Most high school guidance counselors advise students to ignore brand names when they apply to colleges in favor of a campus where they can be themselves. At the same time, parents fantasize about full scholarships and in-state tuition.
Those two goals collided recently for a high school senior from Great Falls who turned down a four-year scholarship at William & Mary College in Williamsburg to accept an offer of admission from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa.
For her parents, Paloma Guzman’s choice means the difference between a “full ride” at a Virginia college, and attending a highly selective program at Carnegie Mellon with a price tag of $38,000 a year.
Guzman chose to follow her dream of being an actress. Although her tuition at Carnegie Mellon will be mitigated by $10,000 in financial aid, her college choice will make a difference of about $112,000 in the total price of her college education.
“We did have the option of telling her to go to the University of Virginia or William and Mary,” said her mother, Sonia Guzman. Paloma was also offered a substantial scholarship from the University of Pennsylvania, where tuition is about $37,000 a year.
“Theater was always something [Paloma] did as a hobby,” said Guzman, and Carnegie Mellon only accepts about 18 out of 900 applications a year to its acting program. So her chance of acceptance, initially, seemed remote.
But after she auditioned in February, Paloma was accepted.
“To get into theater school at Carnegie Mellon, when she was one of the 18 chosen, I thought maybe that was a little more serious, and maybe I was taking her talent too lightly,” said her mother.
“[Paloma] is very smart. I think she worked very hard all her life. She is very driven to succeed in whatever she does. She is very passionate about [theater]. She said she would definitely regret it if she didn’t take the chance to do this.”
Paloma, now 17, moved to Great Falls from Florida in the sixth grade and attended Forestville Elementary School, where, she was tested and entered the full-time gifted and talented program at Longfellow Middle School in McLean. After middle school, Paloma applied for “pupil placement” at Marshall High School, inside the Beltway in Vienna.
Although her family lives in the Langley High School attendance area, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) policy permits such placements when students seek a program not offered at their base school.
AND PALOMA DID.
When her family lived in Gainesville, Fla., Paloma learned about the International Baccalaureate degree which is offered at Marshall and several other high schools in Fairfax County, but not at Langley.
FCPS policy requires pupil-placed students to provide their own transportation, not a problem for the Guzmans because they live near Route 7, an easy commute to Marshall High in Vienna.
Other than the magnet school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, FCPS doesn’t offer a full-time gifted and talented program in high school.
Paloma wrote for application forms to apply at Thomas Jefferson, but they were lost in the mail and she didn’t pursue it. Instead, she decided to go to Marshall and pursue an IB diploma. Although the course is demanding, she said, “I am very happy that I did.
“It’s definitely time-consuming. It really calls for the kind of person who knows how to manage their time,” she said. “You have to write a 15-page paper (an extended essay) over the summer.
“And you have to complete 150 hours of CAS [creativity, action, and service] between the junior and senior year.”
The IB diploma also requires seniors to take an interdisciplinary course, “Theory of Knowledge,” that traces the development of thought.
BUT AT MARSHALL, Paloma blossomed in the drama program.
“I’ve been doing theater all my life,” she said. “It was mandatory at my elementary school, and we had a drama club in elementary school. I also did community theater.” She also took private lessons in acting and voice.
But not until the end of her junior year did she consider theater as her life’s work.
She broadened the list of colleges where she wanted to apply. In addition to William & Mary and the University of Virginia, she applied at Harvard, Yale, and Penn. Late in her junior year, Paloma added a wild card: Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, Pa.
The idea came from a discussion with Mark Krikstan, her theater teacher at Marshall, who described the fine arts program at Carnegie Mellon.
“It’s specialized, somewhat like a conservatory, but in a university setting,” she said. “It has the conservatory rigor, so you get that kind of training at a university that is prestigious and advanced.”
“I said, ‘I might as well apply,’” said Guzman.
The deadline was early, Dec. 15, and Guzman had to prepare three monologues for a Feb. 16 audition in Pittsburgh: one classical, one modern, and a third to serve as a tie-breaker.
She chose two monologues from Marshall productions, “Samoubvisto” and “La Bete,” and the third, the classical form, was from “Fuente Ovejuna” by Lope de Vega.
ON THE DAY of the audition, she overcame her nervousness to perform them twice, once for each of two auditioners, and then came home to wait.
By then, Guzman said, she knew she wanted to go to Carnegia Mellon, despite a little uncertainty about her talent. At Harvard, Virginia, Yale, Penn, and William & Mary, she had applied on the basis of academic merit, without mentioning theater. But she applied to Carnegie Mellon, she said, because she wants to be an actress.
“You know how good you are in the scope of your high school,” Guzman said, “but it’s such a small environment.
“Once you step out of your high school, it’s a completely different world.
“I feel very privileged and blessed with the drama department at Marshall, but it’s still high school. The world of professional theater, or even the collegiate level, is different.”
When she auditioned on Feb. 16 in Pittsburgh, she was nervous even before hopeful students were told the ratio between how many audition, and how many are accepted. “That make me more nervous,” she said.
WHEN GUZMAN DIDN’T receive a letter from Carnegie Mellon by March 20, she went to see her counselor, Robin Lady, as she waited for a rehearsal of “Evita” to begin. A senior, she was cast in the title role. It would be her farewell performance at Marshall.
Her counselor entered her number on-line, and it brought up a computer screen full of information about her application.
At the bottom, there was one word that read: “Decision.”
It was followed by another word: “Accept.”
“I screamed, and I started to cry,” said Paloma. “All the counselors came in to see what was going on.”
She called her mother. She called her father.
As she waited to hear from the other colleges, Paloma said, “Part of me wanted to know, and the other part of me didn’t really care. When I got my acceptances and [one] rejection, it didn’t really affect me very much.
NOT ONLY IS IN-STATE tuition much lower for residents in Virginia — about $12,000 a year at William & Mary — but there’s a good chance Paloma could have opted out of freshman courses as a because of her IB classes. She might have finished at William & Mary in three years.
Instead, her parents will pay the cost of a private university so their daughter can plumb the depths of her talent.
“They are very supportive of me,” Paloma said. “But as with any private institution, it is a big financial undertaking. It was by far the most difficult decision I’ve ever had to make. But they were going to support me, with whatever decision I made,” she said.
“Everywhere else I applied was for academics. I didn’t even mention theater.
“I don’t know what I would’ve done, if I had not done theater. Maybe premed. I like biology,” said Guzman, the daughter of two physicians. “International relations is also appealing.”
But her experience in theater at Marshall, she said, “helped me grow as an actress, so I could go to Carnegie Mellon and perform well enough to be accepted. It was still a shock. I wasn’t expecting it. I didn’t really have much experience,” she said.
Now that she’s found her dream, and decided to follow it, Paloma said, “Every once in a while, I get overwhelmed by it. I don’t think I’ll ever really believe it. It is such a wonderful opportunity; I can’t believe I have been given it,” she said.
“If I hadn’t gone to Carnegie Mellon, I would’ve wondered what would become of me as an actress. I am fairly confident this is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” she said.
“I think it has alerted myself, and other people, that I am serious about this.”