Tag Archives: Admissions

The Problem With How Higher Education Treats Diversity

Via The Atlantic: http://ift.tt/2eCFB2X


Shortly after moving to New York two years ago, I began volunteering as a writing mentor at Minds Matter, a large, multi-city nonprofit that helps prepare underserved high-school students for college. Just a few months earlier, I’d graduated from a liberal-arts college I’d attended after participating in a similar program, and I felt both obliged to pay my good fortune forward and uniquely qualified to do so. If my experience had taught me anything, it was the power of a compelling personal narrative.

By the time I’d decided, mid-way through high school, that I wanted to attend college—and not just any college, but a competitive one, filled with Gothic Revival buildings and storied histories—I had to contend with a spotty transcript, virtually no extracurriculars, and an SAT math score inferior to that of many middle schoolers. Then I heard about QuestBridge, a nonprofit that connects low-income youth with top schools.

“Students from low-income backgrounds may not realize that they have a unique perspective to present to admissions officers,” the organization’s website explains. “If your identity has been shaped by financial difficulties and other obstacles, consider writing about these challenges in your essays so that admissions officers understand the full context of your successes and academic accomplishments.” It provides a bullet-point list of potential topics, such as: English is not your first language; You’ve been homeless; You commute a long distance to attend a better school. If I were to succeed, I would need to leverage precisely the circumstances that had, conceivably, held me back. My personal statement portrayed a poor girl from a large Arkansas family, raised in a fringe religion and eager to explore the big world beyond. It wasn’t untrue, exactly, but it felt like a lie by omission, or perhaps oversimplification. My life was more than a tale of woe.

If I felt guilty about exploiting my background to appeal to colleges looking to build a well-rounded class, I also felt grateful for the opportunity. I still do; it’s unlikely I would have gotten the education I did if I hadn’t. But as I help my Minds Matter mentees, now seniors, apply to colleges this fall—and in some cases, complete the same QuestBridge application I did when I was their age—it has become harder to maintain this ambivalence. I don’t want my students to reduce their own lives to stories of hardship—or, at least, I don’t want them to feel that they need to in order to earn a berth at the college they choose.

Still, the pressure for students—particularly underrepresented nonwhite and low-income applicants—to package themselves like this is acute at a time when “diversity” remains the only rationale for affirmative action that the Supreme Court has consistently upheld, most recently in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas. It routinely cites the importance of diversity in the global marketplace, where companies praise it as a catalyst for creativity and link it with greater financial returns. (“We know intuitively that diversity matters,” declared a recent report from McKinsey.) Yet for something so widely desired, what diversity means and why people want it remain unclear. My boss at a magazine where I once worked asked me to find images of a youth choir that—she paused, unsure how to proceed—“showed its diversity.” I nodded furtively and, a few minutes later, produced several photos with white and brown faces floating above identical purple blouses.

The cover of Natasha Warikioo's "The Diversity Bargain"
The University of Chicago Press

Such are the paradoxes that Natasha Warikoo examines in her new book The Diversity Bargain: And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy Elite Universities. Inspired by her own experience as an Indian American student in the 1990s and, later, as a visiting professor at the University of London, Warikoo, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, set out to understand how students of various backgrounds at Brown, Harvard, and Oxford conceive of diversity and merit in the college-admission process. Particularly in the U.S., where universities emphasize their “holistic” evaluations of applicants and, studies show, calibrate SAT scores depending on a variety of factors including race, legacy status, and athletic recruitment, she was curious how students justified the practice. Reasoning that elite colleges tend to espouse relatively progressive views and that their students—having gained entree to the world’s most prized institutions—would presumably have little reason to resent affirmative action, she decided this sample would provide insights into “the best-case scenario in terms of support for racial inclusion.”

What Warikoo finds at Brown and Harvard is a mixed bag: Students praise diversity and support affirmative action, but mostly by striking what she coins the “diversity bargain”: Rather than accepting it as a means of amelioration for systemic inequality, they support it on the assumption that it increases the student body’s collective merit, enriching the college experience for all. Time and again, she comes across students like Stephanie, a white history major at Harvard, who says “race needs to be considered” because an “ethnically diverse community is beneficial to everyone and is such an integral part of the Harvard education.” This view, Warikoo deftly demonstrates, is held by a majority of students of all racial identifications, and it aligns strongly with that of their schools. “We will consider how your unique talents, accomplishments, energy, curiosity, perspective, and identity might weave into the ever-changing tapestry that is Brown University,” reads the mission statement on its admissions webpage.

If an “ever-changing tapestry” sounds delightfully chic, it also reflects an understanding of egalitarianism as an aesthetic instead of a social ideal. The Diversity Bargain illuminates just how much diversity has been commodified particularly among the elite, for whom good taste entails an eclectic palate. This wasn’t always so: Warikoo cites research from the sociologists Richard Peterson and Roger Kern, who nearly 20 years ago identified a shift in cosmopolitan sensibilities from favoring narrowly defined “high” forms of culture (Western classical music, abstract art) to what they termed “cultural omnivorousness.” Warikoo’s interviews with students reveal this appetite extends to “interpersonal familiarity” with students of various aptitudes, affinities, and identifications. Diversity exists to be consumed by the student body to achieve a balanced diet of multiculturalism.    

