Podcast: Shereem Herndon-Brown: The Black Family’s Guide to College Admissions

In today’s episode, I sit down with Shereen Herndon-Brown, founder of Strategic Admissions Advice, about the evolving college admissions process. We dive into the significance of redefining success, the value of authenticity, and the importance of embracing one’s unique identity in college applications. Tune in for insights on storytelling and diversity in higher education.

TRANSCRIPT

Shereem Herndon-Brown: 

So the bottom line is I encourage kids of color to make sure that they identify in some way because if it matters to a college, you’ve now given them information that they did not have previously, if it doesn’t matter to a college, then what’s the harm in it?

Sheila Akbar: 

Hello, everybody, welcome back to the podcast. It’s the end of March in 2024. I don’t know how this happened. But time is flying y’all. Today I’ve got a great guest for you. It’s Shreem. Herndon Brown, who has a distinguished career in teaching and college admissions, is the author of the black families guide to college admissions. And it’s just a really fun guy to talk to, and was really excited to have him on. So take a listen. I’ll see you on the other side. Shareen, thank you so much for joining me. I really appreciate having you on.

Shereem Herndon-Brown: 

No, this is a pleasure and honor. I’m pumped to be here.

Sheila Akbar: 

Awesome. Well, let’s start with having you tell people what it is you do.

Shereem Herndon-Brown: 

What do I do? As the father of four? Yes. Shereem Herndon Brown, I’m very fortunate to have been the owner, founder of strategic admissions advice for the past 17 years. I can’t believe it. Many moons ago. Professionally, I worked in several independent schools as a college counselor as an English teacher, and then a short stint at Georgetown University in their undergraduate admissions for one year. But recognize that I really preferred surveying the landscape or giving you know, kind of taking kids through the application process. And I got good advice very early on in my independent school career, I went to West High School as a student went to Wesleyan University for my undergraduate. And then I worked at the two schools, I went to Brooklyn Friends School in New York, and then West Towne school in Philadelphia. I’m also an author, I collaborated with the senior associate dean of admission at Emory University, Timothy fields, and we wrote the black families guide to college admission, compensated education, parenting and race. And I mentioned that because again, we’re in our second edition. And while the book is doing well, we bring two very dynamic different perspectives to the table. Tim works in admissions had gone to HBCU. From Texas, he’s a fourth generation college student, I work love the application side, right of the work. I come from New York City from Brooklyn. I’m an only child, he has three siblings, I went to independent schools on my life and went to predominantly an institution. I’m a first generation college student. So we have these different polar opposites. So my approach to working with students as I take my own, fortunate, you know, fortunate but resourceful experience, I try to approach the counseling from student, you are my client, I’m going to work with you consistently. Parent, you’re my customer. And I think having that dynamic is important because you’re somewhat of an intermediary between student and parent. So you need to have different relationships. And make sure that the goal here is to help the student develop an application that they’re proud of, and that you’re, you know, you feel like you poured into and that the parents are happy too. So my approach is very understanding and accommodating, maybe sometimes too much to the roller coaster ride of the college application process.

Sheila Akbar: 

You also gave us a little hint of this to your own educational journey, first generation college student, tell us more about what high school was like for you and how you chose your college path. And who were you leading on?

Shereem Herndon-Brown: 

It’s a great question. Thank you for asking. So my parents both my mom was a nurse, my dad worked for UPS and were married until I was 18 years old. So did the best they could as a two parent home to raise their only child and poured resources into me to go to in private schools at the time. They poured that into me and I got exposed to different things. They sent me to a summer camp that I loved and went there for several years. So between my independent school experience, and the summer camp, I got a learning of what different schools could be about. My mother would say, you know, you gotta go to college, college, college, college, so we’re just kind of ingrained to me, that’s where you go. So I might as well be resourceful, and glean information from different environments that I’ve that I’m in. So, you know, I recognized very early in my high school career and ninth grade that I wasn’t, I could be a better student. And I told my pen, I’m gonna go to boarding school. They’re like, what’s that and you know, people get sent away to school, but I, I really saw it as a friend going to another boarding school. So it was a way to discipline myself to kind of get to achieve the goal that I think my parents had laid off me. So anyway, did that west town was a good experience, met great people. Two of my best friends went to Wesleyan, I then went to Wesleyan. So I think my first generation experience was really bad. My parents, I feel fortunate. They were resourceful, which kind of made me more resourceful. And then I just think it was just we were just able to, you know, do great things.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, I mean, I think I was not a first generation college student, but first generation to go to college in the United States. And my parents is immigrants really believe in investing in education as not just a tool for social mobility, which it absolutely is, but also for learning those life skills, right? The discipline that you that you sought out, and the resourcefulness that you were able to develop.

