By Steffie Drucker and Josh Kalamotousakis
Steffie Drucker is a senior at Niles North and Josh Kalamotousakis is a senior at Kennedy. They are student reporters for The Mash, a weekly teen publication distributed to Chicagoland high schools.
The college process is filled with questions. First, students must ask themselves what type of school they want to attend and narrow down schools to only a short list of places to apply. The process can be confusing enough since schools ask for different essays, transcripts or letters of recommendation. Unfortunately, there’s one question students are asked that should be simple to answer but isn’t always: to identify their race and ethnicity.
For some students, identifying themselves is hard because they don’t fit into a single box. And they’re not alone --according to 2010 census data, more than 9 million people in the U.S. identify themselves as being two or more races, up from about 6.8 million in 2000.
Matthew Ibrahim, a senior at Niles North who considers himself Assyrian because his family’s roots are in the Middle East, falls into this category.
“I don’t feel like I fit into a box,” he says. Ibrahim usually checks white since that’s his skin color or Asian since the Middle East is technically in Asia. But, he says, “It makes me feel dishonest.”
Though there’s an option to identify himself as “other,” Ibrahim never chooses that box. “I feel like it’s a slam against myself, like saying, ‘I don’t know what I am, so you can guess,’ ” he says. “It feeds the notion that Assyrians don’t exist and don’t need their own box.”
While some students feel there’s no box that accurately describes how they identify themselves, others say they have too many boxes that might identify them and don’t know which one to pick. On many college applications, there isn’t a box that says “multicultural,” leaving students to feel like they have to take sides to fit a narrow definition of who they really are.
Sally Rubenstone, a former college admissions officer, author of “Panicked Parents Guide to College Admissions” and a senior advisor at the college process advice site collegeconfidential.com, sympathizes with multiracial students who say they’re torn between checking different boxes. “Kids are becoming more and more mixed,” she says. “Not everyone identifies with one race or another.”
Kennedy senior John Gonzalez, who identifies himself as Mexican and white, feels that being multiracial is to his advantage since each race has its perks. “I know that if I put down Mexican, I’ll have a better chance getting into some schools than if I would say I’m (only) white.”
Rubenstone does believe that being multiracial has its advantages -- though not for the same reason as Gonzalez. “Colleges like (the diversity brought by mixed race and ethnicity students) because they can get a Puerto Rican kid and a Greek kid in one student,” she says. “It makes the student (body) a bit more interesting.”
While being multiracial or multicultural can lend itself to a broader perspective of the world around a student, it sometimes can also be associated with negative stereotypes that make students feel like they have less options instead of more.
Naperville Central senior Gabriel Carrier says his situation is complicated by stereotypes associated with one of his “halves.” Part French and part Chinese, Carrier is applying to mainly Ivy League schools and has felt the pressure more than others because he’s part Asian. Though he identified on applications as Asian for his “safety schools,” for more rigorous universities he has been identifying as Caucasian since he believes there are “slightly lower expectations across the board” for Caucasians.
Rubenstone agrees. “There is discrimination against Asians -- particularly Koreans, Indians and Chinese,” she says. “Ivy League colleges could fill a whole class with qualified Asian students ... but colleges want to maintain diversity.”
Rather than choosing not to identify his race or choosing “other,” Carrier leans toward marking Caucasian on his applications, but Rubenstone warns against this because it’s not always a foolproof method for highlighting the side you want to show.
“Admissions folks can usually sniff out who (is Asian) based on their name, their parents’ names or where their parents went to school,” she says. “When a student is clearly Asian based on other information in the application and yet the student has skipped the race question, perhaps on a subliminal level the admissions person is thinking, ‘This person isn’t proud of who they are.’ It can make them seem a tad duplicitous.”
Carrier, whose father went to college in Canada and whose mother didn’t attend college and uses her Chinese maiden name, says his parents told him to put down whatever race helped his chances. “I’m not technically lying to colleges,” he says of checking off the Caucasian box. “That’s just the side I want to present more.”
No matter a student’s situation, identifying oneself is ultimately up to the individual. “I’m still a believer in ‘honesty is the best policy,’ ” Rubenstone says. “I’m a big believer in kids being who they are. When it comes to one’s racial or ethnic background, you should pick the group that you honestly feel you belong to.”
Editor's note: An earlier version incorrectly stated that author Steffie Drucker was a junior in high school, when she is a senior. The story has been updated.