Ethics is a funny word. Not ha-ha funny. Unknowable funny. One person’s abiding sense of ethics is another’s shortcut to a quick buck, perhaps, or to gaining an advantage at someone else’s expense.

Let’s consider the “shortcut-to-a-quick-buck” ethics question. If you found a lost wallet, would you be less, or more, inclined to try to find the owner if it had cash in it? As reported in the journal Science, a three-year study sought the answer by planting thousands of wallets—with and without cash—in hundreds of cities around the world. A higher percentage of people returned the cash wallets than returned the cashless wallets.

That’s encouraging news. Less encouraging on the ethics front is the widely reported college entrance scams, led by high-profile celebrities who got caught red-handed bribing their kids’ way into schools for which the students were not well-qualified, and presumably would not have been admitted on their own merits.

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One celebrity has expressed remorse, taking a plea deal. The other, remorseless celebrity is acting as if she and her husband did nothing wrong. Does that make the second celebrity unethical? Would she return a wallet with cash in it?

Would you? More to the point, given the financial wherewithal, would you pay off gatekeepers to spirit your child into a college that otherwise would not accept him or her based on the admission standards everyone else must abide by?

At the end of each school year, the local charity we host in memory of our son—Harrison Apar Field of Dreams Foundation—awards an academic scholarship to a high school senior whose well-rounded pursuit of excellence and affinity for writing echoes Harrison’s strengths.

Though born with a rare form of dwarfism, his 3-foot, 38-pound frame was the only thing small about him. In his 15 years, Harrison lived life large. We hold dear to the belief that when you lose a child, you gain the privilege of helping others in your child’s name.

As part of the Harrison Apar award’s application process, we ask candidates to write an essay to assess critical thinking skills.

This year’s essay assignment posited this hypothetical premise: “You are in your second semester as a freshman at your first-choice college. You are grateful to be there, especially because your college entrance exam scores and grade point average (GPA) were lower than the school’s standards. You inadvertently discover that your parents pulled strings to get you admitted to the school (including “donations” to key decision-makers). It turns out you would not have been accepted without your parents’ intervention. Using first-person voice as this fictional person, share your thoughts about your parents’ behavior and what you would do in that situation.”

The 2019 recipient of our award, Katelyn Baker, was editor-in-chief of the school’s literary magazine, and is described by one of her teachers as “a young woman who loves literature and language and is willing to work hard to improve her craft.” We agreed. She is headed to The New School in the fall to study journalism.

Here are excerpts from her essay…

‘You don’t belong here’

By Katelyn Baker

It is often insisted that there are things “too good to be true.”

An acceptance to Columbia University was such; my innate shock at admittance was only rivaled by my disdain at the grades I’d applied with. The SAT was a familiar foe, with math questions left blank and pencils worn down to nothing; I’d finish and await the disappointment of a dismal result and parental disapproval.

They worshipped the school like a deity, both proud alumni who had drilled into my head the value of educational “prestige.” I knew I was to work hard and relentlessly “achieve” until an Ivy opened its doors. My issue was execution, my final marks falling short of the book-smart genes my parents had “promised” me.

With each year passing, Columbia loomed.

No one could deny I adored it; on my first tour, my mother traced a vivid image of herself in every corner and classroom, and I felt that well of pride at the mere idea of following in her footsteps.

The day I received my letter, I danced around my kitchen singing praises to the universe for giving me a chance I didn’t think I was capable of earning. That night at dinner, I declared with unbridled confident that I had “done the impossible!”

With my second semester, I’d be proven wrong.

Called down to the Dean, I stepped out of my life and into something unimaginable. On his desk, a newspaper displayed my father’s face, the symbol of a series of college admission scandals. I felt sick; the words of my professors and peers blended into one static hum of “You don’t really belong here.” I suppose I knew I never did.

Columbia’s “name” kept me interested, but my ability to handle my classes was dismal.

In retrospect, I should’ve guessed. My parents’ ever suspicious “donations” to influential administrators seemed harmless at the time, but their ulterior motive was easily uncovered by a few cracks in its calculated foundation.

I had spent years in a fabricated infatuation that my parents created, where a college’s value was sealed in its reputation.

I unenrolled and began a search that was my own. The shame I felt at falsified acceptance was quickly outweighed by relief. I no longer felt the pressure to perform in classes that didn’t suit my strengths.

I decided to pursue my passion and now attend a not-so-Ivy art school in New York City.

One day I’ll be able to forgive, as my parents had good intentions, but going where I didn’t belong and taking that chance from someone who did belong was a weight too heavy to bear. University shouldn’t be a privilege only granted to those rich enough to attain it.

Today, I am happy, because I am somewhere that feels “too good to be true,” and know it belongs to me regardless.

Bruce “The Blog” Apar promotes local businesses, organizations, events and people through public relations agency APAR PR. He also is an actor, a community volunteer, and a contributor to several periodicals. Follow him as Bruce The Blog on social media. Reach him at bruce@aparpr.co or 914-275-6887.