Finding a path to Penn
West Philadelphia high schoolers encounter roadblocks to university

Close to home but a world away for many Philadelphia high school students, Penn’s high standards make it nearly impossible for many of them to apply to or to be accepted at the Ivy League University. Among the 3,697 high school students admitted to Penn last year, just 483 of them were from Pennsylvania. Only 170 of those students called Philadelphia home.

For students at some Philadelphia high schools, the path to Penn is clearer than others. On Thursday at 5 p.m., regular decision applicants will find out if they have a future at the University. 

West Philadelphia High School: A Closed Path to Penn
Photo by Aminata Sy

Refathun Momo, the daughter of college-educated parents and a senior at West Philadelphia High School, is a native of Bangladesh who came to the United States in 2013. Interested in studying psychology, she failed to apply to Penn, fearing that the University would deny her acceptance.

Since English is her second language, she did not think her SAT scores were up to Penn’s standards. Last year, the middle 50 percent of admitted students scored between a 2100 and a 2370 on the test.

“You have to have very high SAT scores to get in, and I don’t have that,” Momo said. “I know I will get rejected.”

Even if she were able to attend Penn, she is still intimidated by the fast-paced environment of the campus.

For Momo, her perception of Penn is only counterbalanced by the students she interacts with in her advanced placement classes; Momo said she has never seen a Penn admissions representative at her school.

“I think they don’t come to our school because it’s a neighborhood school,” she said.

Penn's Office of Admissions wrote in an email earlier this month that it was unavailable to comment on this and other articles, as it is preparing to release regular decisions on Thursday.

Despite the fact that she didn’t apply to Penn, Momo made applying to college a priority — and she has already received eight acceptance letters from other colleges, including La Salle University and Saint Joseph’s University. In the future, she wants to go back to Bangladesh and build two free hospitals for women and children. Ultimately, she believes what matters is how a student benefits from a school.

“If you go to a good school, it doesn’t make you a good person,” Momo explained. “The important thing is what you are learning from that school and how the school is shaping you.”

She said SAT scores do not reflect a student’s overall academic and personal abilities.

“If a student doesn’t have good SAT scores, it doesn’t mean that he or she is a bad student,” she said.

For Momo, this sentiment applies to Penn. “[Penn] should be more focused on what the student is doing and how that student is working hard toward their goals.”

Crystal Little, school counselor at West Philadelphia High School, is puzzled by the lack of relationship between her school and Penn. The school, which reopened at a new address in 2011, had a negative reputation at its previous location, which Little speculated might be part of the reason her students are so disconnected from the University. However, in order for that relationship to change, Little said she needs to better understand what Penn is looking for in her students.

“We need to know what we’re not doing,” she said.

Little said if the two schools had an open communication, West would know how to better prepare its students to fit the “Penn mold.”

“I feel like we’re neglected,” she said. “If none of our kids apply there, that would be a problem for me if I were working at Penn.” She added that she would have asked, “West is right down the street — why don’t we get any applications from them?”

Little couldn’t hold back her tears as she described Momo’s drive to succeed and how she feared applying to Penn.

“I am not going to apply to Penn because of my language,” Little recalled Momo telling her. “I don’t think I will get in.”

Little said Momo is the kind of student who could thrive at Penn because of her determination.

“I will put my job on it,” Little noted. “She is going to be the one that does something monumental in the world. For her to get doors slammed in her face upsets me.”

She added Penn should take a chance on her students even if they are off on their SAT scores.

“We’re good enough for the programs,” Little said, referencing the tutoring and partnership programs that currently exist between West Philadelphia High School and Penn. “Why aren’t our students good enough to attend your school?” she asked.

Principal of West Philadelphia High School Mary Dean expressed a similar frustration and urged Penn to offer her students access.

“My issue has always been that Penn sees West Philadelphia High School as a place where their students can earn community service hours,” she explained. “I talked to them about individuals from this school attending Penn. It doesn’t happen.”

Last summer was the first time Penn admitted West Philadelphia High School students to their “first taste of college life” program, Dean said. She added Penn can help her students by supporting them in their coursework in a way that would prepare them for Penn. She added that because of their low SAT scores and lack of money, her students have gotten the impression from Penn that the University is not for them.

"[My students] have been told by Penn that they don’t meet the qualifications,” she said.

One of seven siblings, Breiona Caldwell, a senior at West Philadelphia High School, is about to become the first one in her family to go to college. Her parents didn’t attend college, nor did her three older siblings. She uses her older siblings’ mishaps with the law as a source of motivation to pursue her education.