Still, there is great reluctance, even discomfort, on the part of admissions offices to acknowledge race as a consideration in their evaluation process. Neither Brown nor Harvard explicitly does so, instead using words like “perspective” and “identity” to describe admissions considerations. Williams College, my own alma mater, doesn’t either, although on its website this fall, the percentage of students of color and those who are the first generation in their families to attend college is enlarged to about twice the size of the other demographic statistics. This allusiveness seems an inevitable result of the incoherence Warikoo highlights between k-12 education, which teaches children color-blindness, and the academy, where difference is extolled. It also likely reflects an increasingly mainstream understanding of race as a construct and identity as fluid. In this context, anxiety, particularly for whites, comes in the form of a question: How do you recognize a current reality (race) whose meaning isn’t fixed without institutionalizing it? The decision many make is not to name the reality at all.

Warikoo is slightly more narrow in assessing this cognitive dissonance, highlighting research (including her own) that reveals the paranoia of many white Americans who are “primed to see reverse discrimination in the future,” even if they have never experienced it themselves. Yet even if well-intentioned, the result is a quasi-colorblind, need-blind approach that places the onus on students to make their own experiences outside of the white middle-class legible to admissions committees if they wish admission criteria to be calibrated according to the opportunities they have—or have not—been afforded. “Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it,” reads The Common Application’s most popular prompt. “If this sounds like you, then please share your story.” It’s an appealingly capacious invitation, but it also subtly casts applicants’ “backgrounds” or “identities” in the same terms as an “interest” or “talent,” and it’s perhaps unsurprising that many of the students Warikoo interviewed do the same, recontextualizing the consideration of race and income in admissions with comparisons that avoid questions of inequality altogether. When asked “whether diversity creates problems for the university,” a student named Elliot, like many of his peers, spoke about athletic recruits:   

Before I applied, I didn’t like [the fact that] it’s really easy for … recruited athletes … I’ve had issues with that. Now that I’m here, I don’t have those issues. Because I see, like I love going to the foot-ball games. It’s fun. It’s part of the student life … I used to think that … having athletes who are quote/unquote “less qualified”—I no longer view them as less qualified. I view them as qualified in a different way.

This reasoning may seem benign, but its implications become disturbing when you replace “athletes” with “poor” or “minority” students: What if they are no fun? What if they add no discernibly “unique” perspective of black culture or rural poverty or the immigrant experience to student life? Do they still deserve an education and all of the benefits—and joys—it can confer?     

Warikoo’s research may be limited in scope, but it offers a particularly focused lens through which to view the cultural moment. Support for diversity is at a fever pitch, complete with hashtags (#OscarsSoWhite) and trendy merchandise emblazoned with the all-caps imperative to READ FEWER WHITE DUDES—an unintentionally parodic illustration of diversity’s commodification writ large. Yet as Warikoo shows, when calls for diversity aren’t accompanied by material efforts to equalize opportunity, an idealized image of equality threatens to replace the pursuit of the thing itself.

Last year, the author Claire Vaye Watkins addressed students at Tin House Writers’ Workshop with a lecture, “On Pandering,” in which she described the revelation that, for much of her career, she had been writing for a white male literary establishment. She deemed her debut collection of short stories an exercise in projection: What would the Philip Roths of the world think of her work? What about the Jonathan Franzens? She encouraged the workshop to “embrace a do-it-yourself canon, wherein we each make our own canon filled with what we love to read, what speaks to us and challenges us and opens us up, wherein we can each determine our artistic lineages for ourselves, with curiosity and vigor, rather than trying to shoehorn ourselves into a canon ready made and gifted us.” Her words went viral among a certain literary set as a minor cause celebre: We need more women writers! More queer writers! More writers of color!

This is true. And yet the ideal Watkins expressed was not merely that these demographics write, but that they do so without inhibition, accessing their own particular sensibilities and imaginations—in short, to treat their own experiences as ends in themselves. It’s an exhilarating prospect, and it runs entirely counter to the task of writing what one might call the adversity narrative, which requires its author to instrumentalize her consciousness rather than explore it. This is precisely why, when my mentees fill my inbox with drafts of their essays, I want to help them resist the temptation. It’s also why Warikoo’s argument for a much more “robust, ongoing affirmative-action policy by calibrating admissions decisions according to a student’s opportunities” is doubly convincing: She attacks the premise of collective merit because it makes the inclusion of the less advantaged contingent on the benefits that will accrue to the rest. But it also requires the less powerful to pander to visions of powerlessness, so that sharing one’s own story becomes a compulsion rather than a privilege. It should be neither, but a gift, given freely.

The Cost of Being First

Via The Atlantic: http://ift.tt/2ekj5d4


When Chris was accepted into the Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, he didn’t think of himself as a first-generation college student. Acknowledging his first-generation identity and how it influenced his path came years later, but the label assigned by his college is only a part of Chris’s individual story.

His parents, both Vietnamese refugees who had not gone to college, raised him in south Florida. Chris, who did not want to use his last name, knew he’d earned a golden admission ticket, but he didn’t know that getting in was only half the struggle. He hadn’t considered how his parents’ lack of higher education might influence his own college studies. “I did homework with my classmates for the first time and I found myself getting defensive about what little knowledge of college I had coming in,” Chris said, describing the anxiety and distress he experienced studying, taking tests, and meeting classmates. “I was playing pretend the moment I had my first meaningful conversation with someone, and I consequently felt lost the next year and a half.”

