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Living With a Harvard Decision

By Andrew K. Mandel and Jonathan S. Paul, Crimson Staff Writerss

Maya S. Turre '00 moved into Holworthy 13 a celebrity. Four months later, she was abruptly packing up and moving out, unsure if she would ever return.

Back in 1996, New York Times Magazine writer Bruce Weber found a star in Maya, the lucky stiff who edged out her multilingual, multitalented classmates at Van Nuys High School in southern California for a spot in Harvard's Class of 2000. Today, the three other students, once victims of the statistical probability of Harvard rejection, now graduate from their own prestigious universities, with stories to tell.

Anna Fudacz, whose Harvard interview four years ago was "spoiled" by a curmudgeonly alum, earned departmental honors in economics at Stanford, reveled in Silicon Valley and plans to work at Intel next year. Mira Lew, who had hired a professional college counselor to help her win the admissions game, became a history major at Columbia--and has since landed a job at Marvel Comics. Parham Yashar also moved on quickly from his Harvard rejection. He will be graduating Phi Beta Kappa from UCLA a week from Saturday, then off to Northwestern Medical School.

"Honestly, I've never looked back," he says.

In the end, it was the chosen one, Maya, who would have to be most resilient to realize her dreams. An aspiring architect at a college without a program in architecture. What was she getting into?


The Harvard rejection letter is four paragraphs long. There is the traditional line about an outstanding pool of applicants, as well as some hard-to-swallow words of wisdom. "The particular college a student attended is far less important than what the student does to develop his or her strengths and talents over the next four years." Anna found it annoying. "The rejection letter was just this Xerox copy," Anna recalls. "It seemed kind of cold."

The weather in the Northeast, too, seemed uninviting, and she declined four years in Providence for sunny Palo Alto. "To be honest, I went back [to Brown] over spring break, and it was snowing," she says. "And I was like, 'I don't know if I can deal with snow in April.'"

Both Anna and Parham think the New York Times magazine article overdramatized their disappointment after their rejections. "It was always a childhood thing to go to Harvard so I figured I would apply. But it was never like, 'Whoa! I was devastated when I didn't get it' or something," Parham says. "Obviously, any kind of rejection is not going to be happy, but I just figured, like, 'Oh, so I got rejected. It's not a big deal.'"

Anna and Parham remain friends, and when Anna comes home, she and Parham sometimes meet up for a drink at Miyagi's, a sushi restaurant overlooking Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Both remember Maya from afar, never becoming close with the super-involved, yet soft-spoken classmate. "She was a musician, and she had basically the same grades I did," Anna says. "I wasn't surprised she got in."

Once she got to Stanford, many first-years immediately recognized Anna as the Mandarin Chinese-speaking blond girl from the cover of the New York Times magazine. "I think it really struck a chord because I think a lot of people are kind of bitter they didn't get in," she says now. "It was really trippy... Everyone was like, 'Oh, I didn't get in either.' Blah, blah, blah. So then it really didn't seem like a big deal to me at all."

And Stanford seemed to be a good match. Being in the heart of technology country sparked an interest in computer science courses, which she insists she would not have touched at Harvard. But it was also her first programming course that, combined with bronchitis, led to "meltdown" and one of her most stressful moments during college. "I was just a mess," she says.

A good lottery number let Anna's rooming group live a row house for two years--prime real estate on Stanford's campus. She currently shares a two-room double in a house named Xanadu. Chelsea Clinton lives upstairs.

Her social life grew out of a close-knit group of first-year friends. They have skiied at Tahoe together and, junior year, they dressed up as the Spice Girls for a Halloween party. Anna wore a tiny light-blue dress and pulled her hair into pigtails--"Baby Spice" for the evening.

Early on, she met Juan Bruce, a product design major, who eventually became her boyfriend. "There was this whole traumatic thing, but we ended up together at the beginning of sophomore year," she reports.

Having finished her course work early, Anna spent her last quarter at Stanford studying for her GMAT. But she worried about her finals from the previous quarter: "I really wanted to end with a bang, you know? Then I checked my grades and they were really great ... two A-pluses and an A." When asked to give her college a grade, she doesn't hesitate to reciprocate praise, giving Stanford an A. She can't imagine having gone anywhere else.

Parham turned down Berkeley to attend UCLA, opting to live at home after his first year. His family lives in a two-story house in Brentwood, "where OJ used to live," he reminds. "I don't have to worry about cooking my own food or laundry," he says, quickly adding, "maybe I shouldn't talk so loud so my mom doesn't hear me."

Majoring in cybernetics--which merges his interests in biology, engineering and computer science--Parham studies hard. One time, after finishing a physics problem set, he let loose with a howl the whole library could hear. "But I've never done

anything really crazy or wild," he maintains.

