In a class of their own

Nami Sung

Homeschoolers tend to play a lot of solos.

Weld 52 explodes with stacks of Yaffa blocks, well-fingered books, bulk containers of Easy Mac, cardboard boxes, and the tell-tale anxiety of freshman move-in day. Amidst the madness, Stephen T. Norberg ’06 rummages through his belongings and discovers a framed piece of thick paper decorated with a whimsical owl and a smartly dressed pig. It’s his kindergarten diploma. Carefully navigating the chaos, his left arm almost destroying a perfectly folded pile of undershirts, he crosses the room and secures the diploma onto the blank wall above his wooden desk. Pausing for several moments as his exhausted roommates look on in wonderment, he finally utters, “Wow! It’s great to be in first grade.”

Norberg’s roommates, John W. Scott ’06 and Joey M. Hanzick ’06, admit that at the time they could never have realized the importance of that statement. Now, more than four years later, they feel his ice-breaking antic set the tone for their time together.

They describe Norberg as amazingly caring, funny, and passionate—but he isn’t crazy. And the grade-school comment is not without merit. That day Norberg did, in fact, feel somewhat like a first grader. Having been homeschooled from second grade until college, that kindergarten diploma was the last one he had ever received.

Weeks later, as Weld 52 settled in to freshman year, Norberg would find the transition difficult. Like his fellow freshmen, he struggled to adjust to college life. However, unlike his peers, he had never experienced the years of transition from elementary to middle to high school. For them, this year merely represented a new combination of buildings, teachers and students. But for Norberg it had always been one teacher, one home, one student.

From the crazy Christian to the child star, the free-loving hippie to the overprotected prig, homeschool stereotypes abound. But for a handful of homeschooled students like Norberg, these cardboard cutouts seem to be both oddly accurate and grossly inadequate, an incomplete picture of the colorful lives that led these students from their kitchen tables to Harvard Hall. The question is, now that they’re here, can they possibly fit in?



THE RISE OF HOMESCHOOLS

In 2002-2003, an estimated 1.7 to 2.1 million students in grades K-12 were homeschooled in the United States, according to the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI) (U.S. Department of Education research documented 1.1 million homeschooled students the same year).

Once considered an educational taboo found only in the homes of the religious and political pariahs, homeschooling has developed into a popular alternative to traditional education, perhaps because of its educational benefits—recent NHERI studies show that the average homeschooled student outperforms his public school peers by 30 to 37 percentage points across all subjects.

Citing its annual growth rate as 7 to 15 percent, NHERI president Dr. Brian Ray calls homeschooling “the fastest-growing form of education,” and these sharp increases mirror the equally dramatic rise in homeschool applicants to Harvard.

Grace S. Cheng, a Harvard Admissions Officer who oversees homeschool applications, estimates that her office now receives between 75 and 150 homeschooled applicants each year—a increase from the 1989 estimates of 5 to 10 homeschooled applicants per year.

Cheng says homeschoolers are neither at an advantage nor disadvantage when applying. “Yes, homeschoolers are usually ranked one out of one,” she says with a laugh. “But we have so many valedictorians in the pool that it’s not [quite] delineated out for us. We treat homeschool applicants no differently from other applicants. There are no separate application requirements.”

Harvard works to fill its classes with students from a variety of different backgrounds, and it appears these three homeschoolers are no exception.



ENGAGED EDUCATION

Homeschooled from second grade to college, Karin M. Jentoft ’10 is the first to acknowledge the complexities of applying to Harvard as a homeschooler. Leaning forward on her wooden chair in a quiet, upstairs study room in Cabot Library, Jentoft describes the effort her mother, Carla J. Jentoft, dedicated to her Harvard application.

“My mom wrote out exhaustive transcripts for us,” Jentoft said. “Every class we took and what the class consisted of. It wouldn’t just say ‘English.’ It was what texts we used and how the grade was determined. She did all the classes, all the extracurriculars, and service I’d done.”

A homeschooling parent who considers herself more of a “general contractor” than a teacher, Carla Jentoft educated her three children in the family’s Circle Pines, Minn., home. Having studied abroad during college, this high school valedictorian and her husband wanted to provide their children with a rigorous education including a solid foundation in the humanities. Unsatisfied with local schools and armed with Carla Jentoft’s teaching degree from St. Olaf College, they decided to homeschool. The Jentofts enrolled their children in art and music classes and began to build a comprehensive home library. They never bought a television and focused on ways to bring their family closer.

