Ifeoma White-Thorpe, an African-American teen from New Jersey, made headlines earlier this year when reports surfaced that she’d been accepted into all eight Ivy League schools.
For most of the eight schools — Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Brown, Penn, Cornell and Columbia — acceptance counts as rare, with Cornell at the top end, admitting just 14 percent of applicants, and Harvard at the low end with just 5.9 percent.
For students of color, it’s all the more rare. Although Ifeoma’s accomplishment has been done before and remains a feat worthy of applause, many African-Americans and other minorities have often shied away from applying and attending Ivy League institutions because of its elitism and a perceived not-so-welcoming approach to urban culture.
However, for many who’ve attended, the bond between them and other minorities proved vital in their success.
“If there’s one thing that Brown gave me, it was definitely a constant sense of family especially in the black community,” said Isabelle Thenor-Louis, a 2016 graduate of Brown University who works as a program associate for Health Career Connection.
“Even though Brown can be an extremely white space, it was my fellow black students who taught me to stand tall within my skin,” said Thenor-Louis, who graduated with honors and a Bachelor’s in anthropology.
Alexandra Sepolean graduated from the undergraduate honors program offered through Brown University’s School of Public Health and she’s pursuing a Master’s in Public Health from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
She still values the experience of an Ivy League education, she said.
“My time at Brown provided me with both the personal and professional development tools to engage in the work that I am doing now,” said Sepolean, co-founder of Brown’s grass-roots student coalition, Health Equity 4 Black Lives. “Brown’s academic environment helped foster a sense of creativity and independence especially in my current interests in merging my knowledge of health and medicine with advocacy and law. Brown’s environment also reinforced my appreciation for the shared communities formed by aspiring black professionals in institutions of higher education.
“Graduating from an Ivy League institution ultimately gave me exposure to people, resources, and skills that have enabled me to tremendously excel in both academic and professional arenas,” Sepolean said.
Stephanie Klein Wassink, a principal at AdmissionsCheckup.com and a Brown and Penn graduate, also enjoyed her experience. She said her son will enroll in Dartmouth in the fall.
“All Ivy League Schools are difficult,” Wassink said. “I have worked with students for 20 years on the college admission process and I can see why parents are focused on the Ivy League. Whether most of us want to believe it, the Ivy League opens doors and, in some respects, offers a safety net.
“It gives black students a great education and it offers a network of motivated and motivating peers,” she said. “It also gives its graduates confidence to take chances they might not otherwise take without a safety net.”
Wassink’s AdmissionsCheckup.com is designed to help students who might not have the resources to go into an Ivy League school.
“We match students and former admissions officers from Ivy League, Big Ten and small liberal arts schools with students applying to those schools,” she said. “I would never have been able to see myself in this world had I not attended Brown, a place where ideas thrive, and the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, which is all about smart strategy. I have also been able to call on classmates who run investment banks for mentoring.”
Selena Cuffe, a Harvard graduate, said her life changed completely because of her Ivy League experience.
“It has been huge. I met my husband at Harvard and we got married on campus at the Class of 1959 Chapel and I had my first of three children while living on campus,” said Cuffe, the co-founder of Heritage Link Brands, the largest importer of black produced wine from South African and the African Diaspora.
Still, Cuffe admits there were challenges.
“The occasional question about whether or not I played a sport and some assuming that I was staff and not student,” she said. “I used to get followed around as if I were about the steal something.”
However, Cuffe, who also attended Stanford University, said she had no problem calling out individuals who were skeptical.
“The African-American population was roughly 10 percent,” she said. “Since my mom never graduated high school, getting my degree and the prospect of making real money is what kept me focused.
“I’m guessing other students viewed me as happy and bubbly, which is my demeanor most days,” Cuffe said. “The lifelong relationships are priceless. I still talk to my Harvard classmates on a weekly, if not daily, basis about issues of life, love, marriage, work, kids and other things. And in their respective fields, everyone is making big moves.”
The Ivy League can be an intimidating environment because those who attend are among the most privileged in the world, said Columbia’s Akia Mitchell.
“You have to know your worth,” Mitchell said. “You have absolutely nothing to prove. The way to thrive in this environment is to leave your comfort zone, always volunteer, show up and be authentic.”