With most college application deadlines now past, Brandon Hill offers advice to anxious high school seniors.
If disappointment arrives via e-mail or snail mail, embrace it. It could be the luckiest break of your life.
Twenty-year-old Hill, of Eden Prairie, is co-president of the Stanford University sophomore class. He has traveled the world, from Brazil to Vietnam, and served as a White House intern.
Two weeks ago, Hill delivered a TEDx speech to a riveted audience in San Diego, one of the youngest participants to do so.
The secret to his impressive résumé? A barely passing grade in high school physics that got him temporarily booted from Stanford, just after delivering a soaring high school graduation speech to 4,000 people.
Embarrassed and confused, Hill saw his dream vanish. Then he created another.
“If I hadn’t got that grade,” Hill said, “none of those opportunities would have been available.”
There’s a reason Hill was called “Mr. President” at Eden Prairie High School and may very well be called Mr. President again. A born leader, he led the Young Democrats Club, was an election judge at his polling station, and Youth Governor of Minnesota in 2010 through the American Legion Boys’ State program.
Raised by his parents to embrace service as “the rent we pay for living” (his mom, Tori Hill, was a delegate to the Democratic National Convention), he and two friends created a high school program called The Brotherhood, which offered resources, workshops and study sessions to young men of color. The group grew from 15 members to 200, and its collective GPA rose from 1.91 to 2.80.
Hill was so engaged with The Brotherhood that he let his grades slip during his final semester. He didn’t think it mattered because he had been accepted to Stanford, by early admission, in November. It did matter.
A few days after his graduation party, Hill was staring at a letter informing him that he had been “de-accepted.” Take a year off, the letter suggested. Retake physics and, if you get a B or higher, we’ll readmit you next year.
Hill picked himself up and decided that he didn’t want to take a year off. He wanted to take “a year on.”
His one-year adventure began when a family friend helped him orchestrate a semester at Atlanta’s Morehouse College in the fall of 2011. He took that physics class and it was the hardest A-minus he ever fought for. He didn’t just study. Being at all-male, historically black Morehouse confirmed for Hill that there was a great big world out there and he should see it.
He took part in a protest organized by the NAACP to stop the eventual execution of Troy Davis, attended classes with “young men in suits,” and rubbed elbows with 18-year-old preachers.
He learned to always follow up on business cards handed to him, “and to keep a dimple in your tie.”
Leaving Atlanta, he spent January through May of 2012 with the shipboard education program Semester at Sea, as a Presidential Scholar. He sailed around the world and brought home “a million stories.”
He witnessed abject poverty in India and stepped into his “discomfort zone” to dance in Hong Kong. His most profound experience was visiting Ghana, the home of his ancestors before they were forced to sail to America as part of the Transatlantic slave trade.
There, he felt “a visceral sense of belonging, like a child reuniting with his birthparents.” It wasn’t lost on him that his liberating voyage was “a complete reversal of the dreaded middle passage.”
He returned from sea and served as a 2012 summer legislative intern in Washington, D.C.
And then he began his freshman year at Stanford.
Hill is amused by his evolution, how differently he feels now at Stanford, compared to that young man who received the devastating letter.
“Stanford was like Oz almost,” Hill said. “After traveling around the world, Stanford shrunk a little bit. Not in a bad way, but I was blessed to have had this running start, to come in at full speed.”
He wants other students to have the same experience. He’s working with Stanford administrators to build an immersive — and fully funded — gap year for pre-freshmen.
He spoke about this dream in his eight-minute TEDx Semester at Sea talk on Jan. 9. Luke Jones, a vice president with Semester at Sea, calls Brandon’s speech “outstanding,” and noted that the 12 speaking spots were highly competitive.
“What he was getting at was turning a situation that could have been negative into an opportunity,” Jones said. “What he did and learned completely influenced everything he’s done since.”
He keeps doing great things. Hill served as a 2013 White House summer intern, where he was assigned to read letters coming in for President Obama. He also blogs about civic engagement on the Huffington Post.
He rejects the notion that his peers are disengaged from politics. “This is the generation where revolution begins with a tweet,” he said.
“When I got that letter, I had wanted to go to Stanford to study poverty,” Hill said. “But on my gap year, I actually saw and felt poverty in the favelas of Rio. In the townships of Cape Town. In the ’hoods of Atlanta.
“Sometimes, we need to stop reading and start reaching.”
Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum