The day Rachel Merrill found out she’d be transferring to Yale University was the same day she graduated from Metropolitan Community College.
That evening in May she, her mom and her younger sister were headed to MCC commencement when they had to pull over in a parking lot on Vivion Road. Merrill needed Wi-Fi so she could check her email — Yale had told her to expect a decision by the next day.
And there it was: a message to the woman who started college in her 30s, telling her she had been accepted by one of the eight top-tier private schools that make up the Ivy League. Yale University: third-oldest institution of higher education in the entire country.
“The rest of the ride to graduation,” she remembers, “my mom kept saying, ‘My daughter got into Yale!’ ”
Even Merrill herself found it hard to believe, then and later. But by July, her transition from former church secretary and MCC-Maple Woods math tutor to Yale mathematics major was starting to feel real. By mid-August, she would be moving from small-town Pleasant Valley in the Northland to New Haven, Connecticut, attending new-student orientation and settling in among the elite and the ivy.
Oh, and did we mention that Yale offered her not only full tuition but also a housing stipend and a meal plan?
Finishing up her associate in arts degree at MCC, the 4.0 student had applied to six schools, three in Missouri. Yale was her “reach school” — getting accepted, in other words, would be a reach. She was, after all, a nontraditional student from a community college in flyover country.
“I didn’t think they’d want me, but they do,” she says. “I’m going to get to study mathematics with some of the most respected professors in the entire world.”
Trig, ‘the most fun class’ ever
Merrill always thought she hated math. Turned out she loves it, but she wouldn’t find that out until she got to MCC.
She was homeschooled as a kid and obviously bright, but college was not a given.
“First of all, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do.” And money was a concern. Her mother, Rebecca, was a single mom with health problems, and Rachel wanted to contribute to the family’s income. Plus, she didn’t know about all the college financial aid available.
So she worked. As a church secretary. In retail, including a seven-year stint at a Payless ShoeSource.
She learned she was good “at training people and teaching them things.” She also learned that promotions and jobs seemed to go to people with college degrees.
So, after turning 30 in 2015, she enrolled that fall in online classes at MCC. Her plan was to become a teacher.
One of those online classes that first semester was English 101. Her instructor, Theresa Hannon, would later be one of the people who wrote recommendation letters to Yale.
Taking MCC’s college algebra course online, she got an A on her first test. But . . . she hated math. Right?
She impressed instructor Terry Hobbs so much, he recommended her for a job at the campus Learning Center without ever meeting her in person. Merrill would work as a math tutor there and sometimes as a writing tutor, too.
She would also become an embedded tutor, aka supplemental instruction leader, helping fellow students in math classes and holding study sessions outside of class. During semesters when there wasn’t enough funding for embedded tutors, Merrill would still conduct study sessions “because students just loved working with her that much,” Learning Center supervisor Lori Elliott says.
Her second semester of embedded tutoring, she was assigned to a section of intermediate algebra taught by Andrea Vorwark, where one day a conversation like this went down:
Vorwark: “What are you thinking about majoring in?”
Merrill: “Elementary education.”
Vorwark: “No, you don’t. You’re gonna go into engineering or math.”
Over that semester as an embedded tutor, Merrill says, she and Vorwark talked a lot and got to know each other.
“Rachel was an excellent math student, but everything she does is her best work,” Vorwark says.
“She knows a bit of hardship, and knows what it is to sacrifice,” Vorwark adds. “Life taught her things I never could. This story is about her determination and trying to see what she is capable of.”
By teaching others, Merrill discovered she knew more than she thought she did. And the woman who hated math “kinda fell in love with it.” The evidence:
Trigonometry, her first in-person course at MCC, was “the most fun class I ever took in my life.”
Calculus I, II and III, all taught by Vorwark: “I had a blast in those classes. It was hard but it was amazing.”
During summers, if she wasn’t enrolled, “she would be going through the math book for her next semester’s class,” previewing and pre-studying, Elliott says.
