From Alumni to Teachers: Are Ivies Worth It?

Through interviews with various teachers and alumni, The Spectator evaluates the necessity of attending an Ivy League college.

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For many Stuyvesant students, attending an Ivy League college is vital to their academic careers and future success. These schools are known for their academic quality, selectivity, renowned facilities, and, of course, extensive legacies and reputations. However, is going to such an elite school worth it, and does it truly define one’s future? The Spectator conducted interviews with various teachers and alumni, who shared their own experiences and reflections.

Dr. Maria Nedwidek-Moore (’98), biology teacher

Biology teacher Dr. Maria Nedwidek-Moore (’98) is known for having an impressive academic trajectory. She majored in biology and completed her undergraduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) after graduating from Stuyvesant. She then attended Princeton University for graduate school, earned a Ph.D. in molecular biology, and followed this with a postdoctoral program at Harvard University. Halfway through her postdoctoral, she chose to pursue teaching as a career, eventually landing a job at Stuyvesant.

Dr. Ned believes that going to MIT had both challenges and benefits. It provided an extensive amount of training in biology and genetics, which was important for future endeavors, but was also extremely difficult. Students were required to immerse themselves in complicated material very early on. “Being in an environment that’s really academically challenging can inform and help focus your energy in ways that are useful later in life,” Dr. Ned said. “But in hindsight, I’m not entirely sure that I needed that much stress that early […] MIT would have been a lot better as a graduate student, but as an undergraduate, it was one of the most difficult experiences of my life and […] It was extremely humbling, and I felt marginally unintelligent during the first couple of years there.”

Dr. Ned’s education at MIT certainly helped spur her career, but she believes that it was ultimately unnecessary for being a teacher. “The one thing that I bring to this job that’s unusual—and there [are] a few of us in the department that have this—is [my] extensive advanced training,” Dr. Ned said. “But there are many, many successful teachers in education who don’t have to do all that because what I did was grueling and difficult.”

She urges students to avoid assumptions about results during their college application process, because failing to acknowledge that we can’t be held responsible for every outcome can be extremely harmful and contributes to an environment in which students are embarrassed by their results. “I want people to understand that the schools are looking for certain things that they need, and if you don’t meet that or if someone else meets that more, then you won’t make it,” Dr. Ned said.

“Whether or not you go to a place like that does not determine whether you are a whole human or whether you are a good person or whether you are successful or whether you are marketable. You are marketable by the sheer virtue of your intellectual capacity and talents that you have. And where you execute those, what university or what environment you execute those in is your choice and it’s your life and you don’t have a whole lot of control of where you get in or how you manifest that.”

Jim Cocoros, math teacher

Math teacher Jim Cocoros attended Cornell University’s College of Engineering and graduated in 1994 as an Operations Research Industrial Engineer. He then attended the University of Chicago Law School for graduate studies. After finding himself disinterested in professional law, he chose to pursue teaching during the city’s math teacher shortage in 1999, using his Applied Mathematics degree from Cornell. He joined Stuyvesant’s teaching faculty in 2004.

At Cornell, Cocoros originally planned to become a chemical engineer because he was proficient in math and science in high school, but he took a detour. “I was a chemical engineer for about two hours, then I was an electrical engineer for about a week, and then I was a nothing, and then I ended up in applied math,” he said. “It was the only thing I could sign up for, and I ended up liking it.”

Furthermore, Cornell provided a wide range of academic opportunities, which was perfect for Cocoros, who was not sure of his future career path at the time. Cocoros wanted a place where he could take advantage of other offers the school had in case engineering, his original plan, did not work out. “And it worked out that engineering did work out […] So from a courses-to-study point of view, it was definitely the perfect school for me,” Cocoros said.

His experience at the school was defined not only by his education but also by the people he met there—most notably his wife, whom he met when they were assigned to the same dorm. “I will always love Cornell because that’s where I met wifey-poo,” he said. He met some of his lifelong friends at Cornell as well, contributing to the beauty of his undergraduate education.

After graduating, Cocoros went to the University of Chicago Law School, and he believes that attending Cornell helped his chances in the law school admissions process. “About 80 percent of us came from about 15 different schools, so Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Swarthmore, Williams, Amherst, [and] Stanford,” he said. “At UChicago, most of us came from those schools, and maybe 20 percent came from other schools around the country, so on that front, it looks like it must’ve helped.”

