Jewish Journal


May 24, 2007

Some students follow road less traveled to college


The obsession among middle-class Jews about getting into the best possible college is a well-worn stereotype: Parents begin agonizing even before their children are accepted into preschool.

Kids are enrolled in an endless array of extracurriculars -- piano lessons, ballet, soccer, sometimes all on the same day -- and at the same time they are expected to earn perfect grades and demonstrate their leadership skills and social compassion.

Families shell out money for expensive tutors and test prep classes, as well as private consultants who help lay out the road to that dream university, which will lead to the best graduate program, which will lead to the perfect job, which will lead to an ideal life.

This tired and overplayed stereotype may contain some truth, but the other parallel reality is that there are also many students who retain enough independent thought to create their own unique paths.

Because in truth, not everyone goes to Harvard, and that's OK. In fact, not everyone wants to go to Harvard (or Princeton or Yale or Stanford), or even stocks up on enough Advance Placement credits or extracurriculars or unique experiences to get into the Ivy League schools (or UCLA or Michigan or NYU).

"The resume is a reflection of you," college freshman Alex Popper says. "You shouldn't be the reflection of resume."

The Jewish Journal talked to four students who shatter the Jewish college-obsessed stereotype.

Meet Tuvia Korobkin,Tuvia Korobkin who chose yeshiva over college, then got into UCLA Law School. Walla Walla, Wash., was a better choice than Berkeley or Brown for Marnie Burgoyne. It wasn't until high school that Popper figured out what made him tick academically. And Jessica Tanya Spivak, who took the high school equivalency exam, struggled to achieve mediocre grades until she got to the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), where last week she graduated summa cum laude.

When it came time for law school, Tuvia Korobkin was in the enviable position of having to choose between UCLA, USC and Georgetown (he got wait-listed at NYU and Penn). So what was his undergraduate experience that so impressed these high-ranking schools?

At Ner Israel in Baltimore, an all-male yeshiva, Korobkin earned a bachelor's in talmudic law.

While Ner Israel, which is accredited by the state of Maryland, offers the option of -- but does not require -- taking secular classes at nearby universities, Korobkin chose to focus on his Talmud study and took some summer classes in politics and economics at Santa Monica City College.

Korobkin, who just successfully finished his first year at UCLA Law School, says he and his parents always knew he would go to graduate school. He took an LSAT prep course and aced the test, and that, along with his innate intelligence, was enough to get him into some of the best law schools in the country, even without a conventional undergraduate education.

Korobkin's childhood education was somewhat fragmented as the family moved to follow his father's career path (Rabbi Daniel Korobkin is now the spiritual leader at Yavneh Hebrew Academy in Hancock Park). He spent nursery through early elementary school at two San Diego Jewish day schools, then fourth through eighth grade at the Jewish day school in Allentown, Penn., where he was one of four kids in his graduating class.

"I really liked going to school there. I got a lot of personal attention, and it laid a great educational foundation for later years," says Korobkin, 22, and the oldest of 10 siblings.

In ninth grade, Korobkin boarded with a family to attend a yeshiva in Monsey, N.Y. When his family moved to Los Angeles, Korobkin rejoined them and attended Valley Torah High School for a year and then YULA boys yeshiva high school for a year. Throughout his school career, even with all the movement, both his grades and his behavior were excellent.

Rather than stay in high school for 12th grade, Korobkin took a high school equivalency exam to earn his diploma and spent the next two years at Yeshivat Kerem B'Yavneh in Israel. While he originally intended to attend Yeshiva University in New York, which has a conventional general studies curriculum, he switched to Ner Israel, where his father was ordained.

In addition to taking summer school classes at Santa Monica City College, Korobkin enhanced his college education through a reading list supplied by his grandmother, a former English teacher.

With law school's formulaic and highly focused material, he says he has no problem keeping up, and his expertise in the legal thinking of Talmud study doesn't hurt.

Korobkin admits he does occasionally question whether he missed out by not attending a regular college.