More schools are focusing on supporting students like Chris. But in their goal to increase access to higher education, schools label young people in ways that isolate rather than include them—particularly where colleges and the support systems they develop for these students automatically equate being first generation with being low income, as many studies suggest.

As a sociologist, Celine-Marie Pascale, a professor and the associate dean for undergraduate studies at American University, where I also teach, is concerned with the language and attitudes that develop around culture, knowledge, and power. When Pascale was a first-generation graduate student, 17 years after earning her undergraduate degree, she was awarded a scholarship and asked to visit donors. “I was incredibly grateful, of course; I could not have gone to school without it. But I became weary of going to events and representing the poor student they were saving. It felt demeaning,” she said.

The labels aren’t always intentional, and they aren’t always bad. Colleges anticipate and define student categories—like low-income, first-generation, and minority—mostly based on voluntary Common Application data provided before a student ever arrives on campus. While students aren’t required to disclose their parents’ educational backgrounds—and many don’t—self-identified first-generation students are often linked to or assumed to have economic disadvantage. Students may also choose not to disclose their first-generation status; professors and classmates won’t know unless they claim the label. But labels that assume first-generation always correlates with low-income may get in the way of the more important conversation of how individuals relate to their college community and larger culture and foster feelings of resentment.

Does it matter if first-generation students are also low-income? What about a first-generation student of color who comes from a family of means? How many labels are necessary to understand first-generation students’ needs? Labeling theory has been well established in multiple disciplines, and when applied to the classroom, teacher expectations may influence student performance. If a teacher lowers standards because he assumes a student needs the accommodation, the student’s true potential won’t be measured. A label may unintentionally shape a teacher’s reaction, meaning she may assume a certain behavior results from the label rather than the individual. At a critical juncture in a college student’s cognitive development, the combination of labels may hinder more than help.

Ben Galina, a teaching fellow at Vanderbilt University, argued in an essay that some first-generation students may resist the first-generation label, especially if it’s associated with being low-income. “Negative stereotypes about socially marginalized groups hold that any lack of socioeconomic success may be attributed to internal deficits rather than social, historical, or situational injustices,” he wrote. Focusing on achievement may lead to segregation from their families. Many unconsciously underachieve to remedy the isolation. Even if first-generation students overcome the “stereotype threat,” they may experience imposter syndrome when they arrive on campus and choose to downplay the difficult path to admission in order to blend with students who are not the first in their families to go to college. Often, first-generation students arrive on campus with doubts about their ability to achieve, even when their test scores, grades, and backgrounds don’t support their worries. But the anxiety of failing may feed the cycle. Believing they don’t belong and can’t fit in with their peers may morph the fear into a reality.

Yet there’s a danger in abandoning the concept of a first-generation student altogether. The label can be both empowering and unifying, as many of these students experience similar challenges and need similar resilience to face them. Labeling students allows schools to identify and deliver targeted resources. Schools that anticipate what this population shares and understand how to support first-generation students may increase retention rates, but only if they can reach the students where they are and persuade them to accept the help.  Regardless of where first-generation students arrive, and regardless of the scholarship money they may have received for their education, they often leave because they aren’t prepared, feel isolated from their peers, aren’t aware of available resources, or move back home to support their families.

Like their peers, many first-generation students want to make their parents and communities proud, but leaving for college can often seem like a rejection of their family’s own path. “When students and faculty pick up the label of being first -generation, they often worry about disloyalty to their families—that somehow going to college means they’re saying their parents’ lives were inadequate,” Pascale said. Like myself, Pascale is a first-generation student turned first-generation faculty member. “We become complicit with a larger cultural narrative. When you add a low-income piece, it hits even harder,” she said.

In her research, Pascale agrees with Galina about the risks of the label: “Until we have honest conversations about class, and take responsibility for the inequality that our economy systematically generates, the label of ‘first generation’ is going to be fraught.” Research in labeling theory suggests that damage to a student’s potential occurs when the label becomes the limited lens. Labels may shape attitudes and reveal a narrower view of the individual. Sometimes simply labeling a student by her race or income or class may alter her actual achievement. If classification within the classroom lowers teacher expectations, student performance may actually decrease.  

In an op-ed published in Inside Higher Ed earlier this year, Byron P. White, the chief diversity officer at Cleveland State University, wrote, “As long as being a person of color or of modest economic means, or the child of parents who did not go to college, is deemed to be, first and foremost, an indicator of potential failure, the integrity of our proclaimed expectation of success is undermined.” The “deficit-laden labels,” as he called them, limit deeper conversations about the assets—like persistence, independence, and resilience—that first-generation students bring to campus. But can a mere shifting of words create a ripple effect throughout higher education?

Whether the label helps or hurts, students benefit from authentic conversations about class in and out of classrooms that may not offer easy answers. Perhaps the questions matter more than any resolution. “Any label cuts both ways,” Pascale said. “There’s a process of identification that can be empowering; it also can be marginalizing.” Honest and open talks about economic justice may serve students more than labels. It’s possible that both can exist and in the same place.