It seems to have worked. While she is reticent on other topics, Karin Jentoft’s face spreads in a wide grin as she recounts classic family tales. Carla Jentoft calls her daughter and oldest son, Leif P. Jentoft, “best friends.” The siblings played and recorded together as a classical guitar duo until he left for Olin College, an engineering college in Massachusetts, two years ago. Now his sister has joined him in the Northeast, and the duo has reunited and recently made their Massachusetts debut at a local restaurant.

Mother and daughter are also extremely close. In fact, they speak on the phone two or three times each day and even dot their speech with the same voice patterns and colorful phrases. But it is more than simply the way they talk. It’s the message they communicate.

“We have a strong faith. We believe that the Bible is a work that God has given to the world,” she says. “We believe that it’s important to live our lives according to the truth that is there.”

But she is frustrated by stereotypes perpetuated by statistics, such as the finding that over 75% of homeschooled children attend religious services, according to a 2004 article by Ray published in the “Journal of College Admission.”

While Carla Jentoft admits that she and her husband used homeschooling to address their beliefs with the family, these conversations took place in the context of relevant historical study. “We had a lot of dinner conversations and we would discuss them,” she says. Her voice rises to a playful falsetto, “The Civil War, is it Christian or not? And the War of Independence, was it right?”

Karin Jentoft echoes her mother’s frustration with oversimplified attitudes towards homeschoolers.

“The stereotype is being ultra-sheltered with a skewed view on reality,” Karin says. “Very far right.”

While Karin Jentoft realizes the inaccuracy of these stereotypes, she does not offer her experience to be dissected as a counterexample. In fact, Jentoft rarely discusses her homeschooling experience.

“What bothers me is when homeschoolers are viewed as a strange sort of creature. It’s like,” she pauses, adjusting her voice to that same Jentoft falsetto, “‘What’s that? Poke, poke.’”



CENTER COURT

Many miles from the Jentoft dinner table, Beier “Bibi” Ko ’09 sits restlessly at a table in the Leverett dining hall. It is Valentine’s Day and Ko has just returned from working out. In her black shirt and shiny track pants, she is far more identifiable as Harvard’s top ranked singles and double tennis player than as a homeschooler.

But Ko, like Jentoft, arrived at Harvard from her own tiny universe. The last four years of her life had been a whirlwind of bus rides, plane trips, losses, and victories as she traveled around the world playing competitive tennis.

After graduating from the Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, Florida, where she trained with tennis superstars like Andy Roddick, she found herself with a dilemma: play on the Junior International Tennis Federation tour or attend school.

“I was traveling so much that my parents and I felt like I couldn’t keep up with both,” she says. “I couldn’t go to school everyday. It was impossible.”

Ko’s Singaporean parents understood the incredible opportunities the tennis world could offer their young prodigy. They pulled her out of school and enrolled her in classes through Cambridge Academy, a program they found online. However, the decision was not made lightly. When her younger brother asked to be homeschooled as well, they refused.

“My parents said to him, ‘No, you’re not going to make it in tennis,’” Ko recalls.

Homeschooling was hard, she admits.She managed to earn straight A’s but was angry with her parents for making her take classes. She thought it was unfair that most of her friends on the circuit, some of whom were much older than she was, did not have to undergo schooling and were able to spend that extra time on the court.

“I have friends that are middle school drop-outs,” Ko says. “You know it’s hard, playing tennis. You want to sleep but you have to do to your homework. I worked my ass off.”

Ko also struggled with the homeschooling dynamic. She sometimes fell dangerously behind. Once, she had to do an entire year of math and chemistry labs in one month. Although she was officially enrolled in Cambridge Academy, she had to teach herself everything—reading textbooks for most of her classes and listening to cassette tapes for her Spanish courses.

“If you are stuck with like a math question, you couldn’t really go to anyone for help,” Ko says. “You can call your professor up. But maybe he’s not there or he’s teaching a class. It was just like,” she pauses, “I felt like it wasn’t personal enough. It wasn’t like ou get to know the person.”

This longing for closer relationships did not end when her textbooks closed. In fact, she cites the lack of interaction with her peers as the biggest disadvantage of homeschooling. She makes a clear distinction between her “normal friends” and her “tennis friends.”

While Ko says she lacked a steady social life, she did date a few people while on the co-ed tour. Her most notable beau is famed Thai tennis player Paradorn Srichaphan, who was once the top Asian player in the world and was featured on the cover of Time’s “Asian Heroes” issue. He and Ko rendezvoused at tournaments and occasional visits, but the distance proved too difficult. After a year, the relationship fizzled

Ko felt overwhelmed by the intensity of her situation.

“You go to high school and talk with your friends. You have groups or prom or drama stories,” Ko said. “For me, everything was hardcore work. Tennis and school. That’s it. Tennis, school, and sleep—that was my life.”



