by Len Lear
Julie Zauzmer, who grew up in the Ambler area, is just 24 years old, but the Upper Dublin High School graduate has already accomplished more than most people twice her age. Julie, who graduated from Harvard University in 2013, is currently a reporter for the Washington Post.
But Julie has a buffet of other interests. For example, she started twisting balloons when she was about 8 years old, and she still works at kids’ parties during most of her weekends nowadays. (Her website is BalloonsByZippy.com.)
Julie also started a book drive for schools for Israel as her bat mitzvah project in 2003. She was able to collect more than 5,000 books over about one year, and she even helped to establish a library in a town in northern Israel called K’far Veradim. “The whole thing,” she said last week, “helped 12-year-old me grow up in all sorts of ways. I learned about everything from Israeli politics to the best way to get 2,000 pounds of books through the postal service.”
But Julie’s most impressive accomplishment has to be the book she wrote while at Harvard, “Conning Harvard: Adam Wheeler, the Con Artist Who Faked His Way into the Ivy League” (Lyons Press), which came out in September, 2012, and then in paperback a year later. Her book tells the story of Adam Wheeler, who transferred to Harvard in 2007 from Bowdoin College and was caught plagiarizing in 2009.
Julie was just finishing her freshman year when Wheeler was indicted on fraud charges in Massachusetts for the money he made through his academic fraud. Along with her friend and co-writer, Xi Yu, Julie covered the story for The Harvard Crimson from the moment news of his indictment broke. How on earth did she manage to find the time to research and write the book at the same time she was doing all of her course work? “That was really, really hard,” she told us.
According to the inside flap of the book, Adam Wheeler gained admission to Harvard through fraud. “While countless students dreaming of an Ivy League education compete honestly, Wheeler resorted to faking SAT scores, transcripts and letters of recommendation. And after he enrolled at Harvard, Wheeler plagiarized his classwork and bilked the university out of thousands of dollars in prizes and grants.
“But then he shot too far. He applied for nomination to the illustrious Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships, and that gamble finally exposed his academic fraud. Alerted that he was under suspicion, Wheeler fled Harvard but did not stop trying to scam universities. He filed more phony applications to top-tier schools until vigilant college administrators and eventually the police forced him off his computer and into court, thereby bringing to light his astonishing tangle of lies.”
What ever happened to Adam Wheeler? When Julie started writing the book, he had pleaded guilty and been sentenced to probation. “He was moving on with his life,” she said. “He had an apartment, a job, a volunteer role. I thought I was writing about one episode in his life, one that taught a lesson that I wanted to teach people (especially high schoolers) about cheating, while he moved past it. And then he violated his probation and ended up going to prison for a one-year sentence. Ending the book that way was very upsetting.”
Julie’s book earned rave notices. A review in the Washington Post said, “The startling revelations about Wheeler’s exploits accumulate so quickly in Julie Zauzmer’s ripping ‘Conning Harvard’ that at times this meticulously reported nonfiction narrative reads like a potboiler.”
Frank Abagnale, a legendary con man and author of “Catch Me if You Can,” wrote, “’Conning Harvard’ proves that what I did over 40 years ago is 4,000 times easier to do today due to technology. Technology breeds crime and makes replicating documents and falsifying paper child’s play. This, added with the fact that we live in an extremely unethical society that doesn’t teach ethics at home and doesn’t teach ethics at school because the teacher would be accused of teaching morality, has brought us today to a country full of Adam Wheelers. For those that are naive, a must read.”
In an address she gave at her Harvard graduation ceremony, Julie talked about the more important transitions than the ceremonial one at the end of a school year and about all the talents her classmates had honed at Harvard and hopefully would contribute to the wider world. (You can watch her address at www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZpUCAQ9g_8I)
Julie became a summer intern at the Washington Post in 2013; then, after a brief period at the Philadelphia Inquirer, she returned to the Post in January, 2014, as a local news reporter, mostly covering crime stories. In whatever spare time she can scare up, she is also “trying to publish a superhero novel for middle school girls. I don’t have a publisher for it yet, but I really love it.”
Julie comes from a family of super-achievers. Each of her parents and two siblings would make a good subject for a feature story like this one. How much influence did her parents and siblings have on all the success she has had?
“Oodles and oodles,” Julie replied. “I have the closest-knit family in the world, and I admire my two incredible siblings tremendously. Being Ben and Emily’s sister has completely shaped who I am.”
In response to a question about her ultimate professional goals, Julie declared, “I hope I’ll be a lifelong newspaper reporter, focused on telling ordinary Americans’ stories to readers who would not otherwise hear them … I’m ridiculously lucky. I’m a reporter. Every single day I get to call up living people or ring their doorbells and hear stories more interesting and important than I ever could have imagined.”
For more information about “Conning Harvard,” visit amazon.com or goodreads.com