Six Blair Alumni on How They Chose Their Institutions of Higher Learning
Paula Hong

Blair students matriculated to a wide variety of renowned schools of higher learning last year, some among the most competitive in the world. From Ivy League institutions to schools for the arts and the United States military service academies, the Class of 2022 includes 33 recruited athletes, four service academy appointments, 15 Ivy League scholars and students with merit scholarships to Duke, the University of Virginia and Northeastern, among others.

Despite an increasingly competitive college admissions landscape, Blair’s seniors found new four-year “homes” where they will grow and thrive just as they did on the hilltop. As we approach a new college admission season, Blair alum Paula Hong ’16 sat down with some of our recent graduates to discuss the college admissions process and how their time at Blair helped them find the postsecondary school that would best fit their interests and abilities.


The question I got asked most, and heard others get asked most, during my first year of college was “So, why did you end up choosing [school name]?” Truthfully, I hadn’t expected to have an immediate response. By no means did I feel prepared in the sense that I knew which major or career I wanted to pursue, but I did feel confident that I knew what kind of college experience I wanted. After all, I had just spent the last four years at a miniature, preparatory version of a college known as Blair Academy. 

I knew that although I loved the tight-knit community Blair provided, for college, I wanted a school with a bigger student population—but not too big because I valued a smaller teacher to student ratio. Though I loved the outdoors, for college, I wanted to be closer to a major city. Last but not least, I definitely knew I wanted a community as genuine and welcoming as Blair’s. 

Looking back now on my college admissions and decision process, I realize just how invaluable the experience at Blair was in helping me choose my next “home”—just as Class of 2022 graduates Schuyler Anderson, Laila Davson, Etka Ayhan and Sophia Papadopoulo are beginning to realize and just as alum William Pemberton ’16 did. 

For Schuyler Anderson ’22 (Duke University—Class of 2026) from Albany, New York, the most important quality she looked for in a boarding school, and ultimately college, was a welcoming community. 

“I visited a few schools, but none of the campuses felt warm or ‘just right,’” Schuyler recalled. “Then, my dad told me about his time at Blair and how they were some of the best years of his life, so I decided to visit and apply. Truthfully, I was a little frightened when I first visited Blair because everyone I passed said ‘hi’ or gave me a smile. I came to realize that their doing so was not fake or forced—everyone on campus was genuinely kind and welcoming.”

Somewhere inside her then-15-year-old self, Schuyler sensed that the strong, supportive community she observed would make the three years she ended up attending Blair an enjoyable experience, even when things got tough. 

“Blair was not always easy for me. As a new sophomore, the ‘year of COVID’ made it a little difficult, but I stayed because of my friends, my teachers, and my advisor, and it has been the best experience of my life thus far. Even in the difficult times, I realized I was never going to find people, especially teachers, who genuinely cared about me that much. I remember one night was especially rough and Mrs. Ryerson invited me into her home. It was pretty late, but she listened to me for a really long time simply because she cared about me. At Blair, moments like that aren’t unheard of.”

Fast-forward four years since touring and the very reason why Schuyler chose Blair was the quality that helped the 19-year-old choose her next institution of higher learning, Duke University. Nearly 50% of Blair seniors joined Schuyler in securing an admissions offer at a school with an admit rate of 15% or less, finding potential homes at their-best fit schools, regardless of the selectivity.

“Relationships and connections were really important to me [when choosing my school] because I realized that relationships and connections are some of the most important parts of life and  help your learning experience by leaps and bounds. I was lucky enough to learn and experience that at a young age at Blair,” Schuyler said.

“By forming connections with my teachers, I found that I could learn better and I felt more comfortable speaking up in class. A good community is one of the most important things you can have; going through life with people by your side who support you (like I had at Blair) can and will make any experience better.”

This fall, Schuyler joined her fellow Duke Devils in Durham, North Carolina, as a member of the Class of 2026. She plans on double-majoring in biology and statistical science, an interest she developed early on while attending Blair, and more specifically, while attending her Integrated Science Research (ISR) classes. 

Blair’s ISR course allows students to create their own independent science research projects under the mentorship of a faculty member, however, the student is encouraged to project manage the course entirely on their own. 

“I did ISR all three years at Blair and my project used CRISPR technology to edit the APP (familial Alzheimer’s gene) in Drosophila Melanogaster because they have the same familial Alzheimer’s-causing gene as humans. During my project, I developed my own plasmids and ran multiple trials. The program definitely influenced my interest in biotechnology and biomedical engineering, and only added to my pre-established interests in Biology and Medicine.”

“I am most excited about becoming part of another welcoming and close-knit community, one that has a different kind of strong spirit. I am also excited to take new classes and challenge myself in a different way. Oh, and I am super excited about getting to go to the basketball games. Go Blue Devils!”


For Laila Davson ’22 (Yale University—Class of 2026), in addition to a warm and welcoming community, having an abundance of opportunities in and outside the classroom to explore her life’s passions and interests was an important characteristic when choosing which school to attend. 

At Blair, she found that those interests included developing her saxophone expertise, contributing to both the Jazz Ensemble and Chamber Orchestra, and championing her voice and opinions in student-led activities such as Model UN and the Belonging & Equity Committee. 

For her next academic institution, she sought a place where she could expand her horizons and become more involved with community-oriented service groups. 
 
“When choosing which college to go to,” Laila explained, “I was most excited to find a place where I could look for a new set of opportunities for community service, learn more about topics I truly care about, and discover more about who I am as an individual. Currently, I’m inclined to major in a subject focused either on human rights or policy areas. Overall, though, I plan to let my experience lead me to clarity when the time is right.”
 