And even if a student proudly claims to be first-generation, low-income, the label may provide a useful signal but it isn’t a complete story. “We live in a society that makes us uncomfortable if we can’t easily identify labels for the person we are speaking to, especially with gender and race. We’re always sorting,” Pascale said. “With class, the system works by erasure. You can’t always tell someone’s socioeconomic status when you meet them. It disarms our normal way of operating and enables us to personalize, minimize, or deny economic inequality.”

While assuming that first-generation students are low-income can foster negative stereotypes and lead to disillusionment among students, it is still true that many first-generation students are low-income and can benefit from financial and other assistance.

In his experience as a scholarship student, Chris said, “I don’t think ‘first-generation’ should necessarily be linked with ‘low-income,’ since within both there are so many different communities, and we can’t expect all of those subgroups to overlap.” But he does see that from a practical perspective, a campus office supporting one need might be just as equipped to meet another. A comprehensive approach to course scheduling, financial aid, career development, and social adjustment streamlines support and may help eliminate frustration and failure before it builds.

In “Moving Beyond Access: College Success for Low-Income, First-Generation Students,” senior scholars at the Pell Institute found that after six years of enrolling in college, only 11 percent of low-income, first-generation students nationwide had earned bachelor’s degrees; the rate was 55 percent for their more advantaged peers. With 4.5 million low-income, first-generation students enrolling in higher education, hopes are high but disparities in outcomes are growing. Students in this “doubly disadvantaged population” are more than four times more likely to leave college after the first year. They take with them significant debt that burdens themselves and their families with little to show for it.

Without scholarships, first-generation, low-income students like Chris and Pascale wouldn’t be able to attend prestigious schools. But without programs that consider the entire college experience, rather than just the financial need, they may not have made it to the graduation stage at all.  

Chris, for instance, might not have succeeded if not for the Georgetown Scholarship Program. Since its founding in 2004, the donor-funded initiative has served over 1,000 students, 70 percent of them the first in their families to go to college. The program provides recipients with mentoring, alumni networking, and resume building, but it also provides basic necessities like bedding, professional clothing, and funding for students to travel home. When a student’s background as well as emotional, social, and physical well being is considered, rather than just her college application, the path toward graduation becomes more likely. Upon acceptance, students like Chris are labeled “scholars” and welcomed among the ranks for their potential.

Chris wasn’t satisfied just accepting the support, though; he wanted to do more to reach other communities of students like his own. He became co-founder of AL1GN, the Alliance for Low-Income First-Generation Narrative, through which he’s sought to create a “network of networks” among students, faculty, staff, researchers, and allies. The goal of the group is to share not just resources but stories, too.

Policymakers and institutions, too, are starting to not only recognize the unique challenges of first-generation students but also support and uplift their path. First in the Family, for example, is a resource hub that intervenes at the high-school level to prepare college-bound students and their families for higher education; it gives them access to multimedia, workshops, and first-generation allies.

Online communities, like the grant-funded I’m First, created by the Center for Student Opportunity, offer students portals to find colleges, ask questions about the application process, and hear stories of first-generation successes. The message is one of empowerment. One article reports four advantages of being a first-generation student. The focus is also on preparing family members who may feel ill-equipped to support their child (or relative) in their unfamiliar college endeavor.

Ultimately, as White, the Cleveland State diversity officer, noted, the administrative conversations about modern students have to evolve. The success of young people—and the schools they attend—depends on it.

Common Ancestry, Complicated Present

Via The Atlantic: http://ift.tt/2b8JCd7


When my father was a graduate student at Loyola University in Chicago, two distinct things marked his day: the “L” and instant noodles. It was 1998 in a studio apartment in Rogers Park below the Red Line. Every night, the sounds of the train woke him up. Every morning, he got up after a restless night and made himself some ramen. After those three years, he never wanted to look at instant noodles again.

At that time, it was almost unheard of for Chinese students to go to the United States for undergraduate study. Instead, everyone suffered through the dreaded gaokao, the Chinese college-entrance examination. For four consecutive days in June, thousands of Chinese high schoolers sat in stuffy classrooms with no air conditioning, sweating and exerting themselves in subjects like mathematics, physics, and English to get one single score high enough to earn a coveted spot at a top university. Most students who did go abroad were graduate students, and many of them stayed in the new country.

The scene today is a little different. The majority of students in China do still take the exam. They study for years in preparation and wait for weeks afterward in anticipation of receiving a number that determines their future. Students are accepted to a college based on how highly they ranked the school and the single weighted score, which they may not even know before submitting their preferences. The convoluted and capricious ranking system may allot them a spot at their last-choice college.

Many, however, now have the option of bypassing that system, with exceptional talent or a significant amount of money. Some apply to a foreign-language school where students can apply to universities abroad instead of taking the gaokao. Others test their way into “experimental” classes at top public high schools, which are fiercely competitive but have high success rates of getting students into Western universities. Those with more disposable income can skip Chinese high school altogether and attend a private boarding school abroad, such as Andover or Exeter in New England. Students from wealthier families usually have a better chance of going abroad because they can hire tutors, take test-prep courses, and afford the high tuition of American private high schools and universities.

In recent years, the number of Chinese nationals studying abroad has increased dramatically, surpassing India, South Korea, and other countries in the number of students sent overseas. According to the Institute of International Education, China was the top sender of students to the United States in 2015, with 304,040 students—an 11 percent increase from the previous year. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), for example, has seen a sizable increase in the number of Chinese students, from 37 enrolled in the undergraduate college in 2000 to 2,898 in 2014.  

