BY REBECCA ISENHART
Until recently, Madison Schmitt had her heart set on attending a tiny liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. That is, until she received another acceptance letter, one she never seriously considered. It was from Harvard University.
“I’m a planner,” Schmitt said. “It was kind of a wrench in my plan. A really, really good wrench.”
And although she had originally intended to submit applications to 11 colleges, including Student Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, Spotlight Northeastern University in Boston and a handful of Ivy League members, that famous crimson landmark in Cambridge never really appealed to her.
In fact, her mom, Chris, convinced her to apply.
“I never really pictured myself going to a school like Harvard,” she said.
And by “like Harvard,” Schmitt was eluding to the school’s reputation for elitism. So when she showed up for Accepted Students Day (“Visitas,” a play on the school’s “Veritas” motto), she didn’t expect to make many friends. The other potential freshmen, she figured, would be kind of snooty.
“I was nervous going into it,” she said. But she quickly found herself at ease, the second big surprise in her college-selection process.
“They’re very real,” she said of the other accepted students she met. “They’re just real, normal people who got the chance of a lifetime, like I did.”
During the whirlwind introductory event, she stayed with a Harvard student who had just finished her freshman year, and hardly slept.
In spite of feeling dazzled by the university’s history, cheered by her fellow accepted students, and shocked at having been admitted at all, Schmitt’s rational nature reigned as she made her final considerations about where to attend college. In the end, research opportunities, professional connections, and robust financial aid from Harvard put it in the running, and her newfound friends during Visitas pushed it into first place.
She filled out her acceptance form on the train ride back from Cambridge to Niskayuna.
Set on concentration
While Harvard students aren’t required to declare a concentration right away (that’s “major” to the rest of us), Schmitt knows what she wants to study: neurobiology. Her secondary (translation: minor) will be in either linguistics or German studies, thanks to the love of language she developed while studying for three years under Niskayuna German teacher Joe Carosella.
“He is one of a kind,” she said, recalling high jinx like seeing Carosella walking down the hall in a funny hat while playing a kazoo and showing off a German flag. That, combined with her 23-year-old sister Morgan’s positive experiences in German at the high school, encouraged her to try the class, a decision she’ll never regret.
“I gave it a try and fell in love with language and culture,” she said.
That well-developed interest in travel, culture, and connecting classroom lessons with the outside world made Schmitt even more interested in Harvard.
“I want to learn, not just on campus, but outside of it,” she said. “There’s definitely always something going on.”
As far as neurobiology, the path to her future concentration at Harvard is less clear than the one to her fascination with language. She suspects it has something to do with watching her dad, Chuck, work as a horticulturalist. He’s an educator at the Cornell Cooperative Extension, and during summer vacations as a child Schmitt used to shadow him, playing with microscopes and marveling at the scientific process.
But why brains? Curiosity, mostly.
“There’s still so much we don’t know about the brain,” she said. “Mental illness, medications, dreams.”
Schmitt will head off to Harvard in mid-August, a week early, so she can participate in community service in the Cambridge and Boston areas while getting to know the area. Right now, it seems to be all she can think about; she’s been counting down the days since there were 70 left. But she knows there are things about home she’ll miss greatly — mostly friends and family, but probably school, too.
As far as high school goes, “I really am going to miss the faculty and the community,” she added. “It’s kind of a weird thing. I used to see them every day.”