Sumi Onoe, Idyllwild Arts Academy graduating senior, is one of only 10 percent of applying freshmen admitted to Swarthmore College. Photo by Marshall Smith
There is a shared anxiety for high school seniors as they wait to hear whether they’re been admitted to the college or colleges of their choice.

There is a once-in-a-lifetime moment when they receive their first acceptance. And for a few, there is the added thrill when that acceptance comes from their first choice.

Idyllwild Arts Academy senior Sumi Onoe received early acceptance from her first choice, Swarthmore College. Swarthmore admitted only 10 percent of applying freshmen this year and has long been known as one of the most prestigious and demanding liberal arts colleges in the United States.

Although a music major at an arts academy, trained in classical and jazz piano, and jazz guitar, Sumi chose to attend a liberal arts college known for its broad-based curricula and rigorous academic standards rather than follow a music conservatory or arts-centered university program.

Her choice highlights a common misperception about the IAA curriculum. Although admitted based on demonstrated ability in one or several arts disciplines, IAA students must also excel in strict academic curricula. If accepted to arts programs at major universities, IAA students also must qualify academically in order to be admitted.

IAA academic classes occupy students’ mornings and arts classes their afternoons. If they are performers, evenings often involve rehearsals. If they are visual artists, students spend their evenings in studios, working on their art. It is not unusual for a typical IAA school day to begin with classes at 8:30 a.m. and conclude with rehearsals finishing before a 10 p.m. in-dorm curfew.

What makes Sumi’s Swarthmore choice even more extraordinary is that when she came to IAA from Japan, her conversational English was rudimentary. “I had studied English grammar in Japan beginning in first grade, but there was not much training in conversation.” Sumi related that her parents had at first wanted her to come to the U.S. to study English for a year. Since she had studied classical piano from the age of 6 and guitar from the age of 14, Sumi told her parents she would prefer to study at a U.S. school that had a strong music program. She started at IAA in jazz guitar, then began studying classical piano with faculty member Dr. Jeanette Louise Yaryan. One year at IAA turned into three.

Sumi is finishing her senior year with a flourish. Not only was she a key part of the winning Idyllwild Arts septet at the Berklee High School Jazz Festival, she also received a coveted acknowledgement for Outstanding Musicianship at the festival, one of two top individual awards.

She played George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with full orchestra, exhibiting strength, style and elegance at the recent Black History Concert at the academy’s new William M. Lowman Concert Hall.

Sumi is modest, graceful and articulate. “I’m interested in engineering,” she said. “I’ve always liked math and science. And the school [Swarthmore], founded by Quakers, has Quaker values of community and equality.”

Sumi related that after visiting the school last summer, she felt an immediate connection when she saw Swarthmore’s outdoor amphitheater, which looked very much like the one on the IAA campus. “All the concerts on campus are free, just as they are at Idyllwild Arts.”

Sumi noted that in their freshman year, students are graded “pass/fail,” allowing them to try a variety of courses to better choose areas of concentration. “They do have a music program and great practice rooms with Steinway pianos,” she said. “Also, you can audition for the music faculty to help find and pay for private teachers in New York City or elsewhere. I’m hoping to do a double major incorporating music and something else,” she said. “That’s really possible at Swarthmore.”

Sumi had also applied to Stanford, Northwestern, University of Michigan and Carnegie Mellon University but committed early to Swarthmore, her first choice. She is graduating from IAA with a 4.19 GPA.