Dean of College Counseling Niki Applebaum ’01 stresses that Blair seeks to “guide Blair students to be strategic and authentic as they craft competitive and compelling applications to a balanced list of best-fit schools.” That process made sense to Laila, as she attends her “dream school,” Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, this fall. 
 
“My decision was inspired by research and understanding the programs that were offered at Yale, but it was solidified by visiting the school and meeting with students who went there. Once you get the feel for the kind of environment you could be in, you know for sure whether you want to actually be a part of it.”
 
The feeling of “knowing” which school was the right fit for her was one she had experienced years ago. Four, to be exact, when she had first stepped foot on Blair’s campus. 

“I remember how I wanted to be a part of a community that was positive and accepted me for who I was. My mom had suggested Blair and I remember how truly welcomed I felt. I instantly knew I had found a second home!”


For Etka Ayhan ’22 (U.S. Naval Academy—Class of 2026), learning how to build a legacy for himself was the most important attribute in choosing his next school of  higher learning. 

“My brothers and I are first-generation Americans, and family has always been important to me, to the point where I’ve always wanted to set up a strong legacy. I knew I wanted to choose a school where I could set up a good path for myself,” recalled Etka. 

A day student who grew up in neighboring Hackettstown, New Jersey, Etka felt that Blair helped solidify his yearning for a school with a strong history and legacy, and he looks forward to strengthening his abilities at The Naval Academy. 

“The Naval Academy [and other service academies] were most appealing to me because they know how to prioritize well. I was lucky to be able to get into the Naval Academy early on, but even then, it wasn’t a quick decision. I had to think about the questions, ‘Do I want to go to a school for sports? What about academics? Do I want to live a normal college life or do I want to go through one rough year but end up with a Naval career that will set me up for success in life?’” 

Ultimately, Etka decided that the latter option made the most sense for him. Now, the recent Blair graduate has gotten the infamous “Plebe summer,” known for its intensity, out of the way and is eagerly beginning his next chapter.


For Sophia Papadopoulo ’22 (Tufts University—Class of 2026), the fact that she would attend boarding school was pretty much a given. Her older siblings had decided to attend The Taft School, but she had felt most welcomed by Blair. 

“I toured Taft, Suffield and a couple of other schools, but the feeling I experienced when I stepped onto Blair’s campus was unmatched. I felt really welcomed and as if the community wanted to get to know me. The experience really made my decision an easy one,” Sophia said.

Fast-forward four years and Sophia officially committed to attend Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. There, she began taking advantage of the university’s five-year dual degree program, which lets students interested in the arts earn a bachelor of fine arts from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts (SMFA) in downtown Boston while simultaneously obtaining a bachelor of arts degree from Tufts University.

“This seemed like a perfect fit for me because it would let me balance both having a regular undergrad experience while also going to art school.” Sophia had become an integral part of the fine arts department, completing three AP art portfolios and contributing to countless shows in the Romano Gallery. 

Because of its special dual-degree program, the decision to attend Tufts was easy for Sophia. 

“Though I knew that all the schools I applied to would provide me with great facilities and opportunities to thrive, the atmosphere and people with their genuine smiles is what brought me to both Blair and Tufts. With my decision to attend Blair, I remember the little one-on-one conversations I had throughout my whole tour left lasting impacts on me.”


For William Pemberton ’16 (Lehigh University—Class of 2020), the qualities that sold him on Blair were the School’s appreciation for diversity and inclusion and the kind interactions he had with the individuals he spoke to during his admission interview. 

 

“After having a successful interview with a Blair admission representative, I was invited to campus for a two-day visit with my mom and that completely sold me on Blair. The people I interacted with were quick to welcome me with open arms and treat me like family,” William said. “The diversity of the community made it clear that becoming a member would open my eyes to a whole new world, and the academic rigor and opportunities presented were a great complement to all the community had to offer.”

From day one, William knew that he would form lifelong relationships that would only positively impact his future. 

“To this day, it’s the relationships I made at Blair that I continue to lean on along my life’s journey, personally and professionally. All in all, I knew that giving Blair and its community 110% of me was a decision with only positive consequences.”

When the time came to choose his next institution of higher learning, William thought back to what, from his Blair experience, he wanted a college to replicate. In addition to the welcoming community, he discovered his profound appreciation for a school that offered multiple, diverse opportunities. 

“I was most excited about being able to explore a business curriculum at Lehigh University and be exposed to coursework specific to the industry I saw myself thriving in professionally one day. While at Blair, we had been exposed and introduced to various topics that served as a foundation for a liberal arts education, but going to Lehigh, I was excited to explore coursework outside that realm of academia.”

“Choosing Lehigh was a very easy decision as the community offered me a balance of familiarity and foreign [qualities]. Lehigh’s community wasn’t too big that I would only see new faces or too small that I would see the same faces. It was a mixture and the right size. Lehigh also offered me the chance to explore my budding passion for business and seeking out that industry as a first step in my post-graduate endeavors.”


About the Author
Paula Hong graduated from Georgetown University in Washington D.C. in 2020 and from Blair Academy in 2016. She currently resides in Atlanta, Georgia, where she works remotely as an associate account manager at Oracle Corporation. Prior to that, she traveled the greater United States as a tour media official for the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA). Paula has contributed to Blair Academy as a writer since the fall of 2021. 
 

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