By Elise Morgan, Associate Director of Admission
Interviewing prospective students is an art, not a science. Admission officers have a very small window to connect with prospective students when they come to interview, typically 30 minutes. Great kids can have an off day leading to an unimpressive interview and kids that may not be a good fit for the school can sometimes fool us with a fabulous interview (which is why we carefully evaluate the entire admission application). However, every now and then admission officers interview an applicant that is so impressive that they just know for sure that this is a kid that they definitely want at their school.
Ernie Pichardo (St. Mark’s Class of 2014) had a powerful motivation to achieve his goal of attending an independent school. In fact, Ernie was so motivated to attend an independent school, he showed up for our admission Open House a month early. He woke up at 4:30am on Saturday, October 3, 2009 and drove to Southborough, MA from Washington Heights, NY to attend our Open House, not realizing that our Open House was actually scheduled for November 3, 2009! We managed to fit Ernie in for an admission interview in between our twelve other interviews that morning; thank goodness that we did, as it was immediately clear that he was going to be an outstanding applicant. Looking back on my interview notes from that memorable morning, I started them by writing, “Unbelievable! We MUST get Ernie.” Clearly, I was impressed after spending 30 minutes with Ernie during his admission interview in the fall of 2009. Every few years I interview a prospective student that really stands out. What did I see in Ernie? What left me with such a favorable impression? In the paragraphs below I will discuss what I saw in Ernie that led to his acceptance at St. Mark’s and how those same qualities have made him successful here at St. Mark’s. As an admission officer for the past 13 years, I look for certain characteristics in all of the prospective students that I interview and, in Ernie’s case, ambition, energy, enthusiasm, and grit were all evident during our conversation.
From an early age, Ernie exhibited an indomitable spirit and desire to achieve. Not having the resources and access to opportunities that most of our applicants have, Ernie has always made the most of his education. Ernie’s parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic before Ernie was born and settled in Washington Heights, NY, which is comprised of a large Dominican population. Ernie grew up surrounded by an extensive extended family speaking Spanish as his native language. Ernie’s parents always valued education, however, they were not ready to let their son leave the house at the age of 14 to attend a boarding school. Initially, Ernie had to spend several weeks convincing his parents to allow him to even look at boarding schools for high school. In fact, when Ernie’s parents shared that they were looking at a few independent schools that would require Ernie to live on-campus for Ernie’s high school education, his extended family thought they were crazy.
Ernie has overcome some significant obstacles and challenges. Ernie attended P.S. 128, a local public elementary school in Washington Heights, comprised of 96% Hispanic students. In 2013, only 21% of grade 3 students met or exceeded grade level standards for reading and only 22% of grade 3 students met or exceeded grade level standards for math at P.S. 128. During his early elementary years, Ernie found himself bored with school, unchallenged, and unmotivated. However, that all changed when he was given the opportunity to take a placement test in 4th grade that would allow him to attend a more selective school if he did well. Thankfully, his 4th grade teacher recognized that Ernie had potential and recommended that he take the test. Ernie scored extremely well on the placement test and earned a spot at the reputable Mott Hall School. Almost immediately, Ernie became much more engaged in his work and found success academically. He did so well that his 5th grade teacher nominated him for a scholarship to attend Camp Winnebago located on Echo Lake in Fayette, Maine for one month. Ernie was the recipient of the $8000 scholarship and relished every moment of that summer camp experience before his 6th grade year. In fact, the camp loved Ernie so much that they offered him a space at the camp the following summer, which Ernie accepted. While navigating some significant educational obstacles, Ernie was also growing up with an older brother, Jason, who was in and out of juvenile detention. Ernie looked up to his brother and struggled with seeing Jason getting into trouble. When Ernie was in middle school, his brother served his first of several jail sentences. Jason was constantly telling Ernie to do well in school so that he would not end up like him. Although it was not easy for Ernie to watch Jason going through such tough times, he used Jason’s setbacks as motivation to more thoroughly engage in his school work.