By the time Merrill graduated from MCC, she had taken just five in-person classes, four of them math. Online classes allowed her to hold down jobs during most people’s waking hours. She, meanwhile, would be solving math equations at 2 a.m.
“We grow our own math instructors here at Maple Woods,” Elliott says. “We have three full-time faculty now who were tutors in the math lab at different points.”
‘You should look at the Ivy League’
“If I had not gone to work in the math tutoring lab, I don’t know that any of this would have happened the way that it did,” Merrill says, ticking off all the things that added up to her acceptance to Yale.
Her mentor Andrea Vorwark is on that list. Her change in degree plan. Her growing confidence in herself.
And then there’s Phi Theta Kappa, the international academic honor society for students at two-year colleges.
Merrill was inducted into the PTK chapter at Maple Woods in the fall of 2016. The following spring, she was elected secretary, which meant she had to attend every meeting to take notes. She would go on to be elected officer of fellowship, in charge of “planning the fun stuff” like pizza parties and trips to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
In the spring of 2018, she was elected chapter president, a role she served until she graduated. Among her accomplishments: helping open a food pantry on campus.
She was named to the All-Missouri Academic Team, sponsored by PTK and Missouri Community College Association, last spring.
Merrill can’t say enough about all the opportunities Phi Theta Kappa presents. Making friends. Public speaking. Learning leadership. “I’d never seen myself as a leader before.”
And she got to attend the international PTK convention last year, which happened to be held in . . . Kansas City.
Chatting with a rep from the University of Pennsylvania at a four-year college fair there, she was told, “You’re a nontraditional student — you should look at the Ivy League schools.” Like Penn.
Merrill was taken aback. “The Ivys aren’t going to want me,” she remembers thinking. “I’m a 32-year-old community college student from Missouri.”
She was already planning on transferring to a four-year school to get a math degree. As for where, she knew it needed to be “inexpensive to free” — she’d require financial assistance. She did not want to take out student loans.
After the convention, with her mom’s encouragement, she did some research. PTK has an online scholarship finder, but it’s not just for students looking for money. Schools looking for students use it, too.
Which explains why last fall Merrill got an email from Yale encouraging her to apply for the Eli Whitney Students Program for “nontraditional students with exceptional backgrounds and aspirations.” Just a handful of students, between five and 15, are admitted each year.
After submitting three short-answer essays, two full-length essays and other material she learned she’d made the second round. Then came two interviews by Skype.
Her Yale orientation starts Aug. 21.
Before that commencement day email, friends and faculty thought she was headed to Mount Holyoke College, a private women’s liberal arts school in Massachusetts.
Still, Elliott says the Yale acceptance wasn’t surprising. Among the Learning Center staff and others at Maple Woods, “there’s definitely pride and we’re just really happy for her. I feel like everybody who worked with her felt like she deserved it.”
As a nontraditional student Merrill will live off campus, but she’ll be attached to a residential college at Yale that’s next door to the largest of the university’s seven libraries. For someone whose No. 1 hobby is reading and who worked at Mid-Continent Public Library’s Woodneath branch near Liberty, this is cool stuff. Seven libraries!
She has already taken virtual tours of campus and heard from faculty members and others at Yale. Completing her degree there will take about four years (Yale doesn’t accept online course credits), and she’s already contemplating graduate school. She may one day become a math professor.
“I’m over the moon excited for her,” her MCC calculus instructor Vorwark says. “But I am also excited for every student who gets their first-choice school.” She sees it happen for many “top-notch” MCC students, even if most don’t move on to the Ivy League.
As Merrill embarks on this epic academic adventure, she has a message for other community college students who just assume the Yales and Harvards and Stanfords are unreachable.
“They need to be looking at all the schools, because even if you think financially you can’t do it, you don’t know what kind of scholarships are out there,” she says.
“If you put in the time and the effort and get involved on campus, those schools want you.”
A fondness for trig can’t hurt, either.