Shereem Herndon-Brown: 

I’m a big experiential learner, I spent a semester in Kenya when I was a senior in college, and my first semester I spent in Kenya and really had, you know, turned 21, very eye opening experience. But I may have learned more about myself, and what was important to me there that I did in classes in the US, you know, so again, we all need time to develop, grow and kind of decide where we want to do professionally or personally, but I think your parents are right, the school education exercises the mind. And I think that’s very, very important that you can kind of figure it out from there, hopefully.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah. And I’m curious how you know, that experience that you had even the study abroad experience. And your time as a teacher has influenced the way you work with students now?

Shereem Herndon-Brown: 

It’s a great question how I work with students, one of I don’t know if it’s a gift or a curse, but I try to meet everybody where they’re at. So every kid is different. I have a formula system things, I want to take them through checklists, blah, blah, blah, but engaging with students, I approach it from a you’re probably nervous, because if you’re first generation, your parents have no idea and most of them aren’t, but then your parents have no clue what is going on. Whatever your parents went through 2030 years ago, is not the same. Or you just getting a lot of peer pressure, like socially, just same way I got exposed to different colleges, kids are supposed colleges, whatever that may be. I asked kids when the first question I ask them is, are you excited about the college application process? Are you nervous about it, and most kids will say, both, you know, to an extent, but I really want them to understand that I understand that they’re nervous. And that of the vast options that are out there, we’re going to figure this out. I never make promises. And I kind of even have to stamp that occasionally with parents that were very, like working with me does not guarantee Harvard, Princeton, Yale how to reach out to prospective clients, and what is the ROI of working with, you know, the, the experience. So again, arrogant, possibly, but very authentic, like, I’m not going to tell you that I can deliver something I cannot you can’t tell me that your kid’s gonna get straight A’s and a 1560 on the SAT.

Sheila Akbar: 

Right. And even that doesn’t guarantee anything. So you know,

Shereem Herndon-Brown: 

Correct. I, I live in a space of I want to be a giver, give time mind thought resources, like, I want everybody to win. So I’ve maybe I approach it from that, from that standpoint, I understand that you’re nervous, but I really do. Deep down, I want everybody to win.

Sheila Akbar: 

That’s awesome. I love that. And then maybe tell us a little bit more about the book. I know, you’ve said to me, and I know that this is on the book, too. It’s the black families guide. But what’s in there is actually really valuable for everybody.

Shereem Herndon-Brown: 

Absolutely, gift or a curse. That book title was very intentional. Given that Tim and I started the book with a very clear population we wanted to serve, we felt that it was the black families guide to college admission with survey, college going middle to upper class black families, that I needed to understand how the college process has evolved. We’re making so many investments or sacrifices, you know, financially and culturally for schools and neighborhoods. Let’s talk about what the outcomes would be for doing all that. So that was, you know, for the blackish generation when my favorite shows was the initial piece, but it’s morphed into something else, that again, I will give him credit for this. It’s always been a resource for everyone. We just happen to be two black people who wrote the book, and that’s rare in this space. Right? You know, two black guys from different walks of life. Both have extensive admissions experience. And we’re able to combine our knowledge and not agree on everything but bring something together to present it to the world as a resource. So in that SPECT, if I sometimes just put my finger over the cover of the black and just say the family’s got to college admissions began, two thirds of it is it’s about the process is about the X factors that go into helping people understand. The black portion talks about more about HBCUs, which do have white people, or different people of different ethnicities. I talks about some of the likes of the cultural sacrifice. So bottom line is two thirds of it for anybody. I don’t think people are going to be drawn to it. But you know, in every other college admissions guide, many of them are excellent. But if you excuse me if you’re not speaking to somebody speaking to no one and sometimes blacks feel muted.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, that was about to say, I mean, you can look through these college admissions guys. But you know, everybody comes from a specific background, right? And nobody’s background is the same as anybody else’s, even if you look the same on paper, or even on the surface, you know, the color of your skin, but I think it’s so valuable to be speaking to a specific audience. Because there there are things you want to talk about. Right, some of which I will ask you about. Now, I know when we first met, one of the things I was talking to you about was with the Supreme Court decision last summer, and a lot of colleges changing their supplemental questions to ask much more specifically about, they use different words, but essentially your lived experience, what diversity means to you, you know, challenges you face because of your identity, that kind of thing. I expressed to you that I advise students, you know, if your identity is something you want to talk about, and that you have something that you want to say about it, by all means, let’s tell that story. But I don’t want you to feel you have to manufacture something, or you have to tell a sob story that either is not authentic to who you are, and what defines you, or that you’re not ready to tell yet. Because I don’t want people feeling they’ve got to parade their trauma around in order to get a leg up in the college admissions process. And the other thing, and this is a specific question I wanted to ask you, I work with a lot of students of color. And a lot of them looked at those questions and said, Well, I don’t even know how to answer this because

Shereem Herndon-Brown: 

They’re damn near insulting.

Sheila Akbar: 

They are. And like, what do you mean? What does diversity mean to me? Some of these questions are like, tell us about a time where you were the only one who felt some way. And of course, I’m always the only one. So how do I even choose? Right? So talk to me about that. Give your thoughts.

