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How My Project-Based School Prepared Me for Columbia University

By Contributing Blogger — June 14, 2017 5 min read
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This post is by Luna Eve Rey, an alumna of High Tech High Media Arts.

Photo by Phoebe Jones

From the day I was born it was statistically expected that I would fail. On paper I was a low-income Latina whose mother had dropped out of high school, and whose father had barely graduated. In the United States, those born into the same circumstances as myself are categorized as disadvantaged. From birth, it is likely that our backgrounds will dictate our success both academically and professionally. Yet, according to the American dream, if we work hard enough, we too can overcome the obstacles set forth by our income and backgrounds. Unfortunately, this dream is not the reality for many Americans.

I am one of the lucky ones. Despite my background, I was given the opportunity to obtain a great education at a local charter school. I was 11 years old when I started my career at High Tech Middle Media Arts. While I had attended charter schools for most of my educational career, until that point I had never experienced a system quite like High Tech High (HTH). Students learned through hands-on projects which demanded a deep understanding of subject matter through real-world application of knowledge. For the first time, I was challenged not only academically, but intrinsically to become a better student and person.

At HTH, I was asked to become an expert by putting to use what I learned in the classroom. Oftentimes projects were cross-curricular, demonstrating the way that literature, art, and social sciences interact with STEM subjects in the real world.

Throughout my time at HTH, I became a scientist, a filmmaker, an artist, a journalist, a mathematician, and an editor. I wrote and illustrated children’s books in Spanish for ESL classrooms, developed politically charged street art for my neighborhood in art, ran a study on the effects of urban runoff on local beaches for the community’s use in environmental science, and published books ranging from stories of work and internships to history in humanities. What I learned in the classroom held meaning in my life as the projects I completed had a purpose for my community and myself, thus empowering me to strive to produce quality work. I learned how to be a good leader and partner, and became comfortable as a follower as well. I learned the value that each role brings to a project, understanding how being a strong group member does not always mean you are in charge, and valuing the moments when I listened to my peers speak and present new ideas.

The smaller class sizes helped me build close relationships with my teachers, which allowed them to challenge, support, and inspire me. When it came time to apply to college, they were my greatest allies. They went beyond writing letters of recommendation, offering help practicing for exams and providing application advice outside of class. Leaving HTH felt like leaving home. From my teachers and friends at my school, I had learned to love the process of creating--the failures and successes--and to value the struggle needed to create beautiful work.

I left HTH feeling prepared for the real world, but worried about what life in college would look like. When I came to Columbia, I thought that I would be underprepared for the coursework. While my peers had taken AP courses, which covered a wider variety of content, I had spent the last few years building a deep understanding of a smaller array of topics and developing soft skills such as public speaking and collaborative work.

When I arrived on campus, I was told that, as a first-generation college student from a school with a non-traditional background, I would likely need additional tutoring for my courses. I entered my first semester nervous for what was to come, wondering if I had made the wrong choice in attending a project-based school over my local public high school. These fears quickly dissipated with the start of classes as I realized how much I had gained from HTH.

Amidst graduates from some of the best high schools around the world, I was struck by the intelligence that surrounded me. Yet, I felt better prepared than many of my peers for school and life at Columbia. While they had no problem taking notes in lectures or studying for exams, in seminars where deep learning happens at college and where relationships are formed with professors, I found myself speaking up on the literature, posing questions, and interacting more with texts while other students worked to feel comfortable doing so.

Outside of class, I built relationships with my professors, attending office hours so that I could better engage with their courses and learn from their expertise. When asked to work in groups, I was excited to collaborate with my peers rather than fearful of the experience or hesitant to relinquish control. Though I love humanities and have had a tenuous relationship with STEM subjects, my experiences at HTH had shown me how to find a link to my passions through any field, even if it was not my favorite subject. While many of my peers found themselves overwhelmed by the stress culture at Columbia, I navigated systems and found ways to personalize my education around my passions. It became clear to me that, in choosing a project-based school, I had been given many tools necessary for success that my peers hadn’t.

Photo by Luna Rey

I didn’t come to Columbia as prepared to sit in a lecture hall, study for exams, or take notes--skills I was able to learn first semester of freshman year--but I arrived prepared to engage with my peers and professors. It did not take me four years to learn the proper study habits, or how to properly take notes, but I still see many of my fellow seniors struggling to speak up in class, dreading group work, overwhelmed by the thought of job interviews, or hesitant to reach out to a professor. My time at Columbia has taught me many things about art, literature, philosophy, and the world around me. Yet, the skills I believe will be most valuable to me when I graduate are the ones I gained at HTH. With each challenge the future brings, I know I can communicate, think critically, and collaborate with others to push through it.

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