My unlikely journey to Harvard sheds light on race lawsuit

I grew up less than 30 minutes away from Harvard, but it might as well have been a world away. My world was ...

Posted: Oct 15, 2018 9:46 PM
Updated: Oct 15, 2018 9:46 PM

I grew up less than 30 minutes away from Harvard, but it might as well have been a world away. My world was small and static. Most of my friends were brown or poor like me, with some version of parents like mine -- blue-collar, hardworking immigrants. We went to the same after-school programs for "at-risk youth" and started looking for part-time jobs as soon as we turned 15 and a half.

But there were two glaring differences between me and the majority of my community. First, I always loved school, even when I had to pretend publicly that I didn't. Second, I always believed that I was destined for a world beyond the one I was born into, even when life told me otherwise.

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And, indeed, I ended up at Harvard College as an undergraduate.

Harvard College's mission is to educate its students through the process of "intellectual transformation," achieved in part through an environment where students "come from different walks of life and have evolving identities."

The fulfillment of this mission depends on a diverse student body. But Harvard's diversity is currently being threatened.

Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), an organization helmed by affirmative action foe Edward Blum that claims Harvard's admissions process discriminates against Asian-Americans, is suing Harvard University in an effort to stop it from considering race as one of the many factors in a holistic application process. If Harvard is unable to consider race, the university will lose the ability to create a diverse environment that pushes all students to learn and grow immeasurably.

With an SAT score of 1950 out of 2400, I may not have had much to teach my peers about standardized testing. But as the son of poor, hard-working immigrants from Cape Verde off the coast of Africa and the first and only person in my family to attend college, I did have a lot to share with my peers about the inequity in our nation's public education system and the unbelievable luck it takes for a student like me to make it to a school like Harvard.

Only through a process that takes a well-considered look beyond an applicant's test scores and GPA can Harvard achieve the intellectual transformations it was founded to create. Race is a critical aspect of a comprehensive application process because a diverse student body "helps to break down racial stereotypes, and enables students to better understand persons of different races," as retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has noted.

While I learned about economics and sociology in the classroom, so much of the intellectual transformation I experienced at Harvard came from talking to my peers about their backgrounds and experiences. If Harvard accepted students based only on their perfect GPAs and standardized test scores, would such a student body enhance the potential for collective intellectual transformation at Harvard College? My Harvard experience leads me to believe that the answer is no.

The exclusion of race will also hinder applicants, particularly applicants of color, from conveying the totality of who they are. As a leading institution, this shift in Harvard's admissions process would set a dangerous precedent for colleges across the country that will further encourage discrimination against students of color in the education system.

SFFA and Blum demonstrate their utter lack of understanding of Harvard's mission through their failure to recognize that holistic admissions is about more than any one person's acceptance.

It is impossible for society to make equitable progress without reconciling existing race relations and the democratic values to which we aspire. In a country with such painful and deep racial divides, doing this work requires us to learn from those whose worlds may seem completely different from our own. Diversity has the incredible power to reduce the distance between the disparate worlds of lived experience. In my lifetime, this work has never been more important.

One of my most salient moments from my time as an undergrad was an impromptu dinner that I had with an acquaintance who I'll call Zadie.

When I mentioned that I was hosting an open mic night for the First-Generation Student Union, a new student group I founded that semester, Zadie responded with confusion and surprise.

"Wait, your parents didn't go to college?" she asked.

"My parents didn't graduate from high school, actually," I said, sharing a fact that I had only just recently become comfortable saying aloud. And I'll never forget what she said next.

"My entire life has been set up for me to come to a school like Harvard. I can't imagine how I would have made it to Harvard if it hadn't been."

Like many of my peers, Zadie was the daughter of well-educated, extremely wealthy white parents. Her lived experiences meant that she had no exposure to the small and static world I come from. Consequently, she had a lot to learn about it. And I had a lot to learn about her and the world she comes from. In that moment, Zadie taught me that not every privileged person is apathetic to my world -- many of them are just oblivious to it. This moment was enabled by the process of holistic review, which is probably the only thing that would have brought our worlds together.

There are certainly many parts of American higher education that are broken and require greater public scrutiny and reform. Holistic admissions isn't one of them.

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