Ernie pursued his goal of attending an independent school over a long period of time. What started out with a placement test in 4th grade led to Ernie’s application and eventual selection into the Oliver Scholars Program during his 7th grade year. The Oliver Scholars Program “identifies and engages extraordinary New York City students of African and Latino descent and prepares them for success at leading independent high schools and prestigious colleges” (www.theoliverprogram.org). As a member of the Oliver Scholars Program, Ernie was exposed to several day and boarding independent schools. He spent the summer after his 7th grade year taking enrichment classes and SSAT prep classes five days a week with the other Oliver Scholars. Additionally, he had the opportunity to spend one week living at Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire to experience the boarding school lifestyle. After the week at Kimball Union, Ernie decided definitively that he wanted to go to a boarding school for high school. Unfortunately, his mother was not as excited about the idea. However, Ernie was eventually able to convince her by bringing her with him to visit a few boarding schools. He also explained to her that even if he attended an independent day school he would still have way too many distractions at home. Neighborhood friends were constantly knocking at his door to play and his large extended Dominican family spent most weekends together leaving little time for homework. Ernie explained to me that the summer he spent as a member of the Oliver Scholars Program after his 7th grade year was one of the best and worst summers he ever had. Determination, work ethic, and effort were drilled into him that summer and most of the time it was not that much fun. However, it paid off as Ernie was offered admission to a handful of independent boarding schools during his 8th grade year.
Clearly Ernie has not had the typical upbringing and access to opportunities that the majority of independent school applicants possess. When I interviewed Ernie, I was just astonished at the grit that he had exhibited to have overcome so many obstacles, largely on his own, and to be sitting in front of me with so much enthusiasm. Even though Ernie had awakened at 4:30am and driven over four hours to attend an Open House that did not exist, he still sat in my office with contagious energy and told me his incredible story. I could sense his ambition and desire from the moment he stepped into my office, and, as I sat chatting with him, I knew that Ernie Pichardo was an applicant that I was going to fight for in admission committee. Fortunately, the rest of the admission committee was equally impressed with Ernie’s strong academic record and desire and quickly voted to accept him. Ernie received his official acceptance notification on March 10, 2010. After my first encounter with Ernie during our interview, I kept in touch with him via email through the rest of the admission process. I also recruited a handful of current St. Marker’s to reach out to him every few weeks to give him updates on all that was happening at St. Mark’s and to see what he was up to. Thankfully it paid off as Ernie officially enrolled at St. Mark’s shortly before the enrollment deadline.
Once Ernie arrived at St. Mark’s, he continued on his remarkable journey to make the most of his education. During his third form year, Ernie applied for and was admitted to the US Naval Academy STEM summer program. Ernie was chosen to attend this two week program based on his academic achievement at St. Mark’s. Ernie worked extremely hard his third form year and ended up on High Honors during the fourth window, an academic honor which he has maintained during the rest of his St. Mark’s career. During his fourth form year, Ernie was a member of La Voz Latina, the Black Student Union, the Korean Student Association, and varsity wrestling. At the end of his fourth form year, Ernie was selected to be a prefect in Marr/Coolidge dormitory, an underclass dormitory, for his fifth form year. Ernie continued to make huge strides academically his fifth form year and, while continuing with varsity wrestling, he also made the varsity lacrosse team. He was elected to one of St. Mark’s highest leadership positions at the end of his fifth form year, monitor. In this position, Ernie is one of eight primary sixth form leaders for the entire student body. In addition to serving as a monitor this year, Ernie has been involved with the SHADES affinity group and is currently playing varsity lacrosse. Ernie has thrived at St. Mark’s, making the most of his education. During these past four years, however, it has not always been easy. When Ernie started at St. Mark’s, his brother Jason made him a promise that he would stay out of trouble and get his life back on track. He reinforced how important it was for Ernie to take advantage of his education and make the most of his time at St. Mark’s. Unfortunately, at the start of Ernie’s fourth form year Jason was sentenced to two years in jail (his longest sentence) because of his involvement with a drug cartel. Ernie was devastated, but he certainly did not let it affect him academically; if anything, it motivated him more.
Ernie was admitted early decision to Dartmouth College in November. Similar to his independent school application experience, Ernie did not have much help from his parents. He did it almost completely on his own. Until Ernie was accepted at Dartmouth, his parents were not familiar with the term “Ivy League,” and they only knew that Dartmouth was a “good” college because of its low acceptance rate. When Ernie told his mother that he had would be applying to Dartmouth she said, “Good luck, we will be here for you if anything happens.” As Ernie finishes up his time here at St. Mark’s this spring, I have no doubt that he has an amazing future ahead of him. I, for one, feel extremely privileged to have had the opportunity to get to know Ernie and to have followed him from the very beginning on that fateful October day in 2009 through his journey here at St. Mark’s. Thank you, Ernie, for that opportunity. Thank you for choosing St. Mark’s four years ago.
Elise Morgan has been working in admission at boarding schools in Massachusetts since she graduated from Williams College in 2000. She took a year off to pursue her masters degree in Educational Administration from Harvard University in 2003 and then returned back to admission work. Elise has been at St. Mark’s since 2007 working in admission and coaching lacrosse. She lives on-campus with her husband and three small children.