But, as Anna remembers, Parham's family hosted the high school's big, post-graduation party. "It was really funny because his parents are very conservative and kinda strict," Anna says. The Yashars hired security guards to keep out unwanted guests and those invited brought sleeping bags for the all-night event. "I guess people hooked up but it wasn't like debauchery. It was a fun party."

Parham still has a taste for nightlife, and he finds time in his UCLA schedule to head into the city. He likes the after-hours scene at the Palace, where they serve up great trance music and apple martinis--his favorites.

Of the four, Anna remembers Mira--not Maya--as the most Harvard-enchanted. "She was the most fanatical about it, I think. She was just very stressed out about the whole process. She went to one of those private college counselors. And she went out and bought a suit for her interview," Anna says. "I thought she was kind of intense."

Susan Kim, a counselor at Van Nuys, says Mira's parents were also "really, really enthusiastic about higher education, about an Ivy League education." While her older sister chose Berkeley, Mira picked Columbia and took courses like "The American Radical Tradition" with famed U.S. historian and author Eric Foner.

According to one co-worker, Mira's hard work and energy caught the eye of Marvel Comics executives, where she interned during college. "She's extraordinary," says Lisa Vahradian. "You can tell when someone's special."

Mira remains in New York City and is currently searching for an apartment with a friend. She started a summer position with Marvel last week and could not be reached for comment.

By profiling only four students from Van Nuys' 1996 graduating class, the Sunday magazine passed over Jennifer S. Koo '00 and Susan Choi '00--both Harvard applicants and, today, both Harvard graduates. Susan, now a psychology concentrator in Winthrop House, remembers declining to have her senior year chronicled for the world. "That was not appealing to me at all," Susan chuckles.


In September 1996, Michele L. Woodbury '00 was in the backseat of a van, halfway from South Jersey to Cambridge, when she began reading a magazine article that a neighbor had clipped out and saved for her.

The name Maya Turre sounded familiar--and then it hit: "Wow, that's my roommate."

Soon after Michele, Maya, Nancy H. Kim '00 and Alexis N. Todor '00 crammed into the third floor of Holworthy Middle, the Class of 2000 also started to recognize Maya's famous face. "I think like every fifth person I met, was like, 'Hey, are you that girl from the magazine?'" Maya says with a laugh.

During her senior year in high school, Maya didn't think much of the fact that a reporter was interviewing her every few months to take her pulse on the admissions search. And despite a photo shoot, "It didn't seem like that big of a deal, really," Maya recalls. "I sort of thought that it was going to be a small article in the back of the magazine."

When the story was published, her parents--both educators--made copies for friends and family, but the Turres were a little troubled by the implication that Maya's multi-ethnic background helped secure her admission. (Maya's mother is black and American Indian, and her father is Italian and Mexican.)

"I'm sure it was considered, but I felt that there were a lot of other reasons that I got in that were omitted," Maya says, pointing out that the reporter didn't mention her perfect score on the Math IIC subject test, or her 780 on the writing test. "I'm not saying it was purposely done. It was just sorta a little bit careless, I think."

Van Nuys High counselor Susan Kim says Turre was not the only standout student in her class, but she certainly deserved her acceptance. "She has done so much more than can be expected of one person," Kim says. Yet as a Korean-American, Kim worries that "you really have to be a superboy or girl as an Asian applicant to be accepted." And with Harvard's record 16,500-plus rejections this year--including all of Van Nuys High's applicants--getting into Harvard isn't any easier, Kim fears. From the counseling office at Van Nuys, she says: "I'm asking you. What does it take to clinch the admission?"

Marlyn McGrath Lewis '70-'73, Harvard's director of admissions, emphasizes that it is not unusual for a particular high school to have a dry spell. Her office admits applicants, not schools.

Maya's resume glittered: number 10 in her high school class, an accomplished violinist and tennis star, summers at enrichment programs and volunteer work--elements in an imprecise formula of high scholastic and extracurricular achievement.

The other three were deserving of admission, Maya says, but she suspects that they each may have been missing something in the final analysis. Mira's academic record was a notch below. Anna and Parham lacked dazzle in the "activities" department. Of course, to this day Maya still remembers the B that kept her from matching Anna's GPA. That was part of their school's culture. Van Nuys bred competition.

Maya ended up receiving acceptance letters from Yale, Harvard, Princeton, everywhere. But when Charles Vest, the president of MIT, called her to see if she had any questions, the answers worried her. "What attracted me to MIT was their school of architecture, but I thought that outside of my architecture classes, I would be very unhappy academically," she says. "I was looking at what my freshman year schedule would would be, like, chemistry, chemistry, biology, biology, physics, physics, calculus...writing class."

