Nadya Dhillon was in Puerto Rico on Spring Break with her father and sister on March 30. The then Oak Park and River Forest High School senior checked her phone around dinner to check on college admission decisions. She was disappointed to discover she had been waitlisted at her dream school, University of California Berkeley, the school that her father attended. She had her heart set on going to school in California where both her mother and father grew up. Oh well, she thought she would go to UCLA, where she had been accepted two weeks earlier.
About an hour after learning that she had been waitlisted at Berkeley Dhillon checked the status of her application to Harvard. She had already been rejected by Northwestern and Vanderbilt so she figured that Harvard, the only Ivy League she applied to, was sure to be another rejection. She had only applied to Harvard because her father had encouraged her to and told her that it would make her grandmother happy. But when she opened up the decision, she got a shock. She was accepted into Harvard.
“It was definitely a surprise,” Dhillon told Wednesday Journal in a recent telephone interview.
Dhillon and two other members of the Class of 2023 at Oak Park and River Forest High School, Heidi Enger and Ezekiel (Zeke) Wells, will be heading to Harvard College in the fall.
Having three students from one OPRF graduating class going to Harvard is unusual.
“This is a relatively unusual number for us; some years we don’t have any,” said Karin Sullivan, OPRF’s chief spokesperson in an email.
Seven members of the OPRF Class of 2023 are headed to Ivy League schools. Two will go to Columbia University in New York City and two more to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
Getting into Harvard is, of course, not easy.
This past year Harvard College received 56,937 applications and only accepted 1,942 students, an acceptance rate of only 3.41 percent, which was the second lowest acceptance in the school’s history.
“It’s such a small, slim chance of getting in, I didn’t really expect this would happen for me,” Enger said. “I almost didn’t apply because the chances seemed so slim. Obviously, I’m very glad that I did.”
Even Wells, who scored a perfect 800 on the Math portion of the SAT and 750 on the reading and writing portion said he was surprised that he got into Harvard.
Dhillon, Enger, and Wells all had straight A’s throughout high school and took lots of Advanced Placement classes. Earlier this year Dhillon was named a Regeneron Science Talent Search Scholar for her work on a research project she devised to better sterilize medical tools.
Dhillon, whose father is a doctor, wants to become a surgeon. Although she had her heart set on going to college in California, where she often spent summers with her grandparents as a kid, the lure of Harvard was too much to refuse.
“I’m, like, super excited,” said Dhillon, who did not submit SAT scores to Harvard. “It’s definitely not what I was planning on doing of course. I was always set on going to California. … It was hard to say no to UCLA.”
Enger and Wells are also excited about going to Harvard.
Enger, who was the editor in chief of the OPRF literary magazine, Crest, ended up picking Harvard over another Ivy League school, Brown.
“Brown was my dream school for a really long time,” Enger said.
Enger was initially a little unsure about going to Harvard even after she was accepted. But her cello teacher told her there are only a couple of universities whose name opens doors around the world and Harvard is one of them. Enger, the only child of a single mother who teaches elementary school, was initially concerned that she might not fit in at Harvard. She expressed concerns about stereotypes a highly competitive atmosphere. But her concerns were allayed when she visited Harvard this spring on admitted students weekend.
“I actually met a lot of people that I felt I really clicked with and it was wonderful,” said Enger. “In the end the (Harvard) campus felt like a better fit for me. I knew it in my gut.”
Some 84 percent of those admitted to Harvard this year have chosen to enroll there.
Harvard also offered Enger a generous financial aid package. Her out of pocket cost to attend Harvard will be about $3,500. Beginning with the Class of 2027 Harvard offers enough financial aid to completely cover tuition, room and board, and all required fees for all students coming from families with an annual income under a set level. Enger also received a couple of small scholarships that will defray some costs.
Enger, voracious reader who taught herself to read before ever attending school and whose favorite magazine is the New Yorker, wants to eventually go to law school. She has a strong interest in history, literature and social justice issues.
“Eventually I want to get a law degree,” Enger said. “Not necessarily to be a lawyer but it seems like a good foundation for what I want to do.”
Enger has played the cello choosing the instrument as a fourth grader at Beye School. She got her first cello through PING, Providing Instruments for the Next Generation, which provides musical instruments to local students. For the past two years Enger has been tutoring elementary school students in cello, this year a fifth grader at Irving School. She also has studied ballet since she was three. She studies at the Academy of Movement & Music in Oak Park and is a member of their resident dance company, Momenta.
Before being admitted to Harvard Wells was leaning toward attending Vanderbilt where he was offered a full tuition scholarship.
“I was really impressed by Vanderbilt,” said Wells who said his final choice came down to six schools: Harvard, Vanderbilt, Brown, Dartmouth, Duke and Northwestern.
But getting into Harvard changed his thinking.
“I think (Harvard) opens up a lot of doors but I think you can’t get anywhere standing on the doorstep so I’m excited for it,” Wells said. “I really loved the people. I think that is what swayed me for it, but I’m also very aware that it’s not going to be easy.”
Like Enger, Wells got a generous financial aid package from Harvard. He says that his out-of-pocket cost to attend Harvard will be about $3,000 a year.
“Harvard’s financial aid package was better than Northwestern, better than Dartmouth, better than Brown,” Wells said.
Wells wants to study economics and environmental engineering at Harvard.
“I have a few interests but ideally I want to do different startups that deal with environmental or sustainable technology,” Wells said.
Wells was a state champion in Earth Science at the Illinois Science Olympiad and finished in the top seven three other times.
Wells spent part of his childhood living in China while his parents taught English there. Five years ago Wells launched a snow removal and lawn care company that has grown to 70 clients. He also has participated in a number of leadership and philanthropic activities. In 2021 he and a friend twice walked 50 miles, 100,000 steps, to raise money for Thrive Counseling Center of Oak Park and Nami Metro Suburban, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of those with mental illness.
Wells has also participated in and is now a board member and marketing director for the Bayar Fellowship, a program to encourage low-income high school students to develop an understanding of business as they commit themselves to public service.
Despite getting into Harvard and all their accomplishments, Enger and Wells, like Dhillon, were rejected or waitlisted by a few schools before getting into Harvard. They were both rejected by Yale. Enger was rejected by Amherst and Tufts and waitlisted by Swarthmore and Boston University. Wells, who applied to 27 schools, was rejected by six schools: Stanford, as was Dhillon, MIT, Yale, Princeton, Columbia and Northeastern University in Boston.
None of that matters now. As they enjoy their last summer before college the three Harvard bound OPRF students, all residents of Oak Park although Dhillon used to live in River Forest, know they will at least know two other members of their freshmen class when they step on to the Harvard campus this fall.
“I’m going in without being completely isolated from everybody,” Enger said.
They don’t think they are that special.
“I don’t think being a Harvard student makes us all that special,” Wells said. “I think people go to Harvard and they do a whole variety of things.”
“The three of us are just normal kids,” Enger said.
But they are three kids who received a top flight education at OPRF and the other schools they attended.
“We are three normal kids who had amazing teachers at OPRF,” Wells said. “Your odds at getting into Harvard if you’re born in Oak Park versus being born two blocks east of where I live are so dramatically different that that’s impossible to ignore.”