Studying in the U.S. has a big price tag. This has led to a disproportionate representation of the wealthy and elite from China on American campuses. Public universities, suffering from a loss of funding after the 2008 financial crisis, have looked to international, and particularly Chinese, students for a full-tuition boost to their budgets. Chinese nationals, like all international students, pay out-of-state tuition and fees: $46,000-$53,000 a year at UIUC. While some financial aid is available to international students, there are vastly fewer funds, and most universities are not need-blind in their admissions processes for applicants from abroad. In the 2014-2015 academic year, Chinese students’ tuition and fees alone injected $9.8 billion into the American economy.

***

By 2008, when my father returned to China for the first time, many of his friends in Beijing had grown quite wealthy. Some had sent their children abroad for college. One friend even bought some land and sheep and moved to New Zealand to live out his bucolic fantasies. (It didn’t last.) My father returned wondering if he made the right choice to go to the U.S., where our family lives a modest existence compared to his peers in China.

A month after my father’s visit to China, my cousin—who grew up in Beijing—came to Chicago to attend boarding school. Located in an affluent neighborhood on Lake Michigan, Lake Forest Academy has its own private woods, bike paths along a scenic river, and streets named Yale Lane and Harvard Avenue lined with mini-villas. My uncle and aunt chose the school from a selection of brochures provided by recruiters from several private American boarding schools. With grassy football fields and numerous graduates attending Ivy League universities, Lake Forest Academy stood out from the rest.

Since 1978, economic reforms have led to China’s astronomical economic growth. China’s GDP increased from less than $150 billion in 1978 to $8,227 billion in 2012. In 2015, China outnumbered the United States in its number of billionaires. Chinese millionaires and billionaires not only invest in American businesses, but they also send their children abroad for school, where their wealth is often displayed in exorbitant fashion. An education abroad provides a status symbol in China, where most of the students return after their studies.

Attending college abroad has now become a fundamental and expected experience of many Chinese students seeking prominent careers abroad and even in China. One of my Chinese friends told me this time abroad is called dujin, a “golden vacation” that also improves job prospects. Many of the Chinese international students I spoke to agreed that a foreign degree was worth a lot on a resume back home.

Largely gone are the days of penny pinching and ramen eating. Instead, many Chinese international students are extravagant consumers in real estate, travel, entertainment, fashion, and other industries. While not every student is ostentatiously wealthy, this new group is certainly better off than their predecessors from 20 years ago. The wealthiest and most visible of the group have attracted attention and criticism. Videos reveal wealthy Chinese students driving Ferraris and buying up mansions. High spending seems requisite for China’s nouveau riche, or fuerdai, in their transition to American college life. One particularly biting article referred to wealthy Chinese women studying in the U.S. as “cash heifers.” While in America, they buy entire season collections of Chanel, spend thousands clubbing, and bring several suitcases of luxury goods home each year.

***

When my cousin first arrived at Lake Forest Academy, I accompanied him to his orientation. I spoke to a few school administrators, asking them about the school. In the middle of the conversation, one counselor asked, “and how are you enjoying the U.S.?” Taken aback, I responded, “I’ve liked it for the past 10 years that I’ve lived here.” The counselor, visibly embarrassed by her assumption that I, too, had just come from China, apologized and walked away.

I wasn’t offended by the question. I’m used to ruder reminders of my Asian face, such as catcalls of “Konichiwa” or even nonsensical words. I get frequent questions about where I’m really from, to which I answer “China” because it’s the truth. Yet, people in China instinctively recognize me as huaqiao, an ethnically Chinese person living outside China.

But the administrator’s question did give me pause. It made sense that she would think the relatives of the new Chinese students were also recent arrivals. Of course, the perfect Chicago accent might have tipped her off. There are plenty of Asian American students at Lake Forest Academy. Was it the circumstance that made her assume that I was not American? What happens to the perception of Asian Americans when a campus is seen as becoming “saturated” with Chinese nationals?

To answer this question, I created a survey, which I sent to my Chinese American friends. My 111 survey respondents flooded me with stories of how they have been affected by this development, especially being mistaken for, or assumed to be, Chinese international students. My respondents did not identify much culturally with the Chinese nationals on campus. Instead, they identified more with their Asian American friends despite having different ethnic and cultural identities. However, while Chinese and Asian Americans may perceive themselves as having disparate identities from Chinese nationals on college campuses, they are not always seen as separate groups.

A friend at Columbia University said she felt a “visceral need” to distinguish herself from the Chinese students in her program, because her non-Chinese classmates did not consider her American. They made statements like “I wonder why no American girls do econ Ph.D.s,” even though she was one of several Asian American women completing the degree. Another Chinese American student at Tulane University was rejected from a project group because the others believed she was an international student who “wouldn’t pull [her] weight due to [her] ‘bad English.’” As more Chinese nationals come to American campuses, it seems easier to forget that Asian Americans exist outside of this one subgroup of prominent foreigners.

There seems to be a growing awareness of, and animus toward, Chinese nationals on campuses that has in turn impacted Asian American students. While universities and local economies have certainly reaped the economic benefits of this large population of Chinese international students, it may have come at some cost to the Asian American community’s claims to Americanness. In all the media musings about rich Chinese foreigners on campus, the Asian American community’s response to this phenomenon has remained largely unexamined.