"I guess socially it would have been a lot different, and I would have been more well-rounded, as far as my secular education," he says. "But the path I took was very satisfying. I learned a lot and value the years I had in yeshiva. I made very good friends, I had great rabbis and it really made an impact on my life."

From Russia, With Bs

Jessica Tanya Spivak never liked school much. She was the first in her Moldovan immigrant family to be born in America, and the language barrier always made school difficult.

Jessica Tanya Spivak Her parents, who both have advanced degrees from the former Soviet Union, knew that education would get their daughter ahead. She had tutors, they got her into good magnet schools and they had lots of talks trying to figure out why she just wasn't getting the material.

Spivak went to three elementary schools, finally landing in the gifted magnet program at Wonderland Avenue School in Laurel Canyon and then John Burroughs Magnet School in Hancock Park for middle school.

Some of the time she tried hard; other times she just gave up. She had some teachers who really tried to help her through, and most others who just let her fall through the cracks. For high school, Spivak went to Cleveland High School Humanities Magnet in Reseda, which has an intense, interdisciplinary, writing-heavy curriculum. The school was an hour-and-a-half bus ride from her Hollywood home, and she had to be at the bus stop by 6 a.m. and often stayed up well past midnight studying. All this while she took classes in art, dance, tennis -- and kept up active involvement in Temple Israel of Hollywood, where she was an assistant teacher, president of the youth group and often led services or chanted Torah for the whole congregation. In high school, she started to care a little more about grades and did a little better, earning around a B average. After her sophomore year, her father sat her down and gave her an option. She could continue going to high school and then start community college, or she could just start community college now.

After an administrative struggle with Cleveland High, Spivak enrolled in Valley College, and to earn a high school diploma, she did independent study through a continuation school, an extension of the Los Angeles school system designed mostly for delinquents or teen mothers. She passed a high school equivalency exam, and after two years, she earned her associate's degree in psychology at Valley College, where her grades were much improved over high school.

Spivak knew where she wanted to go next. She liked the individualized attention and the Jewish atmosphere at the University of Judaism (UJ) (now American Jewish University), and she knew the school had a good placement record with graduate schools. She spent three years at UJ, where she graduated summa cum laude last week, and the experience changed her as a student.

"When I got to UJ I started doing really well. I started taking classes I liked, and the pace was good for me. I was working really hard," says Spivak, who was also on student government, president of the psychology association and a peer academic counselor.

In the fall, she starts an MBA program in nonprofit management at American Jewish University.

"I feel like there's this idea that getting into a dream school is the only way to set you up for the rest of your life, and that is just not true," Spivak says. "I went to a place where all the professors know me by name, and all of them are willing to advocate on my behalf. You don't get that at a lot of schools."

From the Margins to the Center

When Alex Popper would look at the Bell Curve of an average class, with the extremes of kids who were failing and kids who were acing the class, he never understood the acers.

Why would someone try so hard?

Alex Popper But when he started at New Community Jewish High School in 10th grade, he finally understood why -- and that attitude has stayed with him at Carleton College, a small liberal arts college in Northfield, Minn., where he's done well in his first year.

"At New Jew, I felt personally responsible for making the project of a small private Jewish school education work. And I was personally interested and had a personal stake in the stuff I was studying," Popper says. "I began to genuinely care about what I was doing, which is a night and day difference, and it came through in my grades."

Before going to New Jew, a pluralistic high school in West Hills, Popper had been a mediocre student. He attended a public elementary school in Topanga Canyon, then Viewpoint, a private middle school. He wasn't all that interested in school work and so didn't put in much effort.

"I was a marginal student," Popper says. "I didn't have any sense of ownership in what I was doing. At best, I would get done whatever needed to get done, or at times I even neglected to do that."

After ninth grade at Calabasas High School, Popper's parents decided he might do better at New Jew, then in its second year of existence.

