When I was eleven, I put up a sign I’d made on the window above my desk in my bedroom: I will go to Harvard.
Seven years, it was the everything I woke up to, went to bed to…my little, big, secret dream.
You might ask, why.
Even at this age, I just wanted a better life. I wanted to be happy and free, independent and successful. I wanted my life to amount to something; do more, make it matter. I wanted to be someone, do something extraordinary—and along the way, quite possibly, even have it all.
You know what I mean. Because here in America, this is what we do: we dream, work our butts off, and with a helping hand and a dash of luck, we can make big things happen.
So when students around the world apply to colleges each year, many set their sights high, on the Ivy League. It’s not very complicated: if you can secure the best, then, life could be better, easier. And if you could, why wouldn’t you? I surely did.
But when I applied to Harvard College over a decade ago, I did a few things differently. I didn’t hire a college consultant to advise me through high school, I didn’t pay anyone to help me fill out my applications…I also checked, “Asian” where it asked for my racial classification.
If you’re an Ivy League applicant in 2017—particularly an Asian one—you likely have your college admissions professional on speed-dial and aren’t so guileless as I had been. You mustn’t be.
Princeton University’s admissions files recently revealed comments officers made about race in students’ applications. Had I known I could have been dinged for potentially having a “very familiar profile,” I would have approached the entire process quite differently; I wouldn’t have taken any chances.
Because to me, Harvard represented the opportunity of a lifetime and the chance to surpass limits my parents encountered. They achieved the American Dream, but my life could be even more than this—I could actually make an impact, be a blessing to others, and I wanted this for my life more than anything.
Yet when I applied, the stars aligned—I wasn’t the standard “bright premed.” Among things like being a multi-sport varsity athlete, I was the kid who started her own venture at nine, the teen who built, from nothing, the most popular club on campus, and the activist who ran for president obsessively over a ten-year span. Fortunately, I was rewarded for this…but had I enjoyed playing the violin, loved competing in science or math, wanted to be a doctor…I’m not sure Harvard would have wanted me.
That Asians applying now think twice before selecting a major, consider long and hard about essay responses to avoid typical immigrant narratives, even hesitate at identifying their race…is unsettling. An Asian applicant today is asking, “Does being Asian hurt my chances of getting in?” “Will I be penalized for being Asian?”
When we see evidence from Princeton that Asians have to score ridiculously higher than applicants from any other race on the S.A.T. for a shot at the same opportunity or that Princeton admissions officers only mention Asian applicants’ “background as a positive” when they are a “neat blend,” or part Black or Hispanic, or that Asian profiles are often dismissed for being “…like many others” or “difficult to pluck out”—even as they are thoroughly impressive—what is this, in fact, doing?
Fueling fear and insecurity—dare I say, shame, as well among Asians—predicated on race.
It’s not that I don’t understand how pithy evaluations come into play, even to reference Asian stereotypes, such as the ones made at Princeton. After hundreds of applications, many profiles start to look alike, and only something special will get special attention. Even when I evaluated Harvard College applicants as an alumna interviewer, I noted the student who was excellent, but I raved about the one who was something else—there is a palpable difference.
But, it is a lot to ask—demand—from one particular racial group. It’s not just that the standard is not the same across all races, it’s that for certain Asians, the bar is already set higher, harder; they must sacrifice more, doubt their worthiness, and jump through hoops for the same opportunity…lest their profiles risk being “very familiar.”
I deeply believe diversity enriches us; it’s partially what made my college experience richer. But there’s no denying that there is something very un-American taking place when race could hinder someone’s opportunity in our institutions. It hasn’t been unequivocally proven Asian quotas exist, but, much convincing data point to such a phenomenon.
Is this the message higher education in America wishes to send out? Do we want the Ivy League and their peer institutions to be perceived as participating in provincial practices concerned around immutable factors such as a persons’s last name, skin color, or heritage?
Ivy League gatekeepers insist race is used as “one piece in a broader picture of applicants,” but plenty are simply not buying it.
We could actually make the process fair by making it less about race, for a start. Even if it continues to play some role in the name of diversity, it could be reined in, dialed back; then, we might actually see something fairer take place: more of the most qualified students in the pool getting in.
As for Asian students, brace yourselves for the fight of your youth. For until things materially change, do whatever it takes to make an impact, be a force. It’s the one thing within your control…and if you’re savvy enough and start early, you can even engineer the outcome you’re after.
Universities, especially the Ivy League, have the power to alter the destiny of America. We are at a crossroads where more than college rejections are at stake—fundamental, vital principals and ideals for people across the globe are on the line. When one thinks of higher education in America, envisions the Ivy League, what is the impression that will be projected upon the world?
Hopefully, it’ll be similar to the one I had: faith in a place I lionized that had the ability to give me a fair shot. This, with opportunity.
As the country’s most powerful engine of upward mobility, universities and the Ivy League have the duty to use their influence responsibly—the future of America, its prosperity, depend on it.
The signals that go out from these ivory towers have far-reaching consequences. It alters inner and interpersonal conversations our youth have: should I check American Indian not White, fill in Black over all other options, leave the Asian box blank?
The more this consumes students’ psyche, the more this anchors candidates’ admission strategies, the greater the role the Ivy League plays in drawing distinctions among individuals based on race. So long as any group feels targeted, no one can feel secure. Even in America.
And so, we do what we can to expect more. In America, we fight for meritocracy. Here in America, we welcome people and lives, not races or nationalities.
Because here in America, you could be an 11-year old with a Korean surname “Kim,” with parents who picked up English along the way once they got here, and grow up believing you can do something deeply meaningful with your life. And if you were willing to sacrifice and persevere, then one day, seven years later, you could actually access a new, different world that could serve as a powerful launch pad.
This is the America we know, value, believe in, and live for each day. It is the America the Ivy League can choose to encourage and defend, and it is also the America for which we must keep fighting.