When I got into my dream school, the University of California at Berkeley, I struggled. I vividly remember the day I walked out of my first final examination. It was a calculus class that had given me trouble all semester. I walked back to my apartment and threw myself onto my bed in tears, believing that I was a total failure and a mistake.
After all, I was admitted to UC Berkeley with an SAT score of less than 1100. I knew that based off of test scores and my GPA alone, I never would have been accepted.
But some admissions officer had considered my application as a whole and had seen beyond that score.
Someone saw and understood that perhaps my low SAT scores were due to a lack of preparation to take this test, due to the fact that I had stepped onto my preschool’s playground without speaking a word of English, that I was raised in a single-parent home, that my parents were refugees to this country and that I had navigated myself through school.
Someone recognized that I attended a public high school that was rich in diversity, with Latino, African-American and Asian-American students, but that consistently had the second-lowest Academic Performance Index score in our school district. Through my personal statement, someone applying Berkeley’s policy to review applications comprehensively also recognized the diversity I offered through my life struggles and the resilience that comes from overcoming them. These intangibles cannot be measured through a test score.
Some admissions officer had considered my application as a whole and had seen beyond my low SAT score.
I was born and raised in low-income neighborhoods my entire life. Growing up as the child of refugees from Vietnam, I watched my dad work menial labor jobs, observed the tired lines deepen on his face and learned from his unrelenting strength to do whatever it took for my family to survive. I stood in free lunch lines when other refugee and immigrant kids refused this marginalization and would rather forgo lunch than be ashamed and bullied because of our poverty. I watched my cousin struggle in high school — joining gangs and dropping out of school when he didn’t get the support he needed at school or home.
What the SAT score represented more than anything else was my family’s socioeconomic status. The systemic barriers I faced in getting into college are not just part of my story, but the story of the larger Southeast Asian-American community — those who came to this country as refugees or the children of refugees, like myself, from the countries of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam after U.S. occupation in our home countries.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, while 11 percent of American families live in poverty, this percentage is higher in Southeast Asian-American communities, with 18 percent of Cambodian, 12 percent of Laotian, 27 percent of Hmong and 13 percent of Vietnamese-American families living in poverty.
And these statistics also correlate with stark education attainment challenges: More than 50 percent of Vietnamese-Americans and over 60 percent of Cambodian, Laotian and Hmong Americans, lack a bachelor’s degree.
My acceptance into UC Berkeley allowed me to be an exception and not the norm for my community.
In college, I became a student of the civil rights movement and was inspired by the lessons of civil disobedience, community organizing and advocacy to fight for racial and social justice. I found my political and historical identity, understanding my roots as a refugee. I discovered that my existence in America was due to the passage of the 1980 Refugee Act, which allowed my parents to be resettled in America as survivors of the Vietnam War. I learned my community’s role as inheritors and beneficiaries of the civil rights movement; in fact, the 1980 Refugee Act was made possible due to America’s changes during this important era for social justice. The expansion of social and immigration policies during this time period allows me to call this country my home.
I found my calling and responsibility to pay forward what was given to me — a college experience that so many others deserved — by dedicating myself to community service and bringing love and voice to neglected refugee and immigrant communities. Our invisible communities fly under the radars of too many policymakers who make decisions every day, unaware of the poverty, challenges and injustices that our families continue to face.
That first semester at UC Berkeley, I ended up passing my calculus course and just missed being put on academic probation. That teary-eyed girl didn’t know it then, but she’d go on to persevere — making the dean’s list in the spring semester that she graduated with a GPA of 4.0. She’d become the first in her family to graduate with a college degree.
Thirteen years after obtaining my degree, I reflect on how my parents risked their lives as boat people fleeing Vietnam so I could be free. I honor them by continuing their journey for freedom, by committing myself to ensuring that the voices of immigrants and refugees grow stronger and stronger every day.
Today, I am the executive director of a national advocacy organization that works to support policies like affirmative action, which understands that test scores alone are just one indicator of college readiness. While Berkeley’s holistic review process does not consider race, it still gave me the opportunity of a lifetime by recognizing that a student’s ability to overcome socioeconomic challenges contributes to his or her ability to succeed in higher education and enrich the learning experience of all students. Policies like holistic review and affirmative action are also critical to achieving racial and social justice for entire communities, and not just a way to achieve individual success.
Affirmative action and race-conscious policies have come under attack from the highest offices. The Trump administration announced the elimination of guidance previously issued to K-12 schools and universities — guidance that sought to promote diversity and reduce isolation by permitting race to be used as a factor in a variety of ways. Additionally, the president’s Supreme Court nominee can play a key role in supporting or rolling back current rulings that uphold crucial race-conscious admissions policies.
The Trump administration’s attacks on affirmative action and insistence on policies that reduce students to mere numbers rob our education system of the rich diversity that is America’s reality and the reality of an increasingly global world.
So-called 'merit-based policies' that consider test scores alone would have denied me the opportunity to be the first in our families and communities to graduate with college degrees.
The Trump administration’s insistence on race-blind policies today plagues Harvard University as it fights a Supreme Court case to protect its right to maintain its practice of holistic review.
So-called “merit-based policies” that consider test scores alone would have denied me, and so many others like me, the opportunity to be the first in our families and communities to graduate with college degrees.
My college experience changed my life journey with the opportunity to be seen for my full potential. My educational attainment should be the norm and not the exception for my community.
Today, I am married, and my husband and I are starting conversations about growing our own family. When I think of potential children, I think of my hope for them to attend great public schools full of racial and socioeconomic diversity. I imagine what their college paths will look like, and am assured that they will be fine no matter what school they attend, with two highly educated parents.
Rather, what matters to me is not what school they attend, but the knowledge that they have been reviewed in a holistic manner, enabling them to honor their grandparents’ quest for freedom and pay it forward — to family, community and country.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this column indicated that UC Berkeley has an affirmative action policy. With the introduction of Prop 209 in California in 1996, California public universities could no longer use race as a criterion for admissions. Instead, the school now uses a holistic review policy, which considers 14 factors, many of which are beyond test scores alone. Although the author is grateful that such a policy gave her the opportunity to attend her dream school, she is disappointed that the lack of a specific race-conscious policy has led to sharp declines in the enrollment of black and Latinx students in the UC school system.
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