“It was cool. You don’t get to see that on a regular basis,” she says, as Tom Petty crows “I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings” through the din of clanging silverware.
“When it was about to happen they would call me in,” Bertrand says. “You know a baby is about to come out when [the mother] is about 10 centimeters apart, so you have to get these measurements in your head and just know by your hands, this is 10 centimeters.”
The doctors impressed upon her how serious a commitment medical school is, both in time and money, not to mention lack of sleep. But it’s worth it, they assured her, if she’s committed to it.
That experience set in stone Bertrand’s career choice. “It just confirmed it for me,” she says. And it reinforced her belief that a big-name school was the first step toward her dream.
Back on the front lines at the Urban Science Academy, Mendelsohn gave students and their families an open invitation early in the fall of senior year to visit him in the library to ask questions and start figuring out financial plans.
But Bertrand was still so concentrated on applying to her top-choice colleges that she was not thinking much about costs. “Financial aid?” she recalls thinking. “Can we get into schools first? I wasn’t prepared for that one yet.... I was thinking that could wait.”
A few weeks later, Bertrand checked in with Mendelsohn about her college list. He was relieved that there were some strong affordable options, like some solid state schools that would provide a sound but less expensive education.
“Do you know how much these schools cost?” he asked, eyeing more expensive picks—the colleges she was leaning toward. Howard University, for example, like many historically black colleges and universities, typically has little aid to offer. It had become Bertrand’s top choice after another counselor, not from UAspire, had dissuaded her from applying to Yale, telling her it would be too much of a reach academically.
Mendelsohn urged her to apply for scholarships quickly, fill out her financial-aid forms, and bring back her award letters as soon as they started cycling back.
Three days after Christmas, Bertrand sent her applications to 10 schools. When she heard back from Howard in January, excitement swept over her. What had become her top choice was the first college to get back to her, and she was accepted.
“I was like, ‘I got into my number one school… I’m going there.’ ”
Bertrand bounded into an adviser’s office to announce her news: She got in; she just needed to send in her deposit and she would be as good as set. She was going.
Mendelsohn, sitting nearby, overheard. He knew that it would be too soon for Bertrand to have received a letter from Howard awarding her financial-aid, which would determine whether this option was affordable. Schools have a habit of not sending out such information for at least a few weeks, enough time for students to become emotionally attached to the idea of committing.
Complicating matters, the award letters lack any standardization, and are sometimes downright deceptive, making it look like a student’s financial need has been met, when really they assume a smorgasbord of federal, private, and parent loans will be taken out.
“So when she got into Howard, I started saying, ‘Now let’s see your award letter. And it’s awesome that you got in there. Congratulations.’ ”
She didn’t have her award letter yet. As is often the case, it arrived a few weeks later. And as is also often the case, she thought the school was offering her enough money to go.
Mendelsohn broke down the costs and the truth began to sink in. Bertrand could go to Howard, but it would cost her $38,000 a year. Her parents could give her $12,000, but another $20,000 would come from loans. They multiplied that by four years of undergraduate study. Bertrand realized that going to Howard would be a heavy lift, especially when she factored in the cost of medical school, which typically leaves graduates with about $150,000 in additional debt.
“I was shocked.… I felt that I had to go wait by the mailbox for other schools,” Bertrand says.
Reliving that decision-making moment, introspection floods Bertrand’s voice and her wide, sloping brown eyes turn somber as she shifts her gaze outside one of the classrooms where she was taught that she could succeed if she just worked hard. Voices of teachers who lament they are stuck paying back exorbitant college debts that they now regret taking on echoed in her mind as Mendelsohn went over the costs in painfully fine detail.
Other award letters started to trickle in through February and March, with similar stomach-churning price tags from Spelman College, Xavier University of Louisiana, and College of the Holy Cross. The picture began to become clear: The state university option, which she had always brushed off as beneath her, could no longer be dismissed.