Instead, she picked the school down the road, Harvard. "And I think, in the end, it was that I could cross-register at MIT and still take architecture classes there," Maya says. "Otherwise, I definitely would not have come--if there were no way to cross-register."

She spent her first semester at Harvard preparing her application for a special concentration in architecture. She and Michele paired off immediately as the night owls and would stay up late laughing and writing papers in the messy common room decorated with Monet and Van Gogh posters on the walls. Maya would blast Sarah McLachlan before a test to psyche herself up. She started dating a guy in Canaday.

None of the roommates were prepared to see Maya's uncle arrive in the middle of reading period, helping her pack--and leave.

Demian Sanchez '00 took CS50, the introductory computer science course, with Maya. He recounts a meeting with the Ad Board just before Maya left school: "I was just trying to give Maya a hand with a difficult class and she was just trying to get her assignment working. In the administration's view, I ended up helping her too much, which was unfortunate because we both had good intentions in this collaboration."

Maya confided in Michele, who gave her a hug and told her things happen for a reason. "Don't worry about it," Michele remembers saying. "It's a setback, but it will give you a chance to think."

On the night before Maya left, the four roommates sat on the common room futon and took a picture--their last together.

Because Maya kept the circumstances surrounding her departure very private, students speculated about the disappearance of the prominent classmate. "It let people imagine what they wanted," Michele says.

Three years later, Maya focuses on the positives. When asked, she says she left Harvard for personal reasons. During her semester off, she went to work for a Los Angeles architect, helping run the office and getting professional exposure to the industry she loved. She helped a woman plan a remodeled kitchen. She thought a lot about Harvard, and considered transferring. As it turns out, Maya got her special concentration approved the following fall. She moved into Straus with advanced standing, thanks to an arsenal of top advanced placement scores. She became president of the Freshman Black Table and joined the '01 Steppers. Maya was starting over.

She eventually ended up in Dunster House, where Michele--by then, herself a magazine star after a Playboy photo shoot--had landed randomly the previous year. "I'd never do anything like that," Maya laughs, who insists that Michele's flirtation with exhibitionism was completely out of character. "The thought wouldn't even cross my mind."

When Maya has fun, she unwinds with friends in the Square. Oftentimes conversation with her boyfriend revolves around coursework. She finds long meals in the Dunster dining hall the most efficient way of keeping in touch with friends. She doesn't drink. She says that social life at Harvard probably deserves a C-, but that was never her top priority.

Maya was busy. Sometimes she wondered if she was attending Harvard at all. Her academic regimen included regular trips via subway to Kendall Square for cross-registered courses. At MIT, she endured several 40-hour weeks at the drafting table. "I can't even recall how many times I've seen dawn from MIT--more times than I care to count," Maya chuckles.

As an undergraduate, she has designed contemporary dance theaters, outdoor education centers and houses. She even won a Harvard College Research Program grant to design a theoretical student center for the College. Her thesis took her to the Bahamas, where she researched a plan for low-income housing.

This spring, she eased back from the five-course load of last semester. "I took one less because I didn't have to take another one to graduate so I thought I'd give myself a break," she says.

All told, Maya took half of her concentration courses outside Harvard--four at MIT and four at the Graduate School of Design. She recognizes this as unusual but believes the schedule was "the best liberal arts and pre-professional architectural education I could have possibly received."

Her special concentration adviser, Cherie Wendelken, says Maya's initiative and largely self-researched and self-directed plan of study make her a standout. Maya's homemade academic mixture of cross-registered courses--as well as offerings from the history of art and architecture, visual and environmental studies, environmental science and public policy, mathematics and physics departments--was ambitious. "It's rare that somebody comes in with that kind of drive," says Wendelken, an assistant professor of the history of art and architecture.

And Maya shows no signs of stopping. These days, she is revamping her portfolio, keeping tabs on the Lakers and searching for an apartment in Cambridge. Yes, Harvard picked her, and she picked Harvard--again. After accepting her magna cum laude diploma today, she's off to the Graduate School of Design for a three-and-a-half year master's program in architecture. Maya has dreams of starting her own design firm.

Among the New York Times' Class of 2000, visions of Cambridge are apparently still in abundance. Parham applied to Harvard Medical School, but didn't get an interview, and Anna would like to go to business school. Harvard? "Possibly," she teases.

But four years have taught that Harvard's rejection letter speaks truth, and the four classmates from Van Nuys High know what none of us want to acknowledge--especially today. Development and success doesn't rely on this college. For Anna, Parham, Mira and Maya, life goes on after a Harvard decision.

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