Shereem Herndon-Brown: 

Yeah, no, no, it’s a big deal. Writing about race, culture, is not new. So now that the spotlight is on a given the SCOTUS decision, sure, people want to chat about it. But I’ve had students for years write excellent essays about where the non black students right, you know, tell the story of a girl writing part of her one of her supplementals. But it was a really good essay about how conflicted she was intellectually about as they walked into their synagogue, their temple for the, you know, for the Jewish holidays in the fall, how she and her mother had to sit in a separate part of the synagogue, the temple, then her brothers and father, and she thought about the gender split. And here we are in 2000, something, and this is still kind of the tradition. So that clearly says what religion what’s important to her again, he’s actually important. Another family write about how she lived in a house that was multigenerational her grandfather, grandmother, aunts, uncles, mom, dad, sister, she like, it felt like too much. And at times, it was embarrassing in her neighborhood. But she’ll understand that her Indian culture was family dependent, and everybody needed to learn traditions from each other. So again, she’s now told her family’s race in this essay, and it was excellent. So the bottom line is I encourage kids of color to make sure that they identify in some way, because if it matters to a college, you’ve now given them information that they did not have previously, if it doesn’t matter to a college, then what’s the harm? And if you want to play the, I’m more than my race, okay. But the Supreme Court just said, maybe you’re not. I think, professionally, that most colleges want to have diversity in an earnest way, at the minimum, to look good, but at the maximum because everybody benefits from different perspective coming together. All that said, students who do not write about race in an essay, I think, is a missed opportunity, at this juncture for getting the results aren’t all out yet for me to have data points for that. But my gut, my experience, my posts on the streets, is that now is not time to like, hide.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, yeah, I also think there’s something about this, it’s like, we just live in a world where if you haven’t reckoned with what your identity is, you’re going to be at a disadvantage in your life. generationally, we are much more comfortable talking about identity, we are much more, I think, well served by embracing aspects of our identity and reflecting on Who am I at a younger age than in any previous generation. And of course, there there are nuances because like, you know, we’re all different. And there are cultural traditions that may say, Well, you don’t talk about those things. Or in some cases, it’s hurt our group in the past, so we’re gonna downplay this. But I think that there’s something really valuable for students, just in terms of growing as people who are confident in themselves to explore some of those ideas. And sometimes the best way to do that kind of exploration is is through a writing prompt.

Shereem Herndon-Brown: 

Check Check Check Check Check. No, I think that spot on, I think it’s important in my little mantra with several families that we’ve been working with, I want to just to amplify their authenticity. Right? I don’t want you hiding in this process, because the College wants you they’ll take you have not there’s somebody else well, So Tim, and I give him credit for this started with this whole redefined success theme. And I like that a lot. I believe in it wholeheartedly. And it’s important that we all understand that life is not linear. There are colleges plural, that will that are great fits for your kid that help them to kind of grow and be the human being they’re going to be. So I hope that as you’re working with families, that they understand that they don’t have to hide, and that they’re going to be who they are. And again, they don’t want to write about race. I’ll be I think, a mistake. I’m just one human being. So I want you to feel comfortable about your college application and see what you can do with it.

Sheila Akbar: 

Yeah, that’s great. Well, we’re about at a time any parting thoughts, any wisdom you’d like to leave the audience with here?

Shereem Herndon-Brown: 

Oh, Sheila, don’t let me pontificate because I will go.

Sheila Akbar: 

Oh, that’s the best part.

Shereem Herndon-Brown: 

I’m appreciative of this opportunity. I consider you so one that myself and Tim can now call on, refer to use in our orbit like we say. So thank you for extending yourself. I’ve been appreciative of just sharing information. But more importantly, it’s good to see good people doing this work.

Sheila Akbar: 

Oh, I appreciate that so much. Well, thank you again, for your time. It’s really great to have you on.

Shereem Herndon-Brown: 

No doubt, no doubt be well, we’ll talk soon.

Sheila Akbar: 

That was a fun little conversation. I hope you found it helpful and enlightening. There are a lot of perspectives on how to move through this process. And especially if your family is a little different from, let’s say the mainstream, there are things you want to consider and how you present yourself. And like Shereem said, we just want to amplify your authenticity, we want to hear who you really are, and what’s different about you, because that’s actually what makes you special and has given you so many strengths. And like he said, If one college doesn’t want you another one, well, there are many places a student can go and have a really meaningful educational experience come out the other end with lots of skills and career prospects and be a well developed, well rounded human being. And I think it’s really important to remember that we’re seeking mutual fit here. It’s not just, oh, the student loves that school, or the college really loves that student, they have to both really like each other for very specific reasons. And so the best thing you can do in your college application is to show that specificity of what they might want to add to their college campus if they admitted you. So I’ll leave it there. I hope all of you are having an easy enough time building your college list or getting ready to prepare for standardized tests. Or maybe you’re just getting ready for AP exams or finals. Good luck to everybody out there. I know it’s hard but now that it’s spring, hopefully things feel a little bit easier with a little extra sunshine. We’ll see you next week. Bye.

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