It’s no secret that it is much harder for students of color to be admitted to elite institutions. A New York Times analysis from 2017 indicates that black and Hispanic students are more underrepresented at top universities now than they were 35 years ago. Affirmative action, the report said, may help increase the number of black and hispanic students, but that underrepresentation persists from issues in equality starting as early as elementary school. Stuyvesant High School, one of the most elite high schools in New York City — a city which prides itself on diversity and inclusion — admitted only seven black students this year, a record low number.
And in the wake of the media frenzy caused by Lori Laughlin — who played Aunt Becky from “Full House” — and several other celebrities illegally securing their children’s place in elite schools, many students of color have come forward with the hardships they overcame to get into those same institutions. Some shared needing to work twice as hard as their white counterparts, only to be told that they got into elite colleges because of their race. Others discussed the blatant income inequality that plagues several of these universities. One story that would constantly come up when I scrolled through my Twitter feed is students of color feeling pressured to share traumatic stories to ensure their acceptance into a good school.
Time and time again, minorities are encouraged to write about living through trauma as a person of color in a way they know will outperform their white counterparts and compel universities, scholarship organizations and graduate schools to admit them. T.M. Landry, a college prep school which made several headlines last year for sending many of its underprivileged black students to elite schools, was exposed for doing just that — exaggerating and even lying about their students’ struggles in order to guarantee acceptance into a top-tier college. The students were told that this was a “good look” for their applications.
But urging students of color to share stories of extreme hardship only places more pressure on a group attempting to navigate a system built against it. It further pushes stereotypical narratives such as that of the strong and unbreakable black woman, which often lead to negative effects on mental health. We become so used to sharing these traumas that it eventually becomes second nature: questions such as “What’s something you’ve had to overcome?” or “Tell us about a time where you learned an important lesson” are immediately linked to either a traumatizing event in our lives or discrimination we’ve faced in the past, stories which are often triggering and emotionally draining to recount.
I was one of these students. In high school, I was told by teachers and counselors that my 3.8 GPA and extracurriculars weren’t enough, and that I had to emphasize on my application any hardship my background had brought me as a kid. I remember pouring my heart out into each and every one of those personal essays because I was taught that my trauma was what was going to put me over the edge. I also specifically remember my white classmates not being encouraged in the same way, yet they were admitted into the same schools I was while only writing about simple, joyful personal narratives, such as the time my friend coached his younger brother’s soccer team.
Students of color are told that what makes them different is what makes them shine. But elite institutions’ disturbing emphasis on these differences also creates an atmosphere for these students which is not always welcoming. Our rags-to-riches stories become almost fetishized; to elite schools, our academic accomplishments and performances aren’t enough. As T.M. Landry and several other institutions know, we aren’t desirable enough just as we are. But no one student can truly do it all; we all are accomplished in different ways and should be able to exemplify that within our respective institutions. By placing unrealistic expectations on underprivileged students, colleges run the risk of losing them entirely.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, March 25, 2019, print edition. Email Melanie Pineda at [email protected]