Checking the Ethnic Box
It was December 23rd 2007 I believe. It was that one rainy Christmas a few years ago – the one where snow didn’t fall until around December 27th. It was raining really hard. A bucket per drop is what we say in the islands. Next to me, sometimes sprinting behind me in hurried steps was an Iranian girl, a high school senior looking/hoping to be admitted to her neighborhood University. It is clearly one of the best Universities in the United States. That, plus the reality that her family culture would not allow her to go away to college, makes this a very anxiety laden afternoon. Her acceptance letter had not yet come.
Her family had migrated to the US relatively recently. They had checked the White box.
You see, there are all these boxes you can check as you enter high school, as you move toward college…every time you apply for anything there is an ethnicity box to check. Relative to US law, Iranians, Iraqis, Pakistani’s, Indians etcetera are considered White. So they check the ethnic box next to White.
We are absolutely soaked. We hustle through Pharmacy to meet with the Dean. We meet with the Associate Dean. The Dean’s not available. The Associate Dean was very kind and quite personable. She says that there is nothing she can do, and wishes us successful travels.
The parking lot is flooding by the time we exit the building. I motion to her to remain within the building until I bring the truck around. She wades across, climbs into the front seat and we head toward the main building on campus.
The parking lot is pretty deserted. It is two days before Christmas. It is raining. It is flooding. Folks need to get out to their homes and families. We enter a side door that I am most familiar with. The elevator is uncomfortably cold and slow this evening. We exit, cross the hall and drip into the office of an old friend.
We greet each other with careful hugs. I relate my story. After some thinking and processing, she makes a call to another building and sends us on our way.
It no longer matters. I am not going to be soaked to the skin for nothing. We are following any lead and creating others where none existed prior. We head down the hill and across campus to the building she directed. We have our pick of parking spots. Not even the parking ticket people are out on patrol. Even they have given up.
We enter the building, veer left and catch the elevator. Once at the top, we enter the open greeting area.
A gentleman greets us and summons us back to his crowded office. Papers and files are all over his desk. I repeat our story. He listens. I wait. He offers something. I stop listening half way in his diatribe. I repeat my story with emphasis.
Then he says, “Did you do over the ACT?” She answers in the affirmative. I inject, “It should not matter. Thirty is an excellent score. You cannot tell me you see students with 3.76 GPAs, As in all advanced placement classes, and an ACT score of 30 everyday!”
He ignores and searches for the file.
I continued. “If the University of __ really wants diversity, as they say they do, then let us encourage diversity. Here you have a young woman whom you will not have to worry about. She will be academically successful. She brings the ethnic diversity that is so necessary for our students’ development. She has a GPA of 3.76 with an ACT score of 30. You are telling me she is not tops on your list of Get This Child Here?”
He ruffles through stacks of papers, eventually locating her file. He fuddles with a calculator on his desk entering her most recent ACT score and comes up with a final number. He turns the calculator to me (as if that mattered) and says, “I think we can get her in.” He tells me that her new score of 31 (one whole point greater) shifted the algorithm just enough to get her in the door.
Now, that is nonsense!
If you want talent…if you want diversity…if you perceive a benefit to having a diverse campus, then go after diversity. Do not conflate disadvantaged with diversity. They are not the same and should not be used as if they were. You want thoughts and perspectives from different ethnic and social cultures.
I am not saying not to support our students who have been traditionally underrepresented. Don’t get me wrong. Academics is still the one secure path to social mobility. If we are successful in attracting and retaining more first generation students in here, much of our current social challenges will shift to the left. They will never fully go away, but they will not have the same weight or negative impact.
I am talking about diversity of thinking, diversity of cultures, diversity of perspective…all while having confidence in that student’s ability to navigate the challenging academic environment of the university.
You cannot get more diversity than an Iranian child with an ACT of 31 and a GPA of 3.76 on a 4 point scale.
All because she checked the White box.