When Kadean Jengelley, an 18-year-old aspiring jazz singer from Queens, was accepted at Berklee College of Music, she was ecstatic. She sent along her $1,000 deposit, even though she had yet to hear from Berklee about financial aid.
She finally did get her aid package, three days after the May 1 deadline for requesting a deposit refund — but it was only $5,500 in loans toward the nearly $69,000 annual cost, a little less than her family’s annual income.
She was crushed. She couldn’t afford her dream school and immediately asked for her deposit back.
But Berklee refused, even though she pointed out that the school had not gotten her aid package to her in time. All summer, the school remained resolute, insisting that she could not get her money back because she had missed the deadline.
But on Thursday, one day after I contacted the school with questions about Jengelley’s deposit, Berklee abruptly changed course, accepting blame and promising to refund her deposit.
In its e-mail to me, Berklee implied that the admissions department had never previously looked into the matter, even though Jengelley and one of her mentors say they pestered Berklee for the return of the $1,000 almost daily.
“Our admissions department has looked into this,” Nick Balkin, a Berklee spokesman, wrote in the e-mail. “It was a unique circumstance and a clerical error was made. We will refund her deposit. Thank you again for bringing this to our attention.”
Jengelley said she was stunned when she got a similar e-mail from Berklee a couple of hours later. “It has recently come to my attention that due to a clerical error you were not correctly refunded your tuition deposit,” Damien Bracken, dean of admissions, said in the e-mail.
There was no apology.
“I’m thrilled and grateful to get this resolved,” Jengelley said. “We called and e-mailed constantly and nothing happened. Then, suddenly, it’s, ‘Hey, we made a mistake.’ ”
“Berklee is this big institution and the people there just didn’t want to take the fall,” she said.
I asked the Berklee spokesman if any other prospective students have lost their deposits in a similar way. He did not answer the question. Nor did he respond when asked if Berklee would reconsider its aid package to the young singer.
For Jengelley, the promised refund brings to an end a trying period. She had dreamed of attending Berklee throughout high school.
“I was told they wrote the book on jazz theory at Berklee,” she said. “I wanted to go there because of how successful the people are coming out of there, and because I wanted to be challenged.”
Jengelley is no stranger to challenges. She lives with her grandmother, mother, and four younger brothers and sisters in a modest home in Queens, not far from JFK Airport. The public performance arts high school she attended, with its demanding college-preparatory curriculum and strict dress code, is in Harlem, about 15 miles away.
On most afternoons, after classes, Jengelley headed downtown to Epic Theatre Ensemble, an off-Broadway theater where she trained for the stage. Then she returned to Queens — a daily, three-hour trek on buses and trains. She spent most of that time studying.
“I have no worries about Kadean getting over Berklee, as much as she wanted to go there,” said Ron Russell, one of the founders of Epic and the mentor who peppered Berklee with calls and e-mails on Jengelley’s behalf. “She is an incredible talent and very driven.”
I clicked on the YouTube video of Jengelley singing “Four,” the jazz standard from the 1950s. Her rich voice and obvious dedication to her art certainly impressed me. More importantly, it impressed Berklee. Alumni of the school have won 275 Grammy awards (Quincy Jones, Branford Marsalis, John Mayer, and Esperanza Spalding, among them).
With the kind of confidence that sometimes comes with youth, Jengelley believed she would get enough financial aid from Berklee to make it work. The standardized financial aid process that all families seeking aid go through determined that her family could contribute a few thousand dollars at most, she said.
Besides Berklee, Jengelley applied to the New School in New York City. That school also accepted her and offered a financial aid package about five times as rich as Berklee’s. She ultimately decided it wasn’t a good fit for her, in part because of the cost.
The college admissions process has become increasingly standardized. Acceptance letters go out in March and April (for those who don’t apply for early admission) sometimes with financial aid award letters. For many high school students (and their parents) the financial aid award letter is as important as the acceptance letter.
Prospective students are urged to plunk down hefty deposits at colleges where they have been accepted to hold their seats until they make their final decision, which must occur by May 1. They usually e-mail requests for refunds by that date to the colleges they won’t attend.
It only makes sense for prospective students to have their financial aid packages well before making their choices on May 1. Otherwise, they really don’t know what they are choosing, at least not in terms of cost.
In the waning days of April, Jengelley and Russell barraged Berklee with calls asking for release of her financial aid package. When it failed to materialize by May 1, Jengelley could have withdrawn her deposit and given up her dream.
Instead, she followed her heart, convinced that Berklee would come through with enough aid to bring her to Boston.
It didn’t. It was a stinging disappointment for Jengelley, but she quickly started picking up the pieces. Within 24 hours, she requested the refund, some of which she now plans to use to pay for a new round of college applications for admission as early as the spring semester.
Like Russell, I have confidence that Jengelley will succeed, maybe even following in the footsteps of her hero, the legendary jazz singer Sarah Vaughan.
“I’m very motivated,” she told me, emphasizing her determination to become the first in her family to go to college. “I know I have a purpose in life and I want to make sure I fulfill it, first by going to college. Also, I want to set a good example for my younger brothers and sisters.”Sean P. Murphy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.