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Opinion | Notes From a Formerly Unpromising Young Person

What ultimately saved me was the willingness of one man, who happened to be a college-admissions officer, to see me as a person — not as a subpar transcript or a series of boxes left unticked but as a complicated human who’d had very few opportunities and a lot of bad luck and who had made a series of regrettable decisions but might make something of her life nonetheless.

Three months after my expulsion, I was kicked out of my parents’ house. For the next three years, I stumbled through more low-wage jobs at restaurants, at a factory, at an ice cream store, at a burger joint, at a gas station. I sold chef’s knives and pots door to door and magazine subscriptions and makeup. Not old enough or stable enough to sign a lease, I surfed co-workers’ couches, friends’ floors and sometimes parking lots in my beater car.

Eventually I started handling bookings for a local rock band. One friend I met through the work, a producer and engineer, taught me about contracts and riders, percentages of the door versus flat rates, marketing and publicity. And one day, when I was 19, he said, with more kindness than the words suggest: “You have to go to college. You want to be a loser for the rest of your life?”

I was not obvious college material. Unlike those world-changing kids vying for a handful of spots in fancy colleges, I didn’t have choices. My only hope would be a college where someone was willing to hear my story and then take an enormous chance on me. That turned out to be a tiny school in a far western suburb of Chicago called North Central College. The man was Rick Spencer, the head of admissions, who sat me in his office and listened. I had no letters of recommendation, no SAT or ACT scores, no sports, no extracurriculars. What I did have — and what he asked me to talk about — was motivation, a sense of how the bleak life I’d been living for three years would be my life forever if I didn’t do something vastly different.

North Central College gave me a life. I went on to attend graduate school, then to travel the world as a foreign correspondent, to give birth to a daughter, to publish multiple books and to eventually become a professor. Not one of these successes would have been possible without the man who took a chance on me.

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