However, he also pointed out that the top students at his law school came from a variety of different undergraduate colleges, including Fordham University, Binghamton University, and Washington University, proving that it is not necessary to attend an Ivy League school to succeed in graduate school. “The top kids, wherever they go, are going to become top kids, so you don’t need Harvard or Yale to excel,” Cocoros said. “What you put into a place is more of what you’re going to get out of a place, more than the name.”

Cocoros believes that while there are clear benefits in going to a large, well-known school, which include worldwide alumni networks and the availability of resources, attending an Ivy League school is not necessary for success. “It’s the same stuff everywhere,” Cocoros said. “And one of the smartest people I know did his undergrad at Brooklyn College, and he’s the person I bounce ideas off of—[math teacher Stan] Kats."

“Where you go doesn’t matter as much. It’s more who you are and what you find interesting and how you pursue your passions. And what you want to do is surround yourself with people who are passionate about what they’re doing. That’s really what you want, and you can find that anywhere.”

Jeffrey Wan (’15), physics teacher

When applying to college, Jeffrey Wan (’15) was in the auspicious position of having a good sense of what his plans were after college; he wanted to teach high school physics in New York City. At the end of his senior year, Wan was enrolled at Stony Brook University when a revelation struck him: “Why would I pay for room and board at Stony Brook and also be outside of the city when my goal [was] to teach in the city and also not spend a lot of money?”

Wan subsequently consulted Assistant Principal of Pupil Personnel Services Casey Pedrick—who worked in the college office at the time—and decided to take advantage of walk-in admissions at City College. “I went up there the day after with my transcript and my report card, some stuff from Stuy: my report card, my SAT scores, all that, some stuff from the College Board. I brought it up there, and I think they just took me in,” he recalled.

At City College, Wan appreciated the benefits of going to school in the city that he had sought out. “Being in city schools gives you ins with the city schools,” he said. He also did field work within the Department of Education. “[It] is just being in a classroom under some teacher who knows more [...] and kind of absorbing by osmosis the teacher knowledge,” he said.

This firsthand experience gave Wan greater insight into planning and delivering lessons and also set him up for an eventual job at Stuyvesant. He not only worked with teachers but also conducted his own student teaching. “You’re dropped into a class, and you serve as a student-teacher. You actually teach more than during fieldwork,” Wan explained.

Wan’s college experience was perhaps most remarkably characterized by the lucidity he gained and how well his plan worked out. He was able to get a job teaching physics—at the high school he had graduated from, no less—right out of the gate. His regrets from college are, impressively, few and far between. While he admits that he probably should have shown up to his freshman year calculus class more often (“Some days I chose to sleep,” he said), much seems to have worked out just as he hoped. Additionally, and certainly to the benefit of his students, Wan has a unique familiarity with what it is like to be a student at Stuyvesant. “I’m familiar with the people here. I’m familiar with how things are here […] I said, ‘Sure, let’s head over. Let’s see what I can do.’”

Wan earnestly recommends that students stressed about applying to college give serious consideration to what they want to do academically, or at least to what they like. He explained that students should not let their parents steer every aspect of their college course, illustrating the perils of doing so: “You change majors your second or third year into college. Then you’ve wasted time. You’ve wasted money.”

“Even if you don’t know what you want to do, make sure you are doing something that lines up with what you enjoy. If you don’t like math and physics, maybe don’t be an engineer. If you don’t like math and science and biology, organic chemistry, maybe don’t go into pre-med. You have to be able to stomach what you are doing.”

Matt Polazzo, history teacher

History teacher Matt Polazzo graduated in 1998 from Bowdoin College in Maine, which he said “is spelled strangely, so everyone always thinks it’s ‘Bow-Down’ or ‘Boy-Doin,’” but it’s pronounced “Bow-Den.” He double-majored in government and philosophy, with a minor in Latin American history.

For Polazzo, who grew up in New York City, attending a small liberal arts college in Maine was a drastic change. The small size of the school meant that there were no graduate students, which allowed for Polazzo to be in classes with as few as 10 students. “[There were] lots of opportunities for independent study with professors. In that particular case, I ended up being inspired by Paul Franco. He’s a scholar of Nietzsche, and he’s a political theory guy, so I ended up taking a bunch of really great classes with him,” Polazzo said. The emphasis on learning and the ability to closely work with great professors was the highlight of Polazzo’s college experience. His biggest regret was not taking more classes taught by great professors in his undergraduate years, pointing out the ones that he did take as definite improvements to his overall academic experience.

Being a teacher has allowed Polazzo to use all those extensive college classes, however niche they may have been, throughout his professional career, especially when teaching his AP Government classes over many years. “At the end of my undergraduate experience I had become a lot less enamored with philosophy than I was as a freshman and sophomore, but I took enough of those courses that they provided me with a pretty solid grounding in the basics of Anglo-American philosophy, empiricism, that sort of stuff,” he said.

