Thursday, January 09, 2003

Spielberg Effect

Jay Mathews has a very good column on people who succeed despite being rejected from their first-choice colleges.

One of the teachers he had asked to write recommendations told Siegman he had decided, on his own, that no matter how much the teenager believed in his dreams, the teacher thought they were out of whack. The teacher had told the colleges that Siegman was a nice enough young man and worked very hard for his grades, but he did not have the intellectual capacity to flourish at such schools. He was not Ivy League material.

There are many Greg Forbes Siegmans. America is a country built on supersized ambition. The 120-pound water boy thinks he can be quarterback. The book store clerk dreams of writing the great American novel. The high school dropout is certain he will win a Grammy and live in Bel Air. The college admissions process is designed to bring all those hopes in line with reality. Siegman's teacher probably thought he was doing Siegman a favor. If he went to Harvard, the teacher figured, he would only be disappointed and struggle against his limits without any hope of reward.. .

When Siegman was twenty-four, working as a part-time restaurant doorman and just starting as a substitute teacher in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Chicago, he decided to start a mentoring program called He invited people of different backgrounds to weekly meals designed to break down stereotypes and other psychological and social barriers.

After 70 weeks of successful brunches, in which young professionals forged deep relationships with young people needing mentors, Siegman set up a foundation. It supervises the program and raises money so young people can get the opportunity he was denied to attend their first-choice colleges.

He called it the 11-10-02 Foundation, celebrating the day that he would turn 30 and his belief that people under 30 were as capable as anyone to do anything. By that date he was resolved to have made a difference in the world, no matter what his high school teacher had thought, no matter how unrealistic his dreams still seemed to many of the people he met.

Naturally, long before the deadline, his optimism and energy had exactly the desired effect. Not only did the weekly brunches change many lives, but the foundation raised more than $250,000 to further the cause. His Scholarship Program gave out tens of thousands of dollars in college grants. In 1999, Siegman was honored by Hasbro as a real-life American hero. In 2000, he became the youngest adult in the country to be honored at the National Jefferson Awards for Public Service. He was named a Man of Distinction by Zeta Beta Tau in 2001. In 2002, he was honored as one of America's Points of Light.

There is now a term for this phenomenon, invented by Stacy Berg Dale of Mathematica Policy Research and Alan Krueger of Princeton University, who have been working with data on the effects of selective college enrollment on lives.

While looking at their numbers, Dale and Krueger noticed something odd. In many cases, they found that applicants who were rejected by brand-name schools did as well in later life as those who were accepted. The researchers began to wonder whether students' sense of themselves made admissions committees' opinions less important. Under this theory, if you applied to Columbia, Wellesley, and Swarthmore, then you were by definition Columbia, Wellesley, and Swarthmore material, even if those schools spurned you and you had to make do with Cleveland State.

The notion deserved further study, they decided. In the meantime, they gave it a label. It seemed fitting to use the name of a scrawny, bespectacled senior at Saratoga High School near San Jose, Calif., who applied to the famous film school at UCLA but was rejected. He went to Long Beach State (later to become California State University-Long Beach) instead, still thinking about a way to create the career he had in mind. He later tried to transfer from Long Beach State to another famous film school, the University of Southern California, but again he was rejected.

He made five films at Long Beach State, crashed some of the student film screenings at USC, and pushed the studio executives so hard that eventually he got a chance to show what he could do when allowed to make a real feature film.

His name was Steven Spielberg. Dale and Krueger dubbed the phenomenon of rejected college applicants succeeding in spite of their disappointment the "Spielberg effect."

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