College Planning

On gratitude, the College Board, and the first-generation path

Even though I’m a third-year medical student studying to be a doctor at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, I still follow the College Board on Twitter. I’ll never need to know upcoming dates for the SAT, or the Advanced Placement® Exams, but I follow them as a reminder of how far of I’ve come. I like seeing these tweets because the College Board was the reason I managed to go to college at all.

I went to an underfunded public high school in rural Northern California. At the time I was there, we had 4 or 5 guidance counselors for 2,000 students. While a small fraction of students was college-bound, I didn’t count myself among them. College had never been part of my vision for the future, my bucket list, or even my imagination.

But I liked learning and took several honors and Advanced Placement classes. My English teacher was particular about two things: her incisive red editing pen, and her requirement that her students take the PSAT/NMSQT.

When it came time to check my scores, I had to make a College Board account. I was wholly unprepared for how that small action would shift my entire world. During the exam, I’d checked a box allowing schools to contact me—never really believing they would—but soon college mail started to arrive.

Back then, this meant real envelopes! The lady at our post office soon knew me by name, as the school brochures so full of possibility were too big for our P.O. box and she had to hand them to me personally. In retrospect, this feels like a metaphor for how my life was expanding.

So, I started what I now call “window-shopping for the future.” Those paper windows into future lives hurried me to the library computers, where I read every article and college profile available on the College Board website in 2008. Hundreds of doors opened to me just by knowing I had the grades and the scores to go SOMEWHERE.

Now, my parents are brilliant and kind people. But neither of them went to college, so the road there was unfamiliar. At school, college advising was only about 30 minutes per year. And to complicate matters, we had no internet access at home.

So I lived in the library, both the high school and the public library, on the College Board website. I read it like it was oxygen. On bad days, I read it to find hope. On good days, I was fueled by energy and imagination. Either way, it was the College Board that helped me remember I had options, and Advanced Placement classes that let me prove I was ready for them.

When senior year rolled around, I had no adviser, no mentors, and still no home internet. But I felt ready: I’d read obsessively about making checklists for each school, asking for letters of recommendation, writing essays, and using the Common App. So I got to work using the internet at our local bakery and sandwich shop.

I’d read about how to request need-based fee reductions for AP Exams, the SAT, and now the Common App. They even had guidance on FAFSA®, so as far as I could see, the College Board never once let me down.

And, after an application journey still full of plot twists and comical missteps, those glossy college recruitment packets became admissions offers. I had some unbelievable choices: I was torn between UCLA, Mount Holyoke College, and Carnegie Mellon University.

Eventually I chose Mount Holyoke College for the warm, supportive community that brought to life what I’d found online through the College Board. For those thinking about where to go after high school, I’ll say Mount Holyoke fulfilled that and so much more.

So now I’m at Vanderbilt studying to be a physician, and I wish 16-year-old me could see how far she’s come. And for you, the student reading this, I hope you hear this and think “maybe that could be me.” Because it can.

There were many tiny moments and remarkable people that helped bring me to where I am today, but the first and most pivotal was the College Board opening the world to me through a webpage. That was the first “yes.”

So, I follow College Board on Twitter. I follow to remember how I can support other first-generation and low-income students, so they don’t have to start from scratch quite like I did. This journey is nothing if not an opportunity to pass along the gift to others. Whoever you are, from wherever you read this, I hope you’ll join me.


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Catie Havemann, a first-generation college graduate from a low-income background, is originally from rural Northern California. She is currently a medical student at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in the class of 2021. She can be found on Twitter at @CatieHavemann, where she enjoys connecting with aspiring college and medical students of all backgrounds, especially those who are the first in their families to attend college or from working-class and low-income backgrounds.