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After Affirmative Action Ban, Students Use Essays to Highlight Race

Written by The Anand Market

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Astrid Delgado first wrote her college application essay about a death in her family. She then reshaped it around a Spanish book she read to connect to her Dominican heritage.

Deshayne Curley wanted to leave her Indigenous background out of her essay. But he reworked it to focus on an heirloom necklace that reminded him of his home on the Navajo reservation.

The first version of Jyel Hollingsworth’s essay explored her love of chess. The finale focused on the prejudices between her Korean and Black American families and the financial struggles she overcame.

All three students said they decided to rethink their essays to emphasize one key element: their racial identity. And they did so after the Supreme Court last year struck down affirmative action in college admissions, leaving essays as the only place where applicants can directly indicate their racial and ethnic backgrounds.

High school seniors graduating this year have been working on their college applications, due this month, during one of the most turbulent years in American education. Not only did they have to prepare them against the backdrop of the war between Israel and Hamas – which sparked debates about free speech and anti-Semitism on college campuses, leading to the resignations of two Ivy presidents League – but they also had to comply with the new ban. on race-conscious admissions.

“It’s been a lot to take in,” said Keteyian Cade, a 17-year-old from St. Louis. “There is so much going on in the world right now. »

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Sophie Desmoulins’ personal statement explored, among other things, how her indigenous characteristics affected her self-esteem.Credit…Ash reflects for the New York Times

The court’s decision was intended to make college admissions race-blind: answers to questions about race and ethnicity on applications are now hidden from admissions committees. A recent Gallup poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans expressed support for banning affirmative action. Some strongly believe that race should not be considered during the admissions process.

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“I think it’s wrong,” said Edward J. Blum, president of Students for Fair Admissions, the group that brought the case to the Supreme Court.

But the ruling also allowed admissions officers to consider race in personal essays, as long as decisions were not based on race, but on personal qualities derived from an applicant’s experience with their race , like courage or courage.

This has led many students of color to reframe their essays around their identities, with the guidance of college counselors and parents. And many found that the experience of rewriting helped them explore who they were.

Sophie Desmoulins, who is Guatemalan and lives in Sedona, Arizona, wrote her college essay with the court’s decision in mind. Her personal statement explored, among other things, how her indigenous characteristics affected her self-esteem and how her experience volunteering with the Kaqchikel Maya people helped her build her self-confidence and embrace her heritage.

For Julia Nguyen, a child of Vietnamese immigrants based in Biloxi, Mississippi, rewriting her essay made her more aware of how her family’s upbringing shaped her. Julia, 18, said she felt “more proud to have this personal statement because of the affirmative action case.”

In Keteyian’s case, he said he felt “much more passionate” about his essay after changing his approach. As a black student interested in engineering… a field that has struggled to diversify its ranks Keteyian concluded his personal statement with a mixture of fear and hope.

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Deshayne Curley and Delphi Lyra, seniors at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts.Credit…Adam Glanzman for the New York Times

While some parents said they were happy that their children could reflect on their identity in their essays, others worried that the court’s decision would make it more difficult for their child to find a community while in college.

“Even with affirmative action in place, people in our community still struggle to go to college and succeed in college,” said Deshayne’s mother, Guila Curley, a college counselor on the Navajo reservation at New Mexico.

Not all students enjoyed the rewriting experience as much. Some found the decision made them feel like they were writing not for themselves, but for someone else.

In her first essay, Triniti Parker, a 16-year-old who aspires to become her family’s first doctor, recalled her late grandmother, who was one of the first black female bus drivers for the Chicago Transit Authority .

But after the Supreme Court’s ruling, a university advisor asked him to clearly refer to his race, saying it should not “get lost in translation.” Triniti therefore adjusted her description and that of her grandmother to allude to the color of their skin.

The new details made her think. “I felt like I was playing by someone else’s rules,” she said. Triniti added, “Now we feel like people of color have to say something or we’re going to be scrutinized.”

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After the Supreme Court’s decision, a university advisor asked Triniti Parker to clearly reference her race in her essay.Credit…Taylor Glascock for the New York Times

Some have decided to abandon their race altogether. Karelys Andrade, who is Ecuadorian and lives in Brooklyn, focused her essay on her family facing eviction during the pandemic and forced to live in a shelter. “This experience was a story that needed to be told,” said 17-year-old Karelys.

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In recent years, some Asian American students avoided writing about their heritage, believing that affirmative action was largely biased against them, said Mandi Morales, a counselor at Bottom Line, a nonprofit organization for applicants. first-generation scholars serving primarily students of color. But the end of affirmative action in colleges has led some to reconsider, advisers said.

Ms. Morales cited as an example a student who added a mention of his “conservative” Chinese family. “Explicit disclosure of his ethnicity would not have been included in the final version before the decision,” she said.

Some experts say the court’s decision encourages students to write about racial conflict, trauma and adversity. Natasha Warikoo, a professor of humanities and social sciences at Tufts University, said Supreme Court justices “expect a history of adversity to play the role that race played when we had race-conscious admissions.”

But Joe Latimer, director of college counseling at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts, said he thinks there’s no need for students to “sell their trauma.” Instead, he advises his students to present their identity as “strength-based,” showing the positive traits they have built from their experiences as a person of color.

Critics of affirmative action say they fear essays could become a loophole for universities to consider an applicant’s race. “My concern is that the system is being manipulated,” said William A. Jacobson, a law professor at Cornell University and founder of the nonprofit. Equal Projection Project.

Since the court’s decision, colleges and universities have affirmed their commitment to diversity, and some officials have said their institutions will continue to promote it through awareness tools and such as Landscape, a database containing information about a candidate’s school and neighborhood. And officials said race can still inform decisions, as long as they are based on the candidate’s character and connection to the university’s mission.

But some students, including Delphi Lyra, a senior at Northfield who is half Brazilian, have reservations about the new admissions environment.

“The idea behind this decision is to not check a box,” said Delphi, 18, referring to the issue of race and ethnicity in applications. “But I think, in some ways, it almost even created more of a need to check a box.”