Growing up Asian in America, I experienced a blend of cultures that continues to shape my identity not just as Chinese, but as Asian American, an identity that strengthened during my time in college when I befriended many Asian Americans. The collective history of predecessors as immigrants, be they parents or great-great-great-grandparents, resonated so deeply that it created kinship. That history is marked by exclusion, alienation, and violence, but the pan-Asian identity that emerged is also one of strength and pride.

In a book review of Erika Lee’s The Making of Asian-America, Oliver Wang, an associate professor of sociology at California State University-Long Beach, noted the “wry paradox” of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. The act made possible the continual transformation of Asian America by constant waves of new immigrants, for whom Wang contends “‘Asian America’ has no meaning.” When asked whether they considered themselves “immigrants,” the dozen Chinese nationals I surveyed answered “no” or “unsure.”  But whether they are seen or see themselves as Asian Americans, these new arrivals are embedded in Asian America, which encompasses all people of Asian descent living in the United States. And the responses toward them affect the community as a whole.

At the University of Iowa, a racist Twitter account sparked social activism among Chinese international students. The now-deleted account, UIasianprobz, solicited pictures of Asian students “doing the crazy things they do! No racism intended.” The university administration remained silent until the Chinese students mobilized and demanded a better response to issues international students face. Working with other students, they successfully called for mental-health services, more cultural diversity and awareness in the classroom, and programs to create a more integrated campus.

This incident shows that Chinese international students have the potential to be a powerful mobilizing force for the Asian American community. When I suggested that Chinese nationals in America didn’t engage in questions of race and concerns of the Asian American community, a law school friend from Beijing disagreed with my characterization. She said studying at Amherst College showed her for the first time what it means to be a minority, to see racial and class tensions. It made her realize that she wanted to work on these important issues. And she isn’t the only one. For every fuerdai taking his vacation, there is someone whose life changed thanks to a liberal-arts education, someone who became a feminist, someone who became an activist.

Their significant economic contribution on campus and in the local economy has given Chinese international students the clout to effect change and stand with the Asian American community, if they so choose. Their contributions could be crucial at a time when the Asian American community is engaged in serious soul searching, prompted by the recent debates over Peter Liang, affirmative action, and Donald Trump. Others seem to agree with me. My survey respondents largely answered that they feel positive about more Chinese students studying in the United States. It’s the conflation of all Asian students with Chinese nationals that they vehemently challenge, not the presence of Chinese international students on campus.  

Being Asian American can seem a paradox. It is at once an assertion of Americanness—of belonging to a society that has always been a little suspect of faces and names like mine—and an embrace of a heritage that traces back to a courageous journey across a vast ocean. It is a celebration, not an identification foisted on us as a grouping mechanism and a marker of foreignness. Ultimately, it’s a personal choice to define what it means to be Asian in America, to choose it as the sole identity or one of many. And for me, this identity is shaped by the new arrivals on campus.

I have had this experience many times: a chance meeting with a Chinese student followed by a warm invitation. As I sit in a karaoke bar or around a dinner table, listening to them talk in a language I’ve spoken all my life with slang that I don’t quite understand, I am learning and absorbing. It’s always a little awkward at first, but our interaction begins a process of adapting. Just as they learn what it’s like to be Asian American, I am learning to change my own conceptions of China, of an ancestral homeland that itself is rapidly changing. It’s an education for me, and a fundamental one at that.  

2 Keys to Success for Underprivileged Students: When to Start College, and Where to Go – The Chronicle of Higher Education

Those who enroll within a semester of earning a high-school diploma are far more likely to earn a college degree or certificate, a study finds.

Source: 2 Keys to Success for Underprivileged Students: When to Start College, and Where to Go – The Chronicle of Higher Education

The Chancellor of Rutgers on Admissions and the Meritocracy

Asked what ought to be subject to wider or more rigorous debate, Nancy Cantor, the Chancellor of Rutgers University, suggested a focus on the idea of meritocracy.

She wrote:

One of the pivotal questions of our time that merits debating is merit itself. In the context of higher education, this translates into questions such as: Who merits admission? Whose talents do we as a nation need to cultivate?

Crucial in this debate would be addressing the perfect storm of conditions that constrict the pathways to educational opportunity for large and growing swaths of our nation. According to recent reports from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, one of those conditions is that socioeconomic class is stickier in the U.S. across generations than in just about any other economically prosperous nation.

Another is that prosperity in America is highly correlated with race. Still another is that we are experiencing what Brookings Institution’s demographer Bill Frey calls a “diversity explosion;” already, the referents for the term “minority” are in the process of being flipped, as white children are no longer in the majority in early childhood education nationally.

If leaving the growing majority of our nation’s talent pool on the side-lines of education in a knowledge economy were not enough of a recipe for catastrophe, we also are finally coming to the realization—based on mountains of good social science—that the measures of merit that colleges and universities have been using for decades to determine who gets in were never that good in the first place. The College Board’s own validity studies show that even when you combine SAT scores and high school GPA, you don’t have a very good chance of predicting which students will do well in their first year of college—and those correlations are worse for the very groups that are becoming our new majority.

We are long overdue for a clear-eyed debate about what we need to do to improve our ability to find and to cultivate talent broadly and equitably in the increasingly diverse generations that already are growing up.

