By Mary Abowd
Photo by Robert Kozloff

The more I looked into the University of Chicago, the more I realized I didn’t want to go anywhere else.”
—Shelby Spence
First-year student

The online announcement came at 4:20 p.m. Jaeda Branch was home alone, seated in front of her computer but too nervous to open email. Then a senior at Morgan Park High School on Chicago’s Southwest Side, Branch dearly hoped to attend the University of Chicago. It was “the school of my dreams,” she says, “my top choice.”

Now the answer from UChicago was in her inbox. Branch typed in her password. “I saw ‘Congratulations!’ and I just screamed and cried,” she recalls. “Words can’t describe how excited I was.”

Branch was not alone that day. Across the globe, many of her future classmates’ own jitters turned to joy upon finding out that they, too, would join UChicago’s Class of 2018.

Jane Chang, a first-year from Saratoga, Calif., felt that exhilaration all over again when she arrived on campus in late September and experienced the raucous parade after Opening Convocation. The many welcoming placards along the route included one held by admissions officers that read, “You were our first choice.”

Pride in joining the UChicago community helps define the members of this year’s incoming class, like more than 120 years of College students before them. For many, gaining admission is more than a personal milestone—it can be a point of accomplishment for an entire school, and an inspiration to others in their communities. Ten students were admitted to the College from Chicago’s Lane Tech College Prep High School this year—all 10 accepted and are starting classes this month.

The enthusiasm is reflected in the steadily growing overall proportion of admitted students who accept their UChicago admission offers. The “yield” rate in 2014 reached a record 60.3 percent—an increase of more than 20 percentage points in five years.

Yield is one gauge of whether students consider UChicago their top choice. By any measure, the ability and eagerness of this year’s new class are in line with the College’s highest traditions, says John W. Boyer, now starting his 23nd year as dean of the College.

“Each year the new students manage to exceed my expectations,” Boyer says. “We are delighted to have such an excellent group of first years with us, representing so many different parts of the country and the world.  I will enjoy seeing them engage with the Core, and then carrying those skills to all that they endeavor."

Diversity in the College comes in many forms. The College led the nation this year in accepting 50 students from the QuestBridge scholarship program, a national non-profit that assists low-income and first-generation college students in finding a match with highly selective colleges. The many international students in this class include a participant in Bridge2Rwanda Scholars, a program that helps talented Rwandan students attend international colleges and return to lead their country.

How it begins

For many, the desire to come to the University starts with a visit to campus. As a sophomore at Shurz High School on Chicago’s Northwest Side, Higinio Vasquez found himself on campus for the statewide Academic Decathlon finals. “I felt an immediate connection, a gut feeling that I belonged here,” says Vasquez, a first-generation college student whose parents came to Chicago from rural Mexico more than 20 years ago. “I passed by students talking and overheard their conversations about philosophers, about research. The intellectual environment really captivated me.”

Shelby Spence, who played varsity football at the De La Salle Institute on Chicago’s South Side, wanted an intellectual environment where he also could take his love of football to the next level. A campus visit and his interest in the College’s Core curriculum made him choose UChicago. “The more I looked into the University of Chicago, the more I realized I didn’t want to go anywhere else,” he says.

Outstanding teaching and mentorship in high school also played a big role in students’ decision to apply to and choose the University. Lane Tech graduate Luke Clohisy says he first began to consider UChicago when his AP Physics teacher, Chris Oster, AB’11, wore a University of Chicago T-shirt on Lane Tech’s college T-shirt day. Clohisy knew Oster had graduated from the College and talked with him about whether the school might be right for him.

Clohisy was Lane’s valedictorian and took a full load of Advanced Placement classes, with a diversity of extracurricular talents. He ran track, starred in the school production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and still performs in his own band. “I could tell that with Luke’s outgoing personality and his many different interests he would be a great fit for the school,” says Oster, who encouraged Clohisy to apply and kept close tabs on his progress during the year.

Another draw for the Chicago students was UChicago Promise, an initiative that includes a no-loan pledge for students from Chicago, along with application workshops for high school students and their counselors. “It’s a wonderfully generous thing the University of Chicago is doing,” Clohisy says. “It really shows they want their students to succeed, to be well-rounded individuals.”

An inspiring accomplishment

One student’s success can have a ripple effect on an entire school. “When we announce that one of our students is going to the University of Chicago, you hear that collective gasp,” says Morgan Mudron, coordinator for the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme at Morgan Park High School.

Mudron served as a mentor for Jaeda Branch, who took seven college-level courses during her junior and senior years and wrote a 4,000-word thesis to earn an IB diploma. “When Jaeda shares her experience with underclassmen and incoming families, you can see their eyes widen,” Mudron adds. “To see that she worked hard all these years and now she’s going to the University of Chicago, it sends a message that, wow, this is a possibility.”

Vasquez found support at school, too. A valedictorian at Shurz, he discovered Chopin for the first time and studied piano through the rigorous Academic Decathlon curriculum. But he says his greatest inspiration came from his parents. “They always told me, ‘You have the great benefit of being born here, being a citizen,’” he says. “‘You have this amazing opportunity to study. You can’t let it pass.’” 

Originally published on September 29, 2014.