HOME GROWN SUCCESS

Norberg can relate.

His experience as an athlete and homeschooler was often frustrating. He may not have been in the public school system, but his draining schedule revolved around it.

Like a phantom student, each morning he awoke at 4:30 a.m. to practice with his swim team whose members all attended traditional schools. Though unlike them, after practice he left the pool, returned home, and took his classes. A short lunch break in the afternoon, and then he was back to his studies. After local schools ended, Norberg returned to the pool for yet another swim practice, slipping into his Speedo and swim-cap like the rest of his team.

While Norberg accepted his rigorous training regiment, he was crushed when Missouri rules barred him from competing with high school swimmers at the State Championship.

Unlike Ko, who chose homeschooling solely because of her sport, Norberg’s situation was unrelated. His parents had initially homeschooled their three children after the family moved from Columbia, Missouri to Kansas City, Missouri. They thought their children would eventually transition back to traditional schools but found they liked the flexibility of homeschooling and stuck with it.

Norberg blends in like any other college student in at the Greenhouse Café. He is dressed casually in a gray sweatshirt and black baseball cap.

He begins with his personal background. “I grew up in Missouri,” he begins. “I was in an area where everyone, including my grandparents and parents, were pretty conservative.”

Self-assured with a confident handshake and disarming smile, Norberg is generally playful. However, his voice turns serious as he defends creationism. He believes there should be no law against it, and feels teachers should be free to present it.

The liberty in the classroom he supports is no doubt a result of his own flexible education. Homeschooled by his mother, each year he and his siblings were allowed to select several courses which interested them, along with the rest of the normal subjects. He took few tests, and wrote only a few short papers during his senior year of high school. His mother allowed her children to plan out their own schedules but insisted they finish the entire textbook.

“I liked the flexibility but I was always a little bitter about it,” Norberg says with mock resentment. “My friends in public school rarely finished their whole book but I often had to do school throughout the summer to finish math or science. I never once had a summer off.”



HELPING THE HOMESCHOOLERS ADJUST

It is almost midnight back in Weld 52. The scene is chaotic once again as Norberg stresses to finish a 10-page Expos paper, the room covered in papers, highlighters, and MLA style books.

Slouching in his chair, dejected, Norberg is surrounded by his roommates. They gather around him, peering at the haphazard words on his computer screen.

“Now I’m from South Carolina,” Scott says. “Our public education system isn’t top of the charts. I know it’s a game for you to put funny words in your paper—but Stephen, you can’t put this in here!”

No matter what their background, homeschoolers are hit with a barrage of new experiences and expectations upon arriving in Cambridge.

Norberg may have eventually finished his Expos assignment, but the year still presented many challenges. While his classes were not too difficult for him, he was unaccustomed to studying for tests or attending large lecture classes.

“It was not a fun transition,” his roommate Scott remembers. “It was a change for him. Big time. Freshman year there was definitely a little bit of shell-shock.”

For Jentoft, the confusion lies in the arena of social norms.

“There are subtleties that I don’t always understand,” she says.

Handling boys, for example.

“I have an issue with not knowing which cues mean what,” she says. “I wonder ‘Does this girl like this guy? Does this guy like me?’”

While she struggles to decode innuendo, her classes are perfectly clear; homeschooling brought her time-management skills and the ability to teach herself almost anything. She is particularly comfortable with the college workload because she took all her senior year courses at Bethel University, an evangelical Christian school.

“It feels exactly the same,” Jentoft says. “I think the classes here are a little easier.”

Outside of the classroom, Jentoft is happily building her Harvard family. Her roommates—who are from India, Los Angeles, and Ghana—are “awesome.” She especially enjoys comparing the Bible to the Koran with her Muslim roommate.

Norberg’s and Jentoft’s relatively seamless transition into Harvard life perhaps suggests that homeschoolers are not so different after all; for Ko, however, moving from the court to the classroom presented its own challenges.



CUTTING THE UMBILICAL CORD

Although other schools like Duke offered her full scholarships, Ko’s parents wanted her to attend Harvard. Many students are attracted by Harvard’s ability to open doors, but Ko felt like hers were closing.

“I just didn’t really want to go to school overall,” she says. “I was going to go pro and stick to the plan. That was my plan all along. Since I was 10 or 12.”

Her disappointment is not surprising. Women’s tennis is an incredibly young sport with fresh players arriving each season. Many young women peak at 16 or 17, understanding that if you do not make it by the time you are 20, you do not have a chance.

Perhaps Ko puts it best: “School, to tennis players, really sucks.”

While her parents saw her education as a back-up plan, her tennis friends, many of whom never completed high school, were baffled by the decision.

