The Legacy Experience: Friend or Foe?
I’m only 23, but I’m already a legacy.
By “legacy,” of course, I’m referring to the word that can become the bane of any high school senior’s existence: in this context, the term refers to a student’s family connection(s) to a given university. For some students, where their parents or siblings went to college doesn’t affect their interests or choices. For others, studying in the same library as mom or dad is extremely important—and for many like me, well, we fall somewhere in the middle.
My dad went to the University of Southern California and loved it. He also loved teaching there as a faculty member for more than 15 years.
I grew up wearing cute USC toddler gear and clutching my stuffed animal of Traveler, the white horse mascot that gallops across the field at home games. My older brother graduated from USC as well, and his stories and memories were woven into my personal USC narrative.
I’ve always been a bit of a planner. Okay, more than a bit—in 7th grade, I went on my first college tour (long story) and used to scribble chronological life plans in the back of my Pocahontas journal. So it wasn’t much of a surprise when I started fixating on “the perfect college” pretty early on… and my model of the classic college experience? USC, of course.
I went through phases. As I started high school, for months at a time I would be positive that USC was the best place for me. I started to compare every other college against it. At that point, I was primarily interested in journalism as a career, and I also loved studying theater and Spanish, all of which are strengths at USC.
Then I would go through my “anti-USC” phases, the times during which I overdramatized feeling like I had to go there or was expected to attend because of my family’s history with the school. It’s taken me quite a few years to admit that it was pretty much all in my head. Moreover, I realize now that my family’s connections to USC had given me a particular deep and nuanced perspective on one particular school, making it my yardstick against which I measured all other schools. Once I let go of this way of perceiving my options, I started to realize that I actually wanted to go to a much smaller school. This is part of how I came to go to Oxy (Occidental College)—a small liberal arts college in the big city that I wanted very much to explore.
I think that, above all else else, the inculcation of one particular college into a child’s life serves largely to offer a tangible picture of what college is supposed to be. I would not trade my father and brother’s stories of challenging professors, quirky roommates and lifelong friends for anything. It’s part of why I looked forward to college—wherever I would go—so, so much.
At the same time, I know that the legacy experience is not always positive. I’ve heard many stories of students who are unhappy at Family Legacy U or who feel guilty about applying to a rival school. Each school is different, and so is every family. I can’t speak for all legacy experiences, but I can say that it does not have to have the slightly bitter taste that seems to permeate reports of legacy students being favored in admissions.
While I cannot speak for the complex ethics that swirl around issues of legacy applicants and admissions, I can say that the experience of considering going to a family college can be very positive. Years of stories about life at one particular school—even though it turned out not to be where I studied—helped me figure out what I wanted for my own college experience. Without those insights, I’m not sure that I would have ended up at what turned out to be my own perfect fit.
As it happens, two of my best friends went to colleges where they had close family alumni—and they had incredible experiences, too. Ultimately, it’s about individual preferences, choices and those gut feelings we’ve all had at some point.
Shortly after I made my decision, my dad brought home an Oxy sweatshirt. His and my mother’s support for me in figuring out my next chapter was the best legacy that they could ever leave for me.
How about you? Did you go to college where someone else from your family attended? Did you grow up learning fight songs and college traditions? What do you think about the legacy controversies in college admissions?