“Everyone older in my family right now has either been in jail or is in jail,” she said. “That’s why I want to choose a different path.”

Although a high performing student at her school, Caldwell scored about 1200 on the SAT — a number that makes it nearly impossible for her to set foot on Penn’s campus. She applied to nine other colleges and was accepted to eight of them, Pennsylvania State University and Albright College among them.

 She shared Momo’s view that Penn should focus less on test scores and instead prioritize each student experience as revealed in their application essays.

“An SAT score doesn’t really determine how smart a person is or isn’t,” Caldwell noted. “Not everyone is good at testing.”

Damell Martinez, also a senior at West Philadelphia High School, has a mixed background in his family when it comes to a college education. His father did not attend college, but his mother earned a master’s degree and his older sister a bachelor’s degree.

He has nine siblings, one of them his twin sister. For Damell and his twin, though, college is a must. He is looking forward to attending Temple or Penn State, where he has already been accepted. Martinez, who hopes to become a neuroscientist, hesitated to apply to Penn not only because it is a predominantly white school but also because the University does not reach out to his school.

“Not once did I get a college email from Penn wanting me to apply there, and Penn is right down the street,” he said.

A student at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts hoping to study medicine at Penn, Damell’s twin sister has recently been interviewed by the University.

“We’re willing to make an effort to come to Penn,” Martinez added. “All we need is some guidance or encouragement to take the step.”

During the course of her childhood, Yanting Liu, a senior at West Philadelphia High School, has spent time both in the United States and in China. Due to poverty, her parents didn’t go to college. For her two older sisters, who came to the United States during their teenage years, English has been their biggest barrier to pursuing an education.

But neither has stopped Liu from reaching high. Since her school moved to its new location in 2011, Liu is the only student to apply to Penn — a reality her principal made sure she knew.

“My principal told me they never accepted any student from our school,” Liu said. “She was pretty upset [about that].”

Her SAT scores are low — something she hopes Penn will overlook in favor of her experiences and extracurricular activities.

“Penn should give us a chance to get in,” she noted. “Some people are not good test takers.”

Liu will find out whether she was accepted to Penn when regular decisions are released on Thursday.

West Catholic High School: A Narrow Path to Penn
Photo by Aminata Sy

Although about 80 percent of its graduates attend four-year colleges, for most West Catholic High School students, Penn is not considered an option.

The other 20 percent either go to two-year colleges or trade schools or enlist in the military. West Catholic High School students face the same obstacle as West Philadelphia High School students of low SAT scores.

“It is extremely hard to get in with lower SAT scores,” West Catholic college counselor Jennifer Davis said. “You have to have near perfect scores.”

Even among the few who had been accepted to Penn, Davis said some couldn’t continue because of insufficient financial aid. For these reasons, many of their graduates attend the Community College of Philadelphia.

West Catholic’s relationship with Penn is noticeably better than West Philadelphia High. For the last three years, Penn has been reaching out more to the school, Davis noted. However, in this year’s graduating class of 55 boys and 45 girls, only Jasmine Mays followed through with her application process.

Mays is an only child whose parents did not go to college. She has been at the top of her class throughout high school, and she is confident she can handle Penn.

“I feel prepared for Penn,” she noted. “I don’t think the name or prestige intimidates me.”

During her application process, Mays said she did not receive the support of a Penn representative. She also awaits her admission decision on Thursday.

Graduates of West Catholic High School, College freshman Marta Teferi and College sophomore Frehiwet Alfa, have a similar background. Daughters of immigrant parents from Ethiopia, the childhood friends from Southwest Philadelphia experienced a doubtful journey to Penn.

“My parents said I should I apply to Penn, but I didn’t think I would be accepted,” Teferi noted. “I was smart [at West Catholic High] but not the smartest. I thought I was good for West but not for Penn.”

Alfa’s emotions regarding Penn went from intimidated to excited to discouraged. While chatting with other prospective students during Quaker Days, she learned just how much more prepared those students were.

Both Terefi and Alfa had a difficult time adjusting to Penn’s courses and culture, but the two are slowly adapting to their new environment.

“With each semester, it’s getting better in a different way,” Alfa said.

Teferi is also on a mission. “I am trying to find that thing that I am passionate about,” she said.

Teferi believes societal, family or peer pressure should not dictate people’s choices.

“Your peers may have their whole life planned out, but don’t try to be like them,” she explained. “Think of yourself and what you want to do. If you are in the process — no matter how slow — it’s okay.”