“They view college as absurd,” she said. “In the tennis world, if you go to college, you’re considered almost a failure or a total loser. They say to me, ‘What are you doing? You’re not a part of our world.’”

Preparing to enter college, she found she no longer fit in with her tennis friends and felt lonelier than ever.

“I went through a period of depression last year,” she says. “Especially before coming to college. Literally, I was seeing a psychologist and psychiatrist hardcore. I felt like I had no motivation to play on the team.”

She also experienced the kid-in-the-candy-store effect that afflicts some homeschoolers entering college.

“Freshman year I was the biggest partier ever,” she says. “I just went crazy. I was so restrained and constricted to nothing but tennis and school. Everything was strict when I was playing tennis. I just lost it.”

Ko realized she needed a break and a chance to explore her other interests. Much to the distress of her coaches, she did not play her freshman year. She used this time to develop other passions, like photography and painting. She also wrote for Current Magazine, volunteered with Mission Hill Afterschool Program, and became business chair of Ivory Tower, Harvard’s soap opera.

But, she says, a part of her will always wonder: “What if?”.

“It’s almost depressing,” she says. “I watch tennis tournaments like the Australian Open and see someone like Lucy Safarova make it to the quarterfinals. I played her when I was like 15 or 16. I sprained my ankle and I still beat her! It’s depressing to see players I’ve played and beaten before up there. I feel like ‘Oh my God. I’m at Harvard working my ass off pulling all-nighters.’”



HOMESCHOOLERS AND THE NEXT FRONTIER

While Norberg’s unconventional upbringing presented hardships in the classroom, it helped foster the individuality that friends say defines him. His friends say the true “Stephen Norberg” is the person writing his final exam essay in crayon or doing the butterfly in a speedo in three feet of snow, they say. They estimate 60 percent of his college diet consisted of root beer and cookie dough and 75 percent of his wardrobe is made up of flip-flops and Hawaiian shirts. But how much of this is homeschooling responsible for?

A lot, if you ask Chandi L. Lauzon, a Harvard Graduate School of Education student who was homeschooled herself. “Homeschoolers are already doing something alternative and grew up having to know and explain and justify [homeschooling] to people; everyone always has a question.” She continues, “You learn to be self-reflexive and understand the value of being an individual.”

While Ko and Jentoft avoid revealing their homeschooling backgrounds, Norberg finds countless ways to incorporate it as a punchline. For three years he succeeded in fooling the Harvard swimming staff. His online biography stated, not altogether untruthfully, that he was valedictorian of his class and held seven school swimming records. After they realized Norberg had been homeschooled, the misleading information was removed.

But more than just a prankster, Norberg has adopted nonconformity as his guiding principle. So when his sociology teacher said social norms were the reason people didn’t come to class in rabbit costumes, Norberg made sure to wear bunny ears the next week.

Both Scott and Hanzich call him “inspirational” and “a trailblazer.”

“He wasn’t going against the grain so much as he was going with whatever grain was inside of him,” Scott said.

Norberg is bringing his eccentricity to the business world. Because of his faith he chooses not to drink. He knows many people who make the same choice but find it restricts their weekend plans. Rather than conforming or giving up on the party scene, Norberg has come up with an alternative: root beer kegs. He threw several successful root beer keg parties in college, complete with root beer-uit and keg stands.



LEARNING TO LOVE WHERE YOU’RE AT

Just a few years after leading lives of relative isolation, college culture has tested and torqued the personalities of these homeschoolers in different ways, leaving each of them with a distinct identity.

Lauzon agrees. “There’s as many ways to homeschool as there are families who do it.”

Because all homeschoolers experience unique educations, Harvard presented separate challenges for each one. Ultimately, Jentoft, Ko, and Norberg have all found new homes in the Harvard community.

“I love it here,” Jentoft says. “There are 24 kids on my floor in Pennypacker and eight different languages are spoken. I love how many different backgrounds and perspectives I get. Most people seem like they really want to do something with their life. That’s really, really cool.”

Ko has also come to terms with her situation. She now values her parents’ decision to send her to Harvard. She realizes an education is far more stable than tennis, where one small injury can effectively end a player’s career. This year she is back playing on the Harvard team and dreams of playing in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Most importantly, she’s discovered that there is, in fact, life after tennis.

For now, Norberg is in Cambridge working for Athletes in Action, an international Christian organization which targets both professional and college athletes.

Wherever Norberg ends up, his friends say they will not be surprised.

“For all I know,” Scott offers. “He’ll be the CEO of Root Beers Kegs Inc. in a few years, bringing in the big bucks.”

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