We in higher education need to be prepared to answer a whole set of questions that will cascade out of this discussion: What does all of this say about the culture of ranking colleges according to how few students we admit? Who merits being labelled as an excellent prospect for educational attainment, especially as it leads to personal advancement and collective prosperity?  Whose knowledge and experience of American life do we need at the table for higher education to remain a legitimate public good? And how do we put our minds to the task of welcoming that talent into what has grown over generations into a rather selective club?  Can we recapture the moniker of a “land of opportunity”?

Cantor is a speaker this year at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic.

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‘Fisher’ in Context: Making Sense of the Decision – The Chronicle of Higher Education

How might the Supreme Court’s latest ruling change the college-admissions landscape? Get up to speed with a collection of past Chronicle coverage.

Source: ‘Fisher’ in Context: Making Sense of the Decision – The Chronicle of Higher Education

The Power of Friendship in Education

AUSTIN, Tex.—Most of the people who grow up in Roma, Texas—a small ranching town on the Mexican border—don’t go to an elite four-year college. The ones who do must move at least six hours from everything they know. They are usually the first in their families to attend such schools. They arrive knowing almost nothing about life in a big city or at a major state university.

“It was overwhelming,” Jesús “Nacho” Aguilar, 23, told me as we sat at a table in the basement of the University of Texas-Austin with a group of Roma High School graduates who now live in Austin and San Antonio. “It was also liberating.”

I first met Jesús when he was a seventh grader at Roma Middle School, in a town where nearly every family was Mexican American and where I taught English for two years as a Teach For America corps member. When I attended the high-school graduation for Jesús’s class, 88 of my 131 former students picked up a diploma. Of those, many have earned two-year degrees or are working on vocational certifications. Facebook tells me another is a pilot. There is more than one definition of success.

But, against the odds, Jesús and a small number of his classmates pursued and earned degrees at world-class universities. I wanted to know how they did it.

Jesús met up with me at his alma mater sporting running shorts and an acid wit. His friend, and fellow UT-Austin graduate, Tomás González, 23, is tall, thin, and thoughtful. He’s now in medical school. Perla de la O, 22, the only one of the four I taught directly, loves Harry Potter, musicals, and any sort of free festival she can find in Austin. She teaches at a Montessori preschool. And Eduardo Rios, 20, is still in school, studying business. He has a way of catching you off guard with thoughtful ideas you wouldn’t have given such a young man credit for understanding.

“It was a huge culture shock,” said Tomás of moving from Roma to Austin, where Latinos “are 20 percent at most. That’s the first thing I noticed.”

Statistically, there was a depressingly small chance that any of these kids, English-language learners from low-income families living in a rural town, would make it to and through college, let alone a college as prestigious as UT-Austin. Only 51 percent of low-income high-school graduates even enrolled in a two- or four-year-college in 2012, according to the Pew Research Center. There’s an ongoing discussion as to how many low-income students graduate, since the government’s first crack at calculating that number last year was way off, but the figure is estimated at between 24 and 68 percent, depending on the institution and whether students take four, five, or six years to complete their programs.

When you ask the young people from Roma what got them through, their answer is unequivocal: friends. And these friends are very serious about being friends. They even named their group “La Raza.” Literally, “la raza” translates to “the race,” but for most Latinos, the meaning is deeper.

“It’s like, ‘our people,’” Tomás said.

“Our gang,” added Perla. Though not a criminal gang, they hastened to explain, giggling a little.

“We just call it ‘the group,’” said Eduardo.

The group holds potlucks featuring food from home. They get each other jobs. They help the newest Roma-grads-cum-UT-freshmen find housing, the laundromat, and free food on campus. They share textbooks and help each other with homework. They carpool home for the holidays. They ask each other: How do you sign up for health insurance? Can you explain this financial-aid form? Where is the registrar’s office? When someone is sick, they cook him dinner. When someone is lonely, they talk. When someone is struggling, they encourage her to reach out to resources on campus they know can help. When they join other groups—fraternities, the Hispanic Business Association—they go to the first meetings with another La Raza member.

“We help each other with anything,” Perla said.

“You think you’re the only one struggling,” Jesús said. “But no. Everyone is in the same boat.”

Seeing each other struggle, knowing you’re not the only one crying in the shower that first desperately hard semester—that’s what gets you through, Tomás said. “We are missing a really important power,” he said of arriving on campus as first-generation students from a small town no one’s ever heard of. “Networking.”

Eduardo, the business student, nods. “We have to start our own networks from scratch. That’s what La Raza is.”

At The Hechinger Report, which produced this story in partnership with The Atlantic, we’ve written about dozens of attempts to get kids like my former students to and through college: microgrants, college counselors, programs to help students graduate in four years, community-college guaranteed-transfer programs, pushy moms, and investing in individual students like they’re a promising stock option, to name a few. But one of the biggest factors in whether a student graduates from college is almost entirely out of college leaders’ and nonprofit do-gooders’ control: the students’ peer groups.

“We know peer groups are either a key positive motivating force or a key negative force,” said Victor Saenz, an education professor at UT-Austin who studies the effect of peer groups on male students of color. (Saenz, incidentally, grew up in Starr County, Texas, a few towns over from Roma.)

