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One on One: William Fitzsimmons

William Fitzsimmons, Photo by Jill Anderson

Although most teachers would be thrilled to write a recommendation letter for a bright student interested in an Ivy League college like Harvard, the first two nuns William Fitzsimmons, Ed.M.'69, Ed.D.'71, asked at Archbishop Williams High School in Braintree, Mass., flat out said no. At a place like Harvard, full of communists, atheists, and rich kids, the young Fitzsimmons, son of a gas station and convenience store owner, would surely lose his soul. Fitzsimmons kept trying and eventually found a few nuns who agreed to write letters, landing him a spot in the Harvard College class of 1967. Now, as dean of admissions at the college, Fitzsimmons makes Harvard possible for other young people, including thousands from working-class backgrounds similar to his. As former Harvard president Derek Bok once said of Fitz, as he's known, "Bill is changing people's perceptions of what it takes to come here. There's such an impression that Harvard is a really elite school full of nerdy people from wealthy families who went to prep schools. The great triumph is when you find someone in an unlikely place who, against all odds, achieved something."

How are you changing perceptions? Since 2007 alone, Harvard's annual investment in financial aid has climbed more than 70 percent from $96.6 million to $166 million, significantly out-pacing increases in tuition. More than 60 percent of Harvard students now receive financial aid; the average grant is $40,000.

But personally you've also changed stereotypes by telling your story. Why has this helped? People really relate to individual stories. It's refreshing for them to know that Harvard isn't something you're born to. It's something available to everyone.

Is the family gas station still open? The gas station is inactive now, but the store is going strong in Weymouth. We had a fantastic experience and met many great people.

Do you remember any of them? There was Big Sabe from rural Maine, right on the Canadian border. He came down to work on the railroads. We sometimes called him Baltimore Sabe because he liked the Baltimore Colts. We had a guy named Squid who had spent a lot of time as a sailor. We had a deep sea diver and a guy named Pete who drove a highly combustible gas tank. Jerry trained horses at the fairgrounds next door. There were firefighters and police officers, politicians, and a number of people who worked at the local shipyard.

What did you learn from these regulars? It was an incredible education for a kid — for anyone, really. I was able to get to know a real cross section of the American population. We had lecture night at the store, which was one of those old-fashioned places where you really got to know people in almost any profession you could think of. It was also a way to learn about social class and the fabric of America.

How did this affect you at Harvard? This experience was incredibly useful going to Harvard, where I got to see more broadly what I saw at the granular level at the store. It also really showed me the importance of education, especially when people gave me advice about missed opportunities. But it also convinced me that in our credential-oriented world, we often miss the fact that there are many people out there who didn't get to go to college who are educated in so many other ways. It's still very much alive in my mind.

Did you really decide to apply to Harvard after reading about the college in an encyclopedia when you were in middle school? My parents' World Book Encyclopedia had a picture of Harvard and a description of it that made it sound very enticing, mostly for its vast resources and its national and international faculty and students. Although Harvard was only 20 miles away, I never visited until my senior year in high school, in part because Harvard seemed so exclusive. Visiting this parallel universe quickly dispelled my misconceptions — as is the case today for our first-time visitors.

True or false: You discovered the Ed School after finding a catalog in an office you were cleaning when you were an undergraduate. This is absolutely true. I came across the catalog in the Thayer Hall dorm crew office I cleaned. At that time, I was interested in various possibilities — teaching, research, college guidance counseling, public school administration, and international opportunities. Taking courses at the Ed School while a Harvard undergraduate kept me interested in all of the above.

You've been in Harvard's admissions office since 1972. What one piece of advice would you give to readers thinking of going into the admissions field? By all means, do it! George Goethals [his undergraduate mentor] encouraged me by his warning: "It's such a captivating profession. You'll come to know the world and human nature in a unique way by visiting schools and communities in your recruiting; talking with educators, parents, and policymakers; hearing thousands of life stories each year as you read applications and take part in admission committee deliberations, and then following the students you admitted throughout their college years and beyond. You can make a difference in students' lives and help ensure that good people have access to the resources of a great university in a way that benefits the world. The only problem is that it's so captivating that you may blink and wake up 30 years later wondering where the time went so quickly."

Was he right? He was wrong — it will be 40 years this coming July.