Bowdoin, a college with a running joke about its name and how no one seems to know how to pronounce it, may not be as well-known as other colleges are, but Polazzo finds that peers and classes define one’s college experience much more. “Your experience [in college] is going to be shaped a lot more based on who you become friends with and what classes you take […] If you took a gap year and went to the same university, you might have a different experience than going to two different universities because you would meet different people or have different experiences,” he commented.

“The experience you have is going to be so idiosyncratic because it’s going to be based on your peer group that ultimately it really doesn’t matter. As long as you go to a school that’s kind of okay, you’re probably going to be fine in life.”

Luke Morales (’14)

Luke Morales (’14) majored in bioengineering at Brown University. He received a bachelor’s degree in 2018 before earning a master’s degree in biomedical engineering design from the same university the following year. From there, he worked for Onshape, an engineering firm, as a question and answer engineer and a technical service engineer for a year. He currently attends medical school at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University.

Overall, Morales found his undergraduate experience at Brown University highly rewarding. “I discovered a lot about myself. I was able to really explore my interests both in terms of school but also my own personal passions. I was able to meet a lot of great people who I know will be lifelong friends and just be around people who I also knew loved learning and were interested in similar things,” he said.

The highlights of his experience at Brown included the open curriculum, which allows students to take courses that align with their interests. “At Brown, as long as you do the requirements for your major, or, [as] we call it, a concentration, you can do anything else,” he said.

Additionally, Morales spoke highly of the startup culture at Brown. He was part of a prosthetic startup, which he joined his junior year. “It was really special because I was able to complement my science and engineering rigor with more of a business focus on something else and really broaden my horizon in that perspective,” he explained. His startup ended up being the project that he worked on to complete his master’s degree and that inspired him to work for Onshape since his startup used the technology produced by the company.

Ultimately, Morales believes that attending Brown has helped him with his life path. “I don’t necessarily agree with this, but the world does work in a certain way in that if you go to a big name school [...] you might have an easier time than if you go to a less well-known school,” he said. This circumstance was revealed to him especially when talking to other engineers in his industry. “I don’t have to prove anything else. I just say I studied at Brown,” he said.

Despite this tendency, he has also seen people just as capable who did not attend elite universities. “I’ve met so many engineers smarter than me who didn’t go to an Ivy League school, who have probably had better training, honestly,” he said.

“The big one is don’t lose confidence in yourself, which is a lot easier said than done [...] Rejection is a hard thing to look at, [but] it doesn’t mean that you’re not worthy. It just means that it wasn’t necessarily your day. A lot of it is luck. I think a good amount of application is luck. And it’s okay to be unlucky sometimes. It doesn’t mean it’s the end of the road.”

Lumi Westerlund (’19)

Lumi Westerlund (’19) took her education abroad when she decided to attend the University of Oxford. There, she currently studies philosophy, politics, and economics. While she mainly focused on philosophy in her first year, she has strayed away from that subject and now mostly takes classes in politics and economics.

Westerlund enjoys the small community feel at Oxford due to the concentrated group tutorials and college system that allow students to live and learn in smaller groups, as well as the amount of personal attention she receives on her work. “The way they do the learning is a lot more one-on-one [...] You get paired with a tutor, and maybe one other student who does your degree, and you meet up once a week—just the three of you—to discuss the essay that you’ve written for that week, and that is how the classes are,” she said.

She decided to apply to Oxford after recommendations from family members and found the financial benefit and prospect of going abroad for three years more appealing than going to an American university. However, studying abroad also came with its challenges and disappointments. “The fact that Oxford is only three years is awesome, and then you realize, ‘Oh my gosh, all of a sudden I’m in my third year.’ I want the full four years to be with my friends. Three years is just too short,” she said. “There are also more clubs and things like that typical American universities have that are different or lacking in [English] universities,” she added.

Westerlund believes that she has learned a lot during her time at Oxford, but she also feels she needs a master’s degree to find a job in New York that aligns with her skills and interests. “While I think both my politics degree and my econ degree are very useful, [...] I think I’ll have to go to grad school to focus on urban studies and urban planning, which [are] what I am really interested in,” she said.

