A previous version of this piece was originally published in The Fresno Bee on April 6, 2019.
Thanks to the recent and crazy college cheating scandal (and friends and family being on pins and needles about college acceptance/rejections happening this month), I’ve been flashing back twenty-plus years…
Flashing back to the panic, the tears, the omg-I’m-up-$hits-creek, the naive grit that carried me through.
My letter was dated April 1, 1996. It arrived in a thin envelope. “We regret to inform you…” is all I remember. My mom and I cried. “Is this some kind of April Fools joke?” I’d done everything everyone told me to do — I scored the grades, my extra-curricular involvement was off the charts, I’d contributed to my community and church activities with a most sincere enthusiasm. I worked my butt off. No cuts, no butts.
I’d been officially rejected from the school I’d been dreaming about since the 3rd grade: I didn’t get into UCLA.
As a married mom of two now, I can point at that most stinging moment for what it really was: A TEST. Now that some of my daughters’ older cousins are waiting to hear from colleges, I tell my girls short-versions of my own manic experience back then too, in contexts they can understand… if for nothing else to prepare and pre-condition them that life does not go in a straight line, even when you do everything you’re ‘supposed’ to.
Success takes grit. Success takes redirection. Success is a continual test. And you’d better give it hell, dammit.
My sole reason for wanting UCLA back then was to get to Los Angeles — to study Vocal Performance, to become a classical singer/performer/actress (earning a Bachelor’s degree simultaneously was a non-negotiable goal). As stupid luck would have it, my audition for UCLA’s music school landed smack in the middle of a severe bronchial infection that silenced my speaking voice and completely derailed my singing voice. Six diligent years of classical voice study and performance down the drain: My audition was painful, forced, disappointing.
Months prior, I’d auditioned for USC’s prestigious music conservatory and was accepted… with a partial scholarship. (Score!) But USC’s price tag was WAY OUTSIDE of my family’s college budget, so even with the $2500 they offered me to enroll as a Vocal Performance major, I knew from the start it’d be a no-go. (I even tried to up my scholarship offering via a most shameless phone call with USC’s Music School using my parents’ brick phone during one of my high school’s morning breaks to no avail…) And, to make things even more exciting, I hadn’t applied to any other schools except my hometown’s go-to: California State University, Fresno.
That April 1 rejection letter confirmed the doom I felt on my audition day. That April 1 letter was the final word that I was out of Los Angeles choices. I had great options to enroll at Fresno City College or Fresno State and try again for UCLA the following year, but like any 18 year old… I was impatient.
It was LA or bust. Fine, UCLA — I’ll come for you. You want something bad enough, you fight for it.
SO. I. DID.
I’d be an experiment. I hunkered down and plunked a letter (yes, I wrote it myself and then my parents eyeballed it for accuracy/editing) and immediately mailed it to UCLA’s Admission Board of Appeals. I respectfully cited how I was never informed that a rejection from their music school would automatically disqualify me from being considered as an ‘Undeclared’ student. [At the time, there was a slew of students allegedly rejected from UCLA because admissions did not communicate that a rejection for an impacted major automatically rejected you for general admission.] Fight for it, I kept thinking. It’s not over until it’s over.
About a month later, I was wait-listed for enrollment that fall. Aha! This was a TEST. That small victory fueled me even more… it’s not over until it’s over.
Sometime in July, I started calling the Admissions Office. I’d dial the same 310-number from my family’s kitchen with my heart pounding. “Hi, I’m calling to check the status of my wait list number… has it budged?” I was equally motivated and petrified. I fought through my fear and called every week that summer.
I noticed the same woman would often answer the phone. Her name was Priscilla, she sounded a few decades older than me and was always kind. I started asking for her directly and/or would leave a message for her if she didn’t happen to answer when I called. She soon knew me by name.
My trite test eventually turned into a full-blown emergency — the week of the housing deadline arrived and I still wasn’t off the wait-list. “Hi Priscilla, it’s Jill again. I’m just calling one last time to see if I’ve moved into ‘acceptance’ status? The housing deadline is on Friday…” My panic was palpable. “You know what, honey?” Priscilla’s voice replied with a lilt. “You’ve been so diligent, I admire how you’ve persevered. Your wait list number has moved… you’re in.”
It gets blurry here, but I’m pretty sure I squealed like a wannabe sorority girl and profusely thanked her. I remember her sweet ‘congratulations’ before we said goodbye. My mom stared at me as I hung up… we cried (again).
To this day, I have no idea if my wait-list number had moved up prior to that last phone call OR if Priscilla waved some kind of magic wand because I’d emotionally worn her down.
I mailed in my housing confirmation, enrolled at UCLA that fall, found Priscilla in the Admissions office when I got there (we hugged), did not major in Vocal Performance (but spent my entire 4 years performing in UCLA’s biggest musical theater productions), graduated with a Bachelors degree in Communication Studies in 2000 and sang the National Anthem at my graduation ceremony. Since then, I’ve been fighting through rejections, reinventing career goals and redirecting disappointments in show business and media ever since.
The college application and admissions process is drastically different now, but the lessons I earned from my experience back then remain timeless:
- Do not allow rejection to define what you’re capable of.
- Reinvent and redirect goals when required.
- Fight through fear, or else you’ll never know what might have been.
- Ace tests with your efforts, no matter what the outcome reveals.
I have no idea where the heck that famous rejection letter of mine is now, I think I trashed it. (Now I wish I’d kept it.) I do know that my experience was in fact a TEST — a test of how focused I was willing to be, how much energy and effort I was committed to offering and how far I was willing to throw spaghetti against the wall (hello, without cheating) in an effort to bring big goals to life.
Now, 20+ years later, I know: Every hard effort, every hard work, every hard fight will add up to something positive through school, college, life and beyond. Be honest, be secure with your efforts because you will end up where you are meant to end up — that’s trite to say and excruciating to accept through severe disappointment, but you must keep faith and keep going.
Because as long as you keep rising up, the joke will most likely end up on the fools who were once in your way.