Saturday, June 25, 2016

In Defense of Affirmative Action - Unpacking #StayMadAbby and the Secrets of College Admission

I am not going to be citing statistics or studies or Supreme Court cases in this post because this blog is not a news source. This is my opinion, though I do believe that it is a compelling one. If you'd like to see hard facts supporting my opinion, the Internet is full of valuable resources.

I was accepted into two prestigious universities during my senior year of high school, one of which I ended up attending (the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California). The other institution was ranked higher on lists comparing national universities, and when the news broke of my acceptance - I'd like to add that I didn't intend for the news to spread so broadly and so quickly - I experienced a wide variety of reactions. There was support from friends and acquaintances who were just proud and excited for me. There was indifference from people who didn't know me or didn't care about such goings on. And there was vitriol. The vitriol was fueled by jealousy - people who weren't accepted to the same or similar universities (one friend said, "Oh, I guess they're just letting everyone in now") - as well as other tensions. As much as people would hate to admit it, that tension was sometimes racially driven. At an academically rigorous and competitive high school, many people were vying for the precious few spots at these top universities, and in their eyes, I had taken a spot that belonged to them (which, it should be noted, is not how college admission works). In their (rightful) disappointment, hurt, and anger at being rejected, they lashed out at me. Countless friends told me about classmates who'd said that I didn't deserve to get in and that, because the school was not my first choice, I was taking a spot from someone who really wanted it (again, not how college admission works - after I denied the offer of admission, it was invariably offered to someone else, perhaps even one of my own classmates who'd been deferred). When discussing a rejection with one of my close friends, they said: "well, we can't all be black, Jewish women." The statement was problematic on a number of levels. One, it assumes that being Jewish or being a woman is helpful in college admission, when in fact both of those attributes are somewhat detrimental in the process (more Jews and more women are applying to college every year; women are even starting to outnumber men in that pool, as far as I know). Two, it assumes that if you're lacking those attributes, it's a given that you will be rejected from your top choice school. And three - and most insidious, in my opinion - this statement assumes that the only reason I was accepted into that selective school was because of my race.

I tried to laugh it off and counter this person's moment of hurtful commentary, but they remained steadfast. They laughed, too, but did not say that they were kidding or retract the statement. They simply said something else to affirm it and moved on.

I was not accepted into my top choice colleges because I am black.

It is frowned upon, for some reason, to talk about one's own qualifications and achievements, but I'm going to do it. I had a good GPA in high school. I tested above the median at my school on the SAT (and the median score at my school is no joke). I participated in a lot of extracurricular activities and achieved leadership positions in many of them. I took foreign language for all four years and, in doing so, finished the entire Spanish curriculum. I got good recommendations and wrote good essays.

I wasn't the perfect candidate. I didn't play sports or write for the newspaper or work on the yearbook or take an AP science. But what made me a great candidate for these schools - aside from the academic proof that I could do all the work - was how different I was from the other applicants. My extracurricular activities were unusual--improv, slam poetry, peer counseling, admission work, and a random stint as a student council rep my senior year. My essays were funny and conversational and emotional - they sounded more like memoirs than a paper you'd turn in for an English class. I submitted a video supplement of my original songs to the other school I applied to, a school that didn't offer very many music classes, let alone a degree in popular music performance. And yes, also, I am black.

But again, I was not accepted because I am black. I was accepted because I'm different.

Racial diversity is a huge part of college admission. Colleges seek to slightly increase their percentages of minority students every year, and many universities are reaching out to minority communities in newer and better ways in order to do that. It is a beautiful thing, because while I am a racial minority in a position of economic privilege, there are many people with my skin color who are not in the same boat socioeconomically. Colleges at every level of selectivity offer a way up and out of bad situations. On still another positive note, the more people of color graduate from four-year universities, the more role models that young people of color will have. It will be a cycle of productivity, mobility, success--you get the picture.

But while racial diversity is a huge part of college admission, by far the biggest part of the process is experiential diversity. Colleges want people from all walks of life. What sets you apart? It might be your race. But it might be your socioeconomic status. It might be a death or a divorce in your youth that made you stronger when you overcame it. It might be that you published a novel or wrote a hit song or invented a machine that makes people's lives easier. More than likely, it will be a combination of all these things. Experiential diversity in all communities, especially academic communities, enriches the life experience of all involved. No matter how numerically qualified you are to attend a university, if there are a thousand versions of you out there vying for the same spots, there's a chance you won't get admitted. That's yet another thing you have to consider in this process. I was admitted because I was qualified, and because I was different, but also because I got lucky. This whole thing is a numbers game, people! At the end of the day, they only have a few seats to fill. You might have done great things, but it might be that there's just not enough space for you. In cases like that, I PROMISE that you will wind up at an equally great school. Seriously. I know this for a fact.

If you are academically qualified and experientially diverse, you will get in somewhere great. So chill on that front. If you got rejected, I promise it's not because you're white. It's because they didn't think you'd fit, or because they already had people like you in the class. Think about it this way: at the place you do end up going to school, you'll be one-of-a-kind! (Or at least just a few of a kind!)

Affirmative action is an evolving policy. It's clear that when under-qualified applicants are accepted and ultimately attend rigorous universities, they do poorly and/or drop out. But more than likely, when a student with grades or test scores below a university's median that winds up going there, there's a pretty good reason. They have proven that they are capable of overcoming obstacles. They have a kind of intelligence that isn't accurately measured with regular modes of testing. They have a hidden talent. They have untapped potential. And someone in that admission office saw it. Affirmative action forces a university to consider things outside of test scores and grades which, let's be honest, are a pretty antiquated way of determining how a student will fare in the "real world." I fully acknowledge that there is a need to standardize the way they evaluate academic ability, but I am thrilled that they are seeking more holistic and unconventional ways to do so, too.

I'm writing this because I'm still seeing articles about people going to court over being rejected from their dream school. I'm writing this because this year, when the Class of 2016 gets their college decisions, frustrated white students are going to lash out at students of color for their success. I'm writing this because I want you to know, whoever you are, that if you work hard and be your best self, things will work out for you. And I'm writing this because I'm proud of my achievements and I don't want there to be any confusion about why I do what I do. I do well. I stand out. And sometimes, I get lucky. I bet you will, too.

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