Westerlund implores those applying to college now to be open-minded and consider a variety of options. “Everyone goes into the college application process thinking, ‘This is it. This is the end all be all. If I don’t get in here, I’ll never get in anywhere.’ But even if you don’t get into the school that you really want to go to, so many people transfer after one year, and no one talks about it because people put so much pressure on that first round,” she said. “Going to one school the first year and another school the other three years is honestly so feasible, so people should keep that in mind.”

“The American application process is such a game of chance. If I have any words of advice to the college applicants, they need to go really easy on themselves because Stuy kids are so incredibly smart and we apply to colleges and get rejected and then think, ‘I’m not good enough.’ But we are [...] People need to go easy on themselves if they don’t get into the [schools] they want to go to because they did deserve to.”

Vishwaa Sofat (’20)

Vishwaa Sofat (’20) attends the University of California at Berkeley, where he created his own major by combining science, technology, and society while minoring in public policy. Sofat is satisfied with his time as an undergraduate and credits Stuyvesant with preparing him with useful skills, such as test-taking, time management, and essay writing. He certainly finds that college is a big change, providing him with new responsibilities as well as freedoms. Sofat has also enjoyed moving to California, citing the weather and accessibility of nature as a few key aspects of the state.

Making his own major has been a unique experience for Sofat. “I’m able to take computer science, I’m able to take public health, [and] I’m able to take classes anywhere and any classes in between,” he said. A lot of universities facilitate interdisciplinary study, but Sofat appreciates Berkeley in particular for its encouragement of unique combinations. Much of his excitement to combine interests started at Stuyvesant: “I did well at Stuy, so I am invested in my STEM [subjects], but I’m also able to appreciate the beauty of humanities, and the intersectionality between the two is something I have always enjoyed,” he said.

Sofat finds that Berkeley is the perfect place to mold his education. “Berkeley [is in] the top 10 [of] departments in just about everything, if not top five,” he said. For those hoping to pursue interdisciplinary studies, he suggests finding a college with strong academics and offerings in multiple areas. On top of providing rigorous academics across departments, Berkeley has a lot of graduate courses, allowing Sofat the opportunity to take graduate-level courses in his sophomore year. “That has really been a great experience, being able to sit with people who are doing their masters’ and talk to them about the way they see life,” he said. He also appreciates the accessibility of research opportunities at Berkeley, which enabled him to work as a research assistant investigating the politics of development in freshman year.

Sofat prefers approaching his education from a liberal arts perspective and seeking to broaden his horizons so that he is able to take classes in a cross-sectional capacity. “I’m considering law, I’m considering a master’s of public policy, I’m considering things in between. Those things in between are that question mark. My undergraduate academic experience is really focused on finding out what I enjoy learning and studying,” Sofat explained. When he started his high school career at Stuyvesant, Sofat thought he would become a doctor. “Stuy added nuance to my life because coming into college, it gives me this active reminder to first seek out more answers,” he reflected. For those who are unsure of their path, there is plenty of room to explore.

Sofat noted that during high school, he focused on doing things he truly cared about. “The more you do that, the more […] it will help you in your application process,” he advised. He believes that these passions and interests will stand out, and this became a large part of his philosophy. Once in college, Sofat suggests trying new things and not setting anything in stone. Wherever you go, finding a community is important, and this approach is a great way to do so. “It’s really important, finding people [who] can be your backbone […] I always joke that the most underrated thing about Stuyvesant is that you had a whole guard of people that were ready to edit your essay at any moment […] That thing sorta sticks in college,” he said.

“It is really hard to hear when you're in the process that things will work out. Wherever you end up, you'll enjoy it. Those are things you don’t want to hear. You want it to work out just as you want it. You want to end up at your dream school. You want that. It's hard to always accept the results, and it takes time, and it's sometimes still hard when you get to college to want something different, hoping it ends up better, whatever better means to you.”

Evelyn Mao (’15)

Evelyn Mao (’15) studied biology at SUNY Stony Brook and after graduating in 2019, earned a second bachelor’s degree in nursing from Hunter College in 2021. Overall, Mao had a decent experience at Stony Brook but noticed that her quiet nature held her back from enjoying her first few years. However, she enjoyed her second-degree program more. “Everyone already has a career or family, so we all have a focus,” Mao noted.

Having recently graduated, Mao plans to become a registered nurse next year. “I was considering all kinds of healthcare professions, but nursing was the best choice for me,” she said. Factors such as the length of the program, affordability, and the ability to direct patient care played important roles in her decision.

