College “was always an expectation,” he said. His mother talked about it. His teachers talked about it. Everyone talked about it. The mentality that college is the logical step after high school—an idea that is baked into the upbringing of so many middle-class children whose parents have degrees of their own—was reinforced early and often as he grew up.
Dendy’s high school, part of the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) charter network, encouraged him to take advanced-placement classes and even a course at a local university, which gave him a taste of college life. They required him to enroll in a class about how to apply to colleges and then helped him research options. By that point, he’d also connected with a nonprofit called College Summit, which works with high schools to help more students enroll in college.
One of Dendy’s favorite teachers had graduated from Fisk a few years earlier, which sparked his interest in the school. “I felt like she was a great person,” he said. “I was like, if I want to be great, I’ve got to go to the same school as her because what isn't great that doesn’t come out of Fisk University?” His counselors and mentors could have left it there; they could’ve simply applauded the fact that he was applying to a four-year college at all. That happens far too often. Recent research has indicated that few high-achieving poor students apply to schools that match their ability levels. While students with parents who have navigated the college-application process are presented with a range of options, a kid with decent but not outstanding grades might apply to a local state school that admits nearly everyone, and Harvard, because he’s heard about both and isn’t aware of good options in the middle.
“My whole idea was I would go to Fisk and Fisk was the only place to go. I didn’t think about those safety and reach schools,” Dendy said. But his school and College Summit mentors did. Initially Dendy was put off by the idea of expending energy by applying elsewhere. “I was like, okay, I see what you’re trying to do here,” he said. “You’re trying to pull me away from Fisk University.” It wasn’t until later that he understood that, “in actuality, they wanted to make sure I was safe.”
The application process was daunting, he said, but he persevered in part because his classmates were also going through the same struggle. “You think you’re doing this alone but there are actually people all over the world doing the same thing as you,” he said. Dendy ultimately received an acceptance letter from his first choice, and headed off to Nashville.
When Dendy, the oldest of four children, left, his brother and sisters, he said, “felt like there was going to be some void left in the house.” His mother worried about him being a 13-hour bus ride away. Dendy wondered if he’d made a bad decision. Arriving in Nashville did little to assuage his concern. “Is this a city?” he wondered. “It’s pretty slow. It’s nothing like D.C.” He was surprised when he tried to pick up something to drink at a local gas station one evening and found it closed. But his mentor from College Summit called him frequently to check in and tell him he was “a leader,” he said, setting a precedent for his siblings.