High-achieving Union City High School graduate and salutatorian Vivienne Meljen was at a coffee shop in Hoboken last December when she first received news that she had been accepted into the Ivy League school of her choice.
She opened her acceptance letter, which was actually a video embedded within an email, in front of family and strangers inside the café – all of whom gave exclamations of joy when she learned she’d gotten into Columbia University.
“Everyone in Starbucks was screaming,” she said last week. “I said ‘yes’ immediately.”
Columbia, located in New York City, is one of eight prestigious schools in the country that make up a designation known as the “Ivy League.” Others include Harvard and Yale.
Meljen, who had been dreaming of an Ivy League education since she was a young child – and had posted the names of the Ivies on her bulletin board at home – happily put down her $500 deposit.
But she admitted last week that she “signed with a blind eye.”
“I never got a rejection letter until I started applying for scholarships.” – Vivienne Meljen
Private universities, particularly Ivy League schools, are not cheap. Tuition, room, and board can top well over $30,000 per year these days.
But when Meljen got her aid information, her expected contribution was much higher than anticipated.
Success becomes an obstacle
Meljen is one of two daughters of Cuban immigrants. Her mother arrived in North Bergen at the age of 5 and eventually went on to attend Rutgers University and Seton Hall to become a school psychologist.
Her father arrived as part of the Mariel Boat lift (a 1980 mass exodus from Cuba’s Mariel Harbor) when he was 23. Though he never finished high school, he became a truck driver and real estate investor.
Though the couple is not technically low-income, Meljen’s mother, Marisel, said that they certainly have to work hard to maintain what they have for their two daughters.
When her parents’ finances inhibited her from receiving need-based aid, Meljen took matters into her own hands and began to seek out private scholarships.
Meljen said it was the hard work and dedication of her parents that inspired her to strive for the same.
She taught herself Italian, began a non-profit organization during high school, and did so well on her application to Columbia that she was chosen by a dean as a “regional exemplary student” to be an example for other prospective student applications.
“The way I see it is, it’s my job,” said Meljen. “If what I’m doing reflects on me and my family, then I have to do my best.”
Her attempts to get scholarships rarely bore fruit.
“I never got a rejection letter until I started applying for scholarships,” she said. “Initially I thought, it’s okay, I’ll just go into debt. But then I realized it isn’t worth it. It’s just a bachelor’s degree.”
Trend across the country
Recent articles in the New York Times and Washington Post have detailed the dangerous debt that many college graduates have gotten themselves into by taking on more than they could afford, fueled by the desire to go to the “best” school possible.
At the same time, newspapers have also reported that the country’s most competitive colleges have gotten so expensive that many students are finding they can’t afford to attend. And colleges are also losing donations from alumni, due to tough economic times.
Choosing Scranton instead
Enamored with the idea of going to the Ivy League school in the big city but dismayed by her financial prospects, Meljen decided to take a second look at another school she had been accepted to – the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.
“I went to Scranton and fell in love with the school,” she said. “The best part about it was the small community. It was a pleasant surprise.”
The University of Scranton offered her a merit scholarship, which she said will pay for half of the approximately $35,000 annual tuition costs.
Like many college students, Meljen plans on making up for the difference by getting a part-time job. Unlike many college students, for Meljen that job will be as a real estate agent.
“My goal is to make $30,000 in the first year,” she said.
A pre-med student, Meljen wants her next career to be as a cardiologist.
An added bonus, at the University of Scranton Meljen will also be getting credit for AP classes that she took in high school, which she says Columbia would not have accepted.
“I definitely think it’s a blessing in disguise,” said Meljen.
She reflected on a quote she recently heard about the importance of mapping your life out in pencil because plans inevitably change.
“It feels good,” she said. “You do your best and wherever the road takes you, just follow it.”
Lana Rose Diaz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.