The Time I Did a Student a ‘Favor’ -- Then Undid It
It was 1991. The high school senior’s mother was weeping on the phone. She told me her daughter had not been accepted to UC San Diego. “It’s because she’s white,” the parent insisted. “If she were a minority, she would have gotten in. It’s not fair.”
I’d already warned the girl and her mother that the chances of getting in to UCSD were borderline at best. Her test scores were good, but not great. Yes, she was a varsity sports player; certainly, she had worked hard on student government projects. She had good grades in UC preparatory classes. But competition was as savage then as it is today. More likely, she would be accepted to another good school. And since the UC system had race-based admissions, it was possible that this mother was correct. A similar student who was an underrepresented minority might have been given more weight in the rankings.
Her mother took a breath. “You must not have children, or you would understand this pain.”
Ten years later, when my own non-minority daughter was applying to universities, I remembered those years. As a college liaison in an affluent, largely white suburban high school, I was always on the alert for any student who fit the profile of “underrepresented minority.”
The three categories were African American, Native American and Latino. I recall discovering a girl who was half-Apache and half-Mexican. I couldn’t believe our luck. “I don’t suppose you are affiliated with a tribe?” This would be too good to be true.
“I am,” she declared, “and I do native dancing too.”
“Yessss,” I gloated, scaring her a little. Or maybe it was the sheaf of applications I was waving.
Other students and parents had different views on race-based admissions. A male Asian student complained that it wasn’t right that he was not considered underrepresented. A white girl told me her parents were thinking of legally changing her name to “something ethnic.” A white teacher criticized affirmative action and suffered the wrath of a minority faculty member.
The most interesting student with whom I worked was a brilliant young black student named Barbara. When she appeared in my office with a stack of UC applications, I scanned them, wondering why she hadn’t indicated her race on any of the forms, or in her essay.
“I don’t want to be admitted with my race as a consideration.” Barbara looked pretty firm on this.
“Barbara, you’ve got to take advantage of the system.” I couldn’t believe she wouldn’t want to. “You’re applying at Berkeley, and even with your grades, it’s so competitive.”
“I either get in on my merit, or I don’t get in.” She looked angry, so I let it go. Later, as I was going over her applications to proofread them, I decided to add something to her list of achievements. I was going to print in “member of the Black Student Union,” which she was. I didn’t ask her permission; I was obsessed with her getting in. I thought, and still think, she could be president or a Supreme Court justice someday. She was a leader, an athlete, loved and respected by all, and unbelievably self-possessed. I thought I would be doing her a favor. I hadn’t really said she was black, after all. I’d just implied it.
That night, I couldn’t sleep. The next morning, I mailed her applications without the “student union” reference. I also called Barbara into my office and apologized for trying to force her to do something against her conscience. She shook my hand and accepted my apology.
Barbara was admitted to Berkeley and several other excellent universities, strictly on her merits.
Although my own child did not have to fight race-based admission, I was saddened to see the UC system drop underrepresented minorities as a weighted factor. I do believe it has helped diversify college life. But I remember the pride Barbara felt upon her admission to Berkeley. She often called me from college to fill me in on her life. A few years later, she called to say she was going to graduate school.
Ultimately, I’m glad I apologized to her and even more that I left her application to stand on its merits.
Sue Clark is a counselor in the Irvine Unified School District.