Masterman High School: A Clearer Path to Penn
Photo by Aminata Sy

Unlike the West Philadelphia and West Catholic High Schools, students at Julia R. Masterman School say Penn’s admissions representatives are visible, and they are hopeful that they could get into Penn.

Penn accepts at least five Masterman students every year, according to Masterman college counselor Gilda Abney. During her students’ junior year, Gilda learns who the “Penn students” are through their discussions about college.

“Most ‘Penn students’ already have their minds framed to Penn, Penn, Penn” she said. “For them, it is an Ivy League in the backyard.”

Having done their research, usually these students go on to apply for Penn’s Early Decision. Masterman students do their best to have the SAT scores Penn expects.

“A big majority of [our students] feel like, ‘I am at Masterman; I should apply to Penn,’” Abney said.

For students at Masterman, pressure begins long before they reach their senior year, with students often taking three to five advanced placement classes and participating in multiple extracurricular activities.

“By the time they become seniors, the pressure is not how to get to Penn, but did you get to Penn?” Abney said.

Masterman senior Mahmood Ahmed has been accepted to Penn and is ready to begin his college career at the University come August.

Both of Ahmed’s parents attended college in their native country of Sudan. Ahmed’s three older siblings also went to college, including one who went to Penn. Born and raised in Philadelphia, Ahmed has always believed that college is a part of his destiny and Penn was his first choice.

“I was especially interested in Penn’s engineering program,” he said.

It was many weeks of nail-biting for Ahmed after he submitted his application to Penn and awaited a response.

“I was nervous about the Penn name and how spectacular I would have to be,” he said.

This year, he was among the 1,316 students accepted during Penn’s early decision period. He credits Masterman for supporting him, but he admits that his journey to Penn came with its downside.

“Earlier this year, I felt like I was stretched too thin — doing too many extracurricular activities,” he noted.

He has since shifted his focus solely to academics. Down the line, he wants to work in mechanical engineering, designing planes or safeguarding people’s personal information online.

From his perspective, Ahmed thinks people have tremendous control over their lives.

“My family came here for me to have a better opportunity,” he added. “So I should go to the best school I can, get the best job I can.”

Masterman junior Reem Larabi said she has dreamed of attending Penn ever since she was in seventh grade. Larabi’s parents, who didn’t go to college, are natives of Morocco, where boys’ education is valued more than that of girls. Still, Larabi’s parents saw that she could excel in school and decided to have her apply to Masterman.

“At Masterman, there is a whole realm for you to excel and be your best,” Larabi said.

She is fascinated by biomedical engineering medicine, and has big dreams for her future career.

“I want to do something big,” she said. “I know that sounds like a cliche. But for someone who comes from humble beginnings, I am not doing it for me. I am doing it for my parents,” she added. “I want to be that person who comes up with prosthetic kidneys, that person who finds a way to 3D-print organs.”

Larabi said she doesn’t have time to have fun. Instead, she prioritizes her studies and researches the medical field during her free time.

“Part of the plan is to get into Penn,” she explained. “I have been working really hard.”

She is afraid people won’t take her desire to become a doctor seriously, or that her SAT scores won’t be high enough for Penn.

“There are people who are brilliant, have high SAT scores, but they don’t care about what they are going to do in life,” she explained. “I know what it is like to be determined and use that determination to get your work done.” 

But even for Masterman students, the path to Penn is not always clear.

College junior Enxhi Rrapi, a graduate of Masterman, assumed that the transition between her high school and Penn was going to be smooth, but this was not the case. Originally from Albania, Rrapi attended Masterman from sixth to 12th grade, but neither of her parents went to college. She anticipated that Penn would be similar to Masterman but found out during her first semester at the University that Penn was a different world than that of Masterman.

“I had a small-scale idea of what college is going to be like,” she said. “I thought I did well at Masterman, so I am going to do well at Penn."

She soon discovered how much bigger Penn really is and the lack of connection between her and her professors and her peers.

“At Penn, it was a more competitive environment,” Rrapi explained. “If I didn’t have that preconceived idea, I would have had a smoother transition.”

As she reflected on her first semester on campus, she recalls how independent she had to be in planning for her studies and in managing her time.

“I remember being stressed and overwhelmed,” she said. “I didn’t necessarily know how to manage my time. Everybody tells you how Masterman is wonderful — don’t get me wrong it is — but it’s not Penn.”

As a freshman, Rrapi kept to herself, not really asking her professors for help. She said Penn’s competitiveness drives students to lose focus of the purpose of college.

“It is important to know that it’s okay to not necessary do the best in one class – to focus on the main goal — you versus the course, not you versus your peers,” she said.