think that I could just start over and live my dream? I wasn’t quite sure what the answer was. But I did it anyway.

About a month later, on my first day at community college, I had flashbacks of failure from grade school. I remembered the teacher who pulled me aside to personally inform me that “school wasn’t for me.” I dreaded that my college professors would share her sentiments, but I sat in the front row of every class and I did it anyway.

When I decided to apply to Columbia University, I was patronized by several of the people in the community. It got so bad that I could pinpoint the precise moment when someone’s face would drop as I announced my plan to go from a small town community college to an Ivy-League university in the biggest city in the nation. At times, I wondered if it was me or them who had it all wrong. Spoiler alert! --I did it anyway.

After I was accepted into Columbia University, I felt like I’d pulled off the biggest hoax in history. I’d single-handedly tricked the admission committee into allowing me to sit in the same classrooms as Alexander Hamilton and Barack Obama. On my first day of school, I had no doubt that all my classmates would be smarter and more cultured than me. Honestly, I’m still convinced that many of them are. But at this very moment, I’m doing it anyway.

I am a black girl who, against all odds, is smack dab in the middle of her dream. I’ve been the president of student organizations, earned multiple awards, delivered great speeches, and published scientific research. And those are the boring parts of the story. While I can admit that those moments were amazing, it’s the moments where I thought it would all come crashing down that shaped me the most. Those moments --where my hope was only running on fumes and I did it anyway-- gave me the chutzpah to push through to my successes.

Too often, success stories blatantly gloss over the gut-wrenching moments that lie between the first step and the finish line. Those stories shrink the idea of following a dream into some unrelatable, magical concept. But it’s not magic and it’s not always pretty. The ugly moments are the moments that everyone deserves to hear about. They’re the moments that we all have in common. Those moments transform the overdone fairy tale of following a dream into the reality of blood, doubt, and tears.

The truth is that accomplishing a dream is a matter of endurance. Not everyone is going to believe in you and sometimes you might not believe in yourself. You do it anyway. You worry that it’s all coming crashing down. You do it anyway. And, at times, you feel like failure is lurking around every corner. And still, you do it anyway. When life gives you every good reason not to be great, you give life the finger and go be great anyway. That’s what dreams are made of.

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