He took Hebrew and theology and enjoyed small classes and a supportive atmosphere where every teacher knew every kid. He joined the lacrosse team and felt personally involved in shaping the vision and direction of the new school.
During high school, Popper kept up his longtime commitment to the Boy Scouts, and he achieved the rank of Eagle Scout with a final project where he researched, planned and marshaled volunteers to revive a native plants garden in Topanga Canyon.

Popper knows that being an Eagle Scout looks good on a college resume, but he also knows that he never would have achieved the rank if he had been doing it just to look good to colleges.

"At the point where you are doing things just for the fact that you can put it on a piece of paper, that kind of defeats the purpose, because it's not sincere," he says.

Having earned mostly As in high school, Popper took an SAT prep course and took the test twice.

With help from his guidance counselor, he identified colleges that would offer the atmosphere that helped him flourish in high school -- a small population, where individual initiative is appreciated. He applied to 10 schools and got accepted to most of them. He chose Carleton, where he felt the people were nice and the school best matched his own educational philosophy. Having just completed his freshman year, he says the choice has been a good one -- aside from "absolutely grisly winters."

He plays on the college lacrosse team, is on student government and works on the campus newspaper and radio station. The Jewish community is small, but he has plans for building up the Jewish presence on campus.

"It's like New Jew," he says. "I both can and am putting myself in a position where I can effect change and make things happen."

Walla Walla Where?

With great grades, well-rounded interests and high SAT scores, Marnie Burgoyne could have gone to -- in fact got into but rejected -- an Ivy League school.
Instead, she chose Whitman College, a 1,400-student liberal arts college in Walla Walla, Wash.

Marnie Burgoyne She liked the fact that it was unpretentious and had no bureaucracy. She was attracted to its location in a small town, where the students were supportive and friendly, and it had a strong program in the major she was looking for -- environmental science with an emphasis on biology.

The Valley resident and Oakwood School graduate had applied to a bunch of schools and got into all of them, except Stanford, where she was wait-listed (and she only applied there to make grandma happy).

She knocked Berkeley off her list immediately, because it was too big, and she didn't want to be in a big city. She visited Brown, Dartmouth and Haverford, all in the Northeast. She wasn't thrilled about Brown, Dartmouth students seemed to be a little too focused on beer and skiing; and though she liked Haverford, students there encouraged her to go somewhere else. So she stuck with her gut and chose Whitman, where she has loved her three years, so far.

"This is small-town opportunity I'll never have again," she says. "The people here are really nice and down to earth."

Walla Walla is a five-hour drive from Boise, Ida., or Seattle and four hours from Portland, but the students rely on sports, not partying, to keep themselves entertained. The professors don't have much going on outside of school, so they focus on teaching. Her major of biology and environmental science, as well as the classes she needs for veterinary school, are strong.

Burgoyne started her academic life at the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center, then went to Stephen S. Wise Day School through sixth grade. At that point, her parents let her choose where to go next, and she opted for Oakwood School in Valley Village, which attracted her through the strong arts component, the freedom to express herself and the student involvement through regular town hall meetings.

Burgoyne always did well academically. She also played in the jazz band and orchestra, played volleyball and ran in track and cross-country. She was active in social causes for Mexico and AIDS awareness.

But she says her activities were based on what she liked and wanted to do -- not what would look good for college.

"I was pretty lazy about the whole college process -- I wasn't too stressed," she says.

She didn't study -- at all -- for her SATs, and got an 800 on verbal and 740 on math.

With the choice of colleges wide open to her, her mom and grandmother encouraged her to go somewhere with a large Jewish population. But Burgoyne says that being one of about 100 Jews on campus has been a great experience.

"I think I'm a lot more involved in Jewish life here than I would have been in any other college, because the Jewish community sought me out," she says.

When they found out she had a day school background and could read Hebrew, she ended up leading services, and by sophomore year she was president of the Jewish club.

"I realize more what it is to be a Jew in [a] small town where you have to fight to keep it alive," she says.

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