And yet, getting young people to decide to hang out with “the right crowd” is a feat of social engineering few adults have mastered. Campus clubs, intramural sports, and theme-based residence halls are long-standing collegiate traditions, all aimed at helping college freshmen find “their people.” And programs meant to bring students from similarly disadvantaged backgrounds together aren’t new either, though the urgency around them is growing.

“For first-generation students, it’s difficult to know what they don’t know,” Saenz said. “We need to do a better job demystifying the process.”

It can seem to adults immersed in the system—professors and administrators—that basic good habits like attending professors’ office hours when students have concerns about class should be obvious. Middle-class students, though they may be in the know, are no better as potential mentors than these adults. It certainly would never have occurred to me at 19 that a classmate didn’t have health insurance or know how to sign up for it. Frankly, it wouldn’t have occurred to me that her parents weren’t handling that for her, as mine were.

Moreover, first-generation students, used to being top students back home, can be afraid to ask questions that make them feel dumb. They’re already well aware they don’t fit in and many are struggling to keep up. Asking for help can feel like an admission of failure.

And there’s enough of that in the first year already. The members of La Raza told me that upon starting college classes they’d quickly realized most of their high-school teachers hadn’t been fully prepared to teach courses like AP Calculus, even though many AP courses were offered at Roma High School. On his first college test, Jesús, a star student at home, earned a 50 percent.

“It was a slap in the face,” he said. “We just don’t want to let anyone down. When I experienced failure, it wasn’t just my own failure.”

The pressure to succeed that kids like Jesús bring to college can be immense. They are blazing the way into the middle class for their families; families who care deeply, but who are not familiar with the higher-education system. Tomás’s parents, for instance, aren’t sure why he has to spend another four years in school to become a doctor when he just spent four years in school to earn his bachelor’s. That’s not how things worked in their native Mexico. At the same time, Tomás credits his parents and their support for his drive to push harder and higher.

“When you factor in the family piece, the pressures and the guilt, that’s a whole other level than a typical college student deals with,” Saenz said.

When I went away to college and left my Massachusetts suburb behind, I felt no guilt. But leaving Roma is harder.

Seeing friends who have stayed in the area, gone to the local community college, and who live with family doesn’t make Eduardo feel superior. “It makes me kind of jealous,” he said.

“It’s not like we don’t want to be back home,” Perla said.

“We have everyone complaining that ‘We have brains leaving Roma and not coming back,’” said Tomás. “But we can’t come back.”

When I lived in Roma, I imagined the solution to the town’s woes would be for the best and the brightest kids to return and fill the teaching positions held by out-of-towners like me. If only the students here had more teachers from the area, teachers they could look up to, teachers who understood the culture, I thought, they’d be better off. The young local teachers were by far the most popular ones on campus.

But here in the student union, 300 miles north of Roma, the students say the best jobs in their hometown are hard to get if you aren’t chummy with the right people. None of the current teachers are likely to leave what are considered plum jobs, and besides, none of the group members have chosen to become teachers through Teach For America or another alternative certification program. And, they remind me, there are very few other legitimate jobs in Roma for people like them: people with college degrees.

I have written about the complex role of Teach For America in towns like Roma; there are benefits and downsides. But these students, the ones who wanted to go that next mile, to tread the path less taken, say they enjoyed having Teach For America teachers, or “TFAs,” as they called us. We were interesting because we were from elsewhere. We’d left our normal lives for a broader experience of the world, just as they yearned to do. We’d also majored in the subjects we were teaching, so we could better satiate their intellectual curiosity. And they were generous enough to appreciate our fumbling efforts to help. They appreciate the help they’ve had at UT-Austin as well.

The group ran through every helpful program they’ve found here: Freshman Interest Groups, which are now mandatory; Summer Bridge, a program that helps low-income students get used to campus before the first day of school; the Valley Longhorns, a student association for kids from their region; TIP Scholars, a program of the College of Natural Sciences, and so on. They keep going. There are special scholarships, offices full of mentors, friendly professors, and former Roma TFAs who live in Austin and host welcome dinners for freshmen.

“Don’t be afraid to reach out to your college,” Tomás said he tells younger students now. “There are resources, though they may not do a good job of putting their name out there.”

“Don’t be afraid to join organizations,” Perla added. “Freshman year, everyone needs help.”

“There are people looking out for people like us,” Eduardo said. “But we have to find them.

Saenz hopes that schools and professors can start doing a better job of reaching out to students like Eduardo and his friends, so they aren’t left to find everything themselves. “We have to step up,” Saenz said. “We have jobs because they’re here.”

But the young people I spoke with don’t expect others to step up for them. In fact, their big idea for what could be done better for kids like them is that they—the members of La Razashould establish a more formal mentoring program for high-school kids in Roma who want to go away to college.

And though the group is happy to share credit for their success with everyone who ever lent them a hand, it seems clear to me that they did the hardest work themselves. It’s incredible, I told them, that they had independently formed the best possible organization to get them through college.

They smile, shrug.

“I thought we were unique,” Eduardo said, “but then I met a lot of people from El Paso.”

Turns out, there are El Paso parties, El Paso potlucks and an El Paso Facebook group. There are more students from that much bigger border town and they have different accents, but as far as looking out for each other, Eduardo said: “They are just like us.”


This post appears courtesy of The Hechinger Report.

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