Har­vard case brings to fore what truly shapes us

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - THERESA VAR­GAS theresa.var­gas@wash­post.com

Last week, a young African Amer­i­can woman took the stand in the Har­vard Univer­sity af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion case and spoke about the es­say she wrote for the ap­pli­ca­tion that ul­ti­mately helped her get into the elite in­sti­tu­tion.

The es­say de­tailed a piv­otal mo­ment in her life that oc­curred when she was 16 and at­tend­ing a Wash­ing­ton D.C. school.

“It dis­cussed how be­cause I was bul­lied, it made it very dif­fi­cult for me to learn self-love,” Har­vard sopho­more Madi­son Trice tes­ti­fied. “And then even­tu­ally I was told in my D.C. school by a friend of mine that I didn’t need to change my­self, and it kind of sparked this jour­ney to­ward self-love.”

“If you had been pro­hib­ited from iden­ti­fy­ing your race in your es­say, would this have af­fected your abil­ity to pre­sent your full self in your ap­pli­ca­tion?” she was asked. “Yes.” “How so?” “I think that the way that I was bul­lied was kind of in­ex­tri­ca­ble from my race,” she said. In­ex­tri­ca­ble from my race. Those four words strike at one of the main prob­lems with elim­i­nat­ing af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion at Har­vard or any ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tion, pub­lic or pri­vate. Forc­ing a univer­sity to be color blind would not just tie its hands when it comes to de­cid­ing which ap­pli­cants to ac­cept, it would also place a muz­zle on high­achiev­ing young peo­ple of color who hope to at­tend.

How can we ex­pect ap­pli­cants to share who they are and what has shaped them if we force them not to men­tion what peo­ple of­ten no­tice first about them? And if they are al­lowed to men­tion that, then how can the school truly

elim­i­nate race-con­scious ad­mis­sions?

The case — which saw clos­ing ar­gu­ments in a Bos­ton court­room on Fri­day — isn’t just about check­ing a box. Ed­ward Blum, the pres­i­dent of Stu­dents for Fair Ad­mis­sions, the or­ga­ni­za­tion that launched the suit on be­half of a group of Asian Amer­i­can stu­dents, has said: “The corner­stone mis­sion of this or­ga­ni­za­tion is to elim­i­nate the use of race and eth­nic­ity in col­lege ad­mis­sions. Pe­riod.”

But what would that look like in re­al­ity? How would that work when it comes to list­ing stu­dent ac­tiv­i­ties? Would ap­pli­cants not be al­lowed to men­tion they were pres­i­dent of the Latino stu­dent union, and if they did, would that be given no weight? If they wrote an es­say about grow­ing up as a black child adopted by an Asian fam­ily, ex­plain­ing how they were flu­ent in Chi­nese be­fore kinder­garten, would that have to be dis­re­garded?

Ear­lier this year, I re­quested a copy of my ap­pli­ca­tion from Stan­ford Univer­sity in the hopes of get­ting a glimpse at notes scrib­bled on it by the peo­ple who de­cided to ad­mit me.

I rec­og­nize that I likely ben­e­fited from af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion. I had a high GPA, but it was not the high­est pos­si­ble. I had a strong SAT score for my school, which was in a high­poverty, high-crime area, but it was not the per­fect 1600 that was com­mon at Stan­ford. The ap­pli­ca­tion I sub­mit­ted had the word “Sam­ple” stamped on the front of it. I was mor­ti­fied about that at the time and in­cluded a Post-it note apol­o­giz­ing and ex­plain­ing that it was the only ap­pli­ca­tion for the univer­sity in my guid­ance coun­selor’s of­fice. She hadn’t ex­pected any­one to ap­ply to any top-tier schools.

A copy of my ap­pli­ca­tion ar­rived a few weeks af­ter I put in the re­quest. To my dis­ap­point­ment, none of the pages con­tained notes or any­thing that could pro­vide in­sight into the in­ter­nal ad­mis­sions process. But the pages did show my hand­writ­ten an­swers to the ques­tions on the ap­pli­ca­tion. None asked di­rectly about race or eth­nic­ity, but my re­sponses re­vealed this: My Mex­i­can Amer­i­can roots were in­ex­tri­ca­ble from who I was at that mo­ment.

The first ques­tion asked me to ad­dress which ac­tiv­ity or in­ter­est was the most mean­ing­ful to me and why.

My an­swer: “‘Tu es­tas loca en la cabeza,’ my grand­mother told me even be­fore I was old enough to know what crazy was. I’m crazy for tak­ing on a po­si­tion in which sleep is a rar­ity and the stress level is high. I’m crazy for putting in 15-hour work days to catch an in­ter­view and con­vert it into news. I’m crazy for giv­ing the jour­nal­ism depart­ment ev­ery­thing I have. But, in truth, the depart­ment gave me more than I could ever give it.” (Ap­par­ently, my life hasn’t changed much since high school.)

I agree that it is not fair that some stu­dents who work hard and con­trib­ute to their com­mu­nity won’t get ac­cepted to ev­ery school to which they ap­ply. I sym­pa­thize with them and their par­ents. But it is also not fair that some stu­dents won’t get a chance to at­tend col­lege — any col­lege — be­cause of per­sis­tent so­ci­etal in­equities.

Af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion is not about dis­crim­i­na­tion. It is about al­low­ing col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties to gauge po­ten­tial when cir­cum­stances haven’t al­lowed a young per­son to reach their po­ten­tial yet. It’s about al­low­ing them to con­sider the en­tirety of an ap­pli­cant, in all their in­ex­tri­ca­ble qual­i­ties.

I spoke to Madi­son Trice sev­eral days af­ter she tes­ti­fied. The 19-year-old said when she grad­u­ates from Har­vard, she hopes to work for the For­eign Ser­vice and then set­tle down in the Dis­trict be­cause the city “played a re­ally im­por­tant role in who I am.”

By the time she was 16, per­sis­tent bul­ly­ing had changed how she in­ter­acted with peo­ple. She con­stantly apol­o­gized, to the point that she pref­aced ques­tions with the word “sorry.” She also spoke with a higher pitch than nor­mal in an ef­fort to sound friend­lier.

In her es­say, which I asked her to send me, she dis­cusses the se­mes­ter she spent at the School for Ethics and Global Lead­er­ship in North­west Wash­ing­ton. She de­scribes a night she and her class­mates spent un­der the Capi­tol, talk­ing about their past. From her es­say: “Af­ter we shared our sto­ries, there was si­lence save for a few whis­pered words, and one sen­tence that I haven’t for­got­ten: ‘I hope you know that you don’t have to change your­self.’ Those words were the be­gin­ning of a jour­ney to­ward find­ing my self­worth . . . . Now, I don’t change my voice. I sub­sti­tute more beau­ti­ful words for apolo­gies be­cause I won’t di­min­ish my­self. I’m pur­su­ing my dreams un­abashedly be­cause I be­lieve I de­serve them. Al­though my jour­ney to lov­ing my­self is one of the hard­est ones I’ve un­der­taken, I won’t look back.”

That is some­one we should want at a univer­sity where many of our lead­ers are shaped.

As for the 16-year-old girl who ut­tered the words of en­cour­age­ment that helped Trice re­al­ize her worth? She grew up in the D.C. area and is also African Amer­i­can. She, too, now at­tends Har­vard.

Theresa Var­gas


Har­vard stu­dent Madi­son Trice tes­ti­fied in the school’s case.

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