A winning team boosts college dream
Shane Winner, a senior and academic standout at Iola High School, assumed he’d follow a predictable route after graduation: Go to a four-year state college, earn a degree and join the workforce.
That path took an unexpected turn last year when his friend, 2019 IHS graduate Jon Miller, was accepted to Bowdoin College in Maine through the QuestBridge scholars program. With their son’s success, Miller’s parents, Paul and Kari, decided to help other IHS students reach for the stars.
They took Winner under their wing.
First off, they helped him apply to the QuestBridge program, which helps low-income, first-generation college students connect with America’s best colleges. In some cases, students can earn full-ride scholarships to colleges that would otherwise be out of reach.
Last spring, Winner was named a QuestBridge prep scholar. He attended a QuestBridge conference at Vanderbilt University in Nashville over the summer.
From there, the Millers worked with Winner to fine-tune essays and applications to help him stand out among thousands of other students across the country. They impressed on him the importance of visiting college campuses to find the right fit. Colleges will pay to fly a potential student for a visit, but the process is quite competitive.
Winner was selected for two fly-in visits. In a couple of weeks, Winner will fly to Middlebury College, a private liberal arts school in Vermont. In November, he’ll visit Davidson College in North Carolina.
“It’s life-changing,” Winner said of the Millers’ help. “They’ve definitely pushed me, not only to avoid procrastinating but to think about how I write essays and how the admissions rep or others may think about me. They’ve shown me so much support, it’s unreal.”
Navigating through the college application process is challenging no matter what school you want to attend, Paul Miller said. Many students may feel too intimidated to apply to more selective schools across the country, especially when the price tag for those schools can top more than $60,000 per year.
But the Millers, especially after Jon’s experience last year, know better. Those big-name colleges have deep pockets and actively search for diversity — including geographic and financial diversity. In fact, it can be cheaper for a student from Iola to attend Princeton than the University of Kansas.
“For this caliber of school, it is not about affording college. The key is getting in,” Paul Miller said.
PAUL MILLER, a full-time substitute at IHS, sent an email to a handful of juniors in September 2018: “Dream big and own your college search! I want to walk you through the process, and offer what little I have experienced and know.” He thought students might be more receptive to a parent than a teacher or guidance counselor, though he worked with school administrators and the guidance office. He met with students about once a month, over lunch, to talk about discovering their dream school, building a resume for selective colleges, how to visit a college, opportunities to visit out-of-state colleges, QuestBridge, and the importance of writing college application essays.
Similar meetings with this year’s crop of juniors will start next week.
“As I looked at so many of the talented students at IHS, it was clear to me that I could share with them what I had learned in the process with my son,” Paul Miller said. “Our family tends to be encouragement-oriented. I knew that without prolonged and targeted support, students would easily be demoralized.”
Both Kari and Paul had offered feedback to Jon as he wrote his essays, so they offered the same service to the high school students.
The feedback on his essays has been invaluable, Winner said, and timely. Usually someone will respond within 24 hours. Each of the Millers has a unique style, which means he gets different viewpoints to consider. That has helped him approach his writing from various perspectives.
He remembers the moment when it all clicked. He wrote an essay to apply for a fly-in to Wesleyan University. Thirty minutes after he submitted it to the Millers, Jon sent him a message: “This is a great answer, but it’s not really the answer.”
Confused by the cryptic response, Winner called Jon, which led to an hour conversation. Colleges want to know how an individual student will fit with their overall education mission, Jon told him. They want assurance the student understands what is expected, and how the student will contribute to their unique culture.
“Each college has a mission statement, and they mean the things they say,” Winner realized.
Winner’s fly-in essay was rejected by Wesleyan — and he’s been rejected by several other schools. That’s tough, he admitted, but on the other hand, he was encouraged when he was put on the wait-list for Bowdoin and approved for two fly-in visits at other schools.
“I needed something to tell me this was the right path,” he said.
AS A QuestBridge prep scholar, Winner qualifies for waivers for admissions applications and other types of assistance. He’s learned about opportunities at schools he’d never heard of, as well as Ivy League schools he never would have considered without the Millers pushing him to apply for QuestBridge.
QuestBridge partners with many colleges and universities to provide full-ride scholarships. Prospective students select and rank up to 12 schools as part of a binding agreement; if they are matched with multiple schools, they are bound to attend their top-ranked match or forfeit the scholarship. The deadline is Sept. 26, so it’s too early to know if Winner will “match” with any colleges.
He hasn’t ranked his choices yet, but said he’s very interested in Davidson. Middlebury is not a QuestBridge partner, so if he decides to attend he will need to find other financial assistance. He knows he wants to attend a liberal arts college because he likes the way such schools encourage personal development. He also likes Davidson’s “Code of Honor,” with pledges to avoid things like stealing or cheating, which appeals to his sense of ethics.
Competition is fierce. The odds of earning a QuestBridge match — even just the odds of acceptance to an elite college — are very low, Jon Miller warned him.
Winner remains undeterred. He has a few strikes against him, such as an ACT score under 30, but he’s using his essay submissions to stand out and force colleges to take notice.
“A large part of me isn’t accepting the possibility of rejection,” he said. “Like in poker, I’ve put a lot of chips on the table and I really want to get into one of these schools.
“I try not to look at a 12% acceptance rate. That’s scary. I would rather spend my time trying to better myself and trying to get in than thinking about what if this fails.”
And, after all, he has the Millers on his side.
“I get excited when students like Shane latch on to a dream that seems bigger than what is possible,” Paul Miller said. “I dream of the day when I see three (or more) students each year leave Kansas, attend top-rated schools, learn all they can and then return, bringing the best parts of American idealism, ingenuity, and innovation back to our part of Kansas.”
WHATEVER happens next, Winner appreciates the writing skills he has learned from the Millers more than anything else. It’s not about proper grammar, he realized, but about putting yourself into your writing and making it your own.
“My writing has grown a lot,” he said. “That night with Jon was probably my turning point.”
And just as the Millers have helped him, he’s passing that knowledge forward.
Last week, a student in his English class asked for help with an essay.
“I realized I could help her. I actually understood what was going on.”
Winner worked with the student, using the skills he had learned over the past several months. The next day, the girl read her much-improved essay in class.
“It was a proud experience,” Winner said. “After watching the Millers edit so many of my essays, my writing has improved enough that I can help others write well. It’s a gift.”
HE IS the son of Teresa and Shawn Winner.