Opinion

What It Takes to Get to the Top of the Ivy League

Sometimes a cultural accident winds up serving a purpose. By coincidence, two former presidents of two different Ivy League universities have written coming-of-age memoirs published within the past four weeks — and at a moment when admission to the nation’s most elite academic institutions is more fraught than ever.

So how did these two women, Ruth Simmons, the president of Brown University from 2001 to 2012, and Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard from 2007 to 2018, both born into a world that expected little of them, get to the top of the Ivy League, and what can students today learn from their experiences?

The answer — despite the authors’ very different backgrounds — is remarkably similar in both cases. Both women refused to let familial or social circumstances stand in their way, both developed a strong sense of purpose and both believe in the importance of failure. While irrevocably shaped by their backgrounds, both were determined not to let their pasts dictate their futures.

Crucially, both women were born in an era when nobody would have imagined their careers to be possible. Simmons calls this turnabout “the unpredictability of opportunity.” In her book, “Up Home: One Girl’s Journey,” she recalls a colleague telling her “there would be no place for me in the profession I was so keen to pursue.” Faust talks in her book, “Necessary Trouble: Growing Up at Midcentury,” about unexpected “doors that open.” As Faust told me, “If someone had said to me when I was young, ‘One day you’ll be the president of Harvard,’ I’d have said, ‘Don’t be crazy.’” When Simmons was offered a post as president of Smith in 1995, she initially figured it had been a mistake.

In certain respects, Simmons’s and Faust’s pasts mirror each other: Born just two years apart in the postwar 1940s and raised in the segregated South, they both had mothers who suffered from long-term illnesses. Simmons was close to her mother and Faust clashed with hers, but neither wanted anything resembling her mother’s lives. Both studied foreign languages, lived abroad for the first time during school, studied the humanities at Ivy League grad schools and entered academia.

But there were also big differences. Simmons, the youngest of 12 children born to Black sharecroppers in rural Texas, spent her early years in a two-bedroom shack with her parents sleeping in the common room. There was no running water. College was a pipe dream — and one she’d have to pay for on her own. Honest, intimate and deeply affecting, her book recalls Anne Moody’s classic memoir, “Coming of Age in Mississippi,” not just in the obvious biographical parallels but also in terms of its potential impact. This is a book you’ll want to pass on to all the young people in your life, no matter their background — just so they can have a little of Simmons’s wise voice in their heads. I’d urge every educator to assign “Up Home” to high school students or incoming college freshmen. It’s that good.

“So many people hear coming-of-age or bootstrap stories and think they get it,” Simmons told me. “But owing to the layers of issues I faced — deep in segregation, this sharecropping existence — people were doubly perplexed.” Students especially kept asking how Simmons made her way to an elite institution. Simmons wrote the book, she said, for those students who believe “there’s no way for them to become a part of the world that they’re looking at through store windows.”

For years — in fact, not until a 1995 profile in The New York Times — Simmons kept her personal story private. “Somewhere I was embarrassed about my background,” she told me. “That’s what poverty will do, especially when you’re in the mix. How do you talk about living in a rat- and roach-infested dwelling when you’re in a friend’s luxurious home? It’s awkward at best.”

But by writing about what being poor was actually like, Simmons said she hopes to convey that poverty doesn’t mean you’re “without values or merit.” That you don’t have strong beliefs or goals. “So often,” she lamented, “people believe that if you are a victim of want that somehow escaping that is all you desire.”

In Drew Gilpin Faust’s case, the desired escape was from a position of open privilege and closed expectations, a combination that troubled and stifled her. Her memoir is also a story of the segregated South, but from the other side. Raised on a Virginia farm into a white family of waning wealth whose members included several military veterans, Faust was told by her mother that it was a man’s world and to get used to it. Titled after the civil rights leader John Lewis’s famous description of civil disobedience, Faust’s book is less revelatory memoir than a historian’s personal reflections on her times and her own participation in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements.

“I felt that people I encountered didn’t understand that era, how constraining it was for women and African Americans,” Faust told me. “I wanted to be a voice talking about that time.” Like Simmons, she wrote her book with young people in mind, specifically to help them understand how someone like her could find a path through a period of seismic change.

We live in pessimistic times. For Simmons and Faust, opportunities were not yet open for women, especially for poor Black women with no connections, and many young people today feel as if the window of opportunity has closed again. That makes Simmons’s and Faust’s childhood experiences newly relevant 50 years later.

It’s not, their stories tell us, the circumstances into which we are born that bind us; it’s how we allow — or refuse to allow — them to define us that makes us who we are. For students who feel stymied by overwhelming circumstance — climatic, economic, technological, social — there’s both a comfort and a challenge in that message.

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