Me in the Ivy League? A Most Unlikely Journey

Two odors suffused my five-classroom school: manure and vinegar. The former was brought in on the work boots of the farm boys; the latter was applied by mothers to the hair of girls afflicted with head lice. I remember a brother and sister so poor, they lacked shoe laces; and a girl who wore the baggy hand-me-down trousers of her dad, roughly tailored by her mom. My parents were both raised on farms. My father didn’t complete high school; my mother did. My grandma was illiterate. It was not unusual for boys to arrive at schools bearing welts and bruises from beatings at home, myself included. Needless to say, becoming an Ivy League graduate was not in the cards for me.

As a first generation college student, I faced perhaps more challenges than most. My podunk rural school hadn’t taught me the essentials that my counterparts from affluent districts had been taught, e.g., how to write a term paper and how to analyze information as opposed to learning by rote. My 12th grade English teacher was so dyslexic that he was utterly incapable of reading any literature much less Shakespeare. Books were largely absent in our house. I was not the beneficiary of the “cultural capital” my fellow students who were the offspring of professional parents were. But I struggled, sacrificing a social life for study in order to make up for what I lacked.

I was dazed when I received the acceptance letter from Columbia University. And overjoyed beyond description. Satisfying my dream of world travel, living history and serving my country, I got into the highly selective U.S. Foreign Service where, for over two decades, I got to meet monarchs, heads of state and top intellectuals; attended meetings at the White House and proudly represented the United States overseas. Subsequently, I’ve become a best-selling novelist and successful national journalist. What Columbia gave me to achieve this success is immeasurable and I treasure it each day of my life.