Mao’s most rewarding college experience, studying abroad in Madagascar, is part of the reason she decided to follow this path. After researching indigenous butterflies for three months, she realized the reality of research was not for her. “It was too much networking or writing and too little hands-on time,” she says. Her participation in the program led her to her current career avenue: nursing. Not only was studying abroad valuable to her academics, but it also helped Mao connect with those who had similar interests. “I got to meet a bunch of peers [who] have a clear direction in life, mostly conservation-related research,” she said.

Despite finding her career path, Mao has regrets about her college application process. She applied for her dream schools, many of which were highly ranked, and Stony Brook as a “safety” school. She believes that if she had applied to schools that were more feasible, she would have had more college options, but she now realizes that her life would not necessarily be better if she went to a private school that was ranked higher. Mao described her difficulties with Stony Brook’s curriculum: “If I’d known that I wouldn’t stick with research, I’d have gone to another school […] Their curriculum is not compatible with most other schools […] I had to jump through many hoops for course equivalency.” This incompatibility presented a challenge for Mao when applying to professional schools. Foundational classes are hard and can be detrimental to one’s GPA, but Mao appreciates the rigor in terms of education.

Mao’s largest piece of advice for students applying to colleges is not to become hyper-fixated on the prestige of a school, but to seek out options that are best for your interests. “Really focus on your end goal instead of the ranking of the school. If you want to go to medical school, pick a school that will save some money and be friendly to your GPA. If you want to do research in a certain field, look for a school that is supportive of undergraduate research and has good programs in that field,” she said. In Mao’s opinion, if you pursue your interests, you can enjoy college life at any school. However, many of us still don’t know exactly what we want to do, and in this situation, she advises opting for a large school that offers many opportunities in multiple fields. Mao graduated but still changed her career path––as she shows, it’s always okay to take another trajectory: “If it doesn’t work out, there’s always the chance to try again or switch to something else. But it is most important to keep trying.” Overall, she hopes everyone can look outside the box and know that it actually gets better.

“To me, you can enjoy college life at any school if you get to do things you want to do. As long as you reach your goal in the end, it really doesn't matter if you went to the best school or got straight A’s every step along the way.”

Eve Wening (’20)

Eve Wening (’20) is currently a second-year attending Dartmouth College. Though she has not yet declared a major, she plans on pursuing computer science or a modified major that incorporates elements of the computer science classes she has been taking.

Wening admits to not liking Dartmouth during her first year, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, but she has felt more at home in recent months. “This fall has been totally different. I like it a lot more. It’s been really fun, very relaxed. I feel like I’ve been growing very quickly,” she said. She has enjoyed taking advantage of Dartmouth’s unique outdoor opportunities, such as mountain biking and backpacking. “Dartmouth fully paid for me to go backpacking in the Guadalupe Mountains, and it was the best week of my life,” she shared. “There are so many trips that you can go on, and they’ll help pay for [them].”

Though she has come to find her place at Dartmouth, Wening still has some regrets, especially in the way she chose her school. Though she applied to Dartmouth Early Decision, which made the application process smoother for her, it left her with some misgivings. “I regret EDing because I felt locked in. You change so much from November to May, and I felt like I wanted more opportunities,” she said.

Looking back, Wening wishes that she had given herself more options and reflected more on what she was looking for in college. “I ED-ed to an Ivy, and I got in. That’s what a lot of people want the most. That’s the goal. But as soon as I got into Dartmouth, I thought, ‘I am such an idiot,’” she confessed. “This entire time I’ve been at Stuy, I thought I could think for myself and I didn’t fall into the ‘Stuy-thinking’ [patterns]. I hadn’t thought about the culture of this school, who I am, what kind of people I want to be around.”

Though Wening has come to enjoy certain aspects of Dartmouth and found people she feels welcome amongst, it took longer than she had expected. Wening noticed the lack of diversity she has seen at Dartmouth. “Dartmouth is full of really ambitious people, but they’re also really privileged. A lot of them had really secure, solid lives, and I feel like if I had gone to a school where people were a little bit more relaxed about academics and less wanting to do finance and economics, that might have been a better fit for me,” she said.

As someone who attends an Ivy League school, Wening is not enchanted by the band of elite universities. “The things that we get from Stuyvesant, being with kids who are really ambitious, working really hard, caring about grades, everyone feels really similarly, this is a pretty serious monoculture in that everyone really wants the same thing. That’s not the real world. But that is the Ivy League,” she said.

“If you get through this place and then you fall in love with a school that isn’t in the Ivy League, definitely go to that school. And if you fall in love with a school that is in the Ivy League and then you don’t get into that school, feel really good about your other options because those are places that are probably going to be more intellectually, culturally diverse than the Ivy League, and that will benefit you greatly.”