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Two students, two high schools, two divergent paths to college 

Jasmeen Wellere grew up on the south side, Hayley Himmelman on the North Shore. Both flourished in their classes, but they've faced very different challenges—and been afforded very different opportunities

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Ninety-four percent of New Trier's teachers have at least a master's, and the average teacher salary is $104,000.

"I generally loved my classes," Hayley says. "There were a couple of teachers that didn't seem to care that much, but generally the faculty was awesome and challenging. Classes were hard for me, but no harder than I could handle."

Her classmates were "extremely smart," she says, and made classes with discussions invigorating. She and her peers would "bounce ideas back and forth"; she often felt she was learning as much from them as from her teachers. Math wasn't her strong suit, and she found her AP calculus class senior year especially difficult—but a "genius" Yale-bound classmate helped her understand it.

The prevalence of bright students in the school "was almost a bad thing, because it puts you down when teachers are comparing you," she says. "It's cool to be able to work with so many smart students, but definitely here they pit us against each other sometimes."

When I talked with Hayley in the spring, she'd recently read a 1998 Chicago magazine article in her AP psychology class on New Trier's competitive environment. The author of the story, Cynthia Hanson, noted that many parents hired private tutors for their children, and that students often skipped lunch "so they can squeeze in another course or activity to enhance their transcripts."

Hayley says the atmosphere is still highly competitive, and that she has mixed feelings about it. "Students are under a lot of pressure to be perfect—at sports, in theater, but mostly academically. There's so much pressure to get it right or get the best grade. But I can't totally complain about it because I think I've benefited from it. I have an advantage going into college and life with how competitive it was."

New Trier no longer has class rank. Hayley was always on the honor roll, and she said her grade point average (on an unweighted 4-point scale) was about 3.7 or 3.8.

One of New Trier's best features for Hayley, given her performing interests, was its advanced fine arts programs. She's a "triple threat," she says—she sings, dances, and acts, and feels equally skilled in each. She's also interested in screenwriting and directing. "I'm realistic in not thinking I'm gonna just be some Broadway star or something," she tells me. "I think I could be a writer of TV shows or of movies, or be a director."

"Students are under a lot of pressure to be perfect—at sports, in theater, but mostly academically. But I can't totally complain about it because I think I've benefited from it. I have an advantage going into college and life."

She sees acting as "a sort of psychology. It's the study of people, basically. If you're studying a character in depth you're going to naturally compare yourself to the character. You end up learning about yourself."

She was in acting and singing productions throughout her four years, including the school's annual musical lampoon. Her New Trier performing career culminated in March when she got her first lead—the role of Belle in Beauty and the Beast in the school's major annual musical.

New Trier's big musical is "really professional," Hayley says. "The orchestra's incredible. The direction is amazing. The set is perfect.

"I think Belle is the best part I could play," she continues. "My mom raised me to be a feminist, and Belle's a really strong female character, which isn't common in musicals."

Hayley says she didn't hear much about race and class issues at New Trier except from one teacher she had both junior and senior year. "That's the thing about this bubble of a community," she says. "We don't really think about what's going on outside of New Trier or the North Shore." The students are "mature when it comes to school—we take it very seriously. But in terms of knowing anything about other races or lower socioeconomic communities, a lot of us are ignorant."

Jasmeen applied to a dozen colleges, among them Northwestern, Lake Forest, DePaul, University of Illinois at Springfield, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, DePauw, Xavier in Louisiana, and Howard in Washington, D.C.

She loved Northwestern's campus and low student-faculty ratio (seven to one). "I was telling my teachers, 'If I get accepted to Northwestern, don't even ask me where I'm going, 'cause I'm going there.'"

She also liked Howard, which she saw on an Upward Bound trip. Its student body is 96 percent African-American. "It seemed close-knit, and I felt I'd be comfortable there," Jasmeen tells me. "But I also wanted to be around different kinds of people."

She got 19 on her ACT, which put her in the 41st percentile nationally. On a second try, she got an 18. The scores were a letdown, especially because she'd prepped so much for the test. "In Upward Bound we took it repeatedly—it was like ACT all day, every day. I've always gotten in the range of 16 to 19. I don't know why I didn't move out of that range."

NU turned out to be the only school that didn't accept her. Her mixed feelings about Howard became moot because that school didn't offer her financial aid. She wasn't wowed by SIU-Edwardsville, but decided to go there because the financial aid package made it the most affordable.

Jasmeen was awarded a $1,000 scholarship from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and a $250 scholarship from Upward Bound. Late this summer, she won a Pullman Foundation scholarship, which will cover the remainder of her financial gap at SIU.

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