If I were feeling generous, I might be inclined to argue that the conflicted nature of Admission (Weitz, 2013) is a purposeful gesture designed to comment on the turmoil present in the process of admission (in both senses of the word). Unfortunately, however, I suspect that the movie simply lacked a clear understanding about its core story, relying instead on the well-worn structure of the American romantic comedy for support. Based on a 2009 book by Jean Hanff Korelitz, the movie adaptation focuses on the trajectory of Princeton admission officer Portia Nathan (Tina Fey) after the Head of School for the alternative school Quest, John Pressman (Paul Rudd), informs her that one of his students, Jeremiah (Nat Wolff), might be her son. Confused as the movie might have been, it was startlingly clear in its reflection of current cultural themes; evidencing a focus on the individual in a neoliberal environment and various manifestations of the sensibility of the post-, Admission remains a movie worth discussing.
Individualism and Neoliberal Thought
Although the decision to anchor the story in the character of Portia makes a certain amount of narrative sense, the focus on the individual at the expense of the process represents the first indication that Admission is driven by a worldview that has placed the self at the center of the universe. But, to be fair, I would readily argue that the college admission process itself is one that is driven by individualistic impulses as high school students learn to turn themselves into brands or products that are then “sold” to colleges and universities around the country. In large and small ways, college admission in its present form demands that American youth mold themselves into a somewhat elusive model of excellence. (Let’s be honest, we all know parents who teach their toddlers French or insist on lessons of various kinds in the hopes that these skills will place children on track for a “good” school.) In short, college admission sets the rather impossible task for students to, as Oprah would say, “Be your best self” while remaining authentic and not presenting as packaged (although that is secretly what is desired). The danger here, I think, is failing to realize that what is deemed “authentic” is, by its very nature, a self that has been groomed to meet invisible expectations and therefore is understood as natural.
Tracing one factor in the development of the current primacy of individualism Janice Peck performs a close analysis of Oprah’s Book Club in her book The Age of Oprah: Cultural Icon for the Neoliberal Era, illustrating how Winfrey’s continual insistence on the self-enriching power of literature is reflective of the situation of the self as the most relevant construct for individuals immersed in a culture of neoliberalism (186). Through her examination of Oprah’s Book Club Peck suggests a manner in which culture has reinforced the adoption of particular values that are consistent with those of neoliberalism. Admission is not exempted from this reflection of a larger sensibility that judges worth in relationship to self-relevance as we see the character of Portia only really advocate for a student once she believes that he is the son that she gave up for adoption. Although I am willing to give Portia the benefit of the doubt and believe that she has been an advocate for other applicants in the past, the choice of the movie to conflate Portia’s professional and personal outreach grossly undercuts the character’s ability to effectively challenge a system that systematically promotes a particular range of students to its upper echelon.
Moreover, having previously established the influence of the 1980s recovery movement (7), Peck then suggests that for those who ascribe to the ideals of neoliberalism the therapeutic self—the self that is able to be transformed, redeemed, rehabilitated, or recovered—is of utmost importance. As example of this sentiment’s pervasiveness, although it would appear to be a clear conflict of interest, in discussing the merits of her applicant son Portia stresses the way in which Jeremiah has blossomed in the right environment and thus exemplifies the American ethic of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. Here Portia urges her colleagues to overlook the first three years of high school that are riddled with Ds and Fs and to focus on Jeremiah’s transformative capacity.
The Manifestation of the Post-
And yet perhaps Portia’s insistence on the power of change makes a certain amount of sense given that she is the female lead of a romantic comedy and embodies transformation herself. Initially portrayed as a bookish middle-aged woman whose life is characterized by resigned acceptance, Portia inevitably has her world shaken by the introduction of a new male presence and proceeds to undergo the transformation that is typical of female leads in this scenario. Indicative of a postfeminist sensibility, Portia’s inner growth manifests as a bodily makeover in fashion that mirrors Rosalind Gill’s reading of Bridget Jones’ Diary (2007).
The most telling way manifestation of the logic of the post- in Admission is, however, the film’s express desire to “have it both ways” with regard toward attitudes on female identity/sexuality and race. In her article “Postfeminist Media Culture: Elements of a Sensibility” Gill argues that the deployment of irony to comment on social issues is a central feature of the post- mentality and a practice that is ultimately damaging as it reinforces inequalities through its insistence that difference has been rendered innocuous enough to be rendered the subject of a joke (2007). In this vein, Admission introduces Portia’s mother, Susannah (Lily Tomlin), as a second-wave feminist only to undercut the power of the message that she represents. Although not expressly stated, the presentation of Susannah is suggestive of a radical feminist but also features a scene in which Susannah exemplifies postfeminism’s connection between the body and femininity by electing for reconstructive surgery after a double mastectomy and later ultimately admits that Portia’s conception was not an act of defiance but rather simply a mistake made by a young woman.
Admission also demonstrates ambivalence towards issues of race, not broaching the topic unless it is specifically the focus of the scene. To wit, John’s mother is a one-dimensional stereotype of a New England WASP whose articulations of racism (despite having a Ugandan grandchild) ostensibly indicates that she is not a “good white liberal.” This scene is indicative of the way in which irony has infiltrated popular media, going for the easy joke as it winks to the audience, “We all know that racism is awful, right?” Insultingly, Admission then fails to comment on the way in which John’s son Nelson (Travaris Spears) perpetuates a very specific presentation of young black males in popular culture as rascals and/or the way in which issues of race continue to be a very real point of contention for the admission process as a whole. Similar to issues of feminism, Admission exemplifies the sensibility of the post- in that it expresses a desire to gain approval for acknowledging social issues while not actually saying anything meaningful about them.
Problematizing Irony as Social Critique
How, then, do we go about unseating irony as a prevalent form of social critique when the response to challenges is often, “Can’t you take a joke?” I was surprised to see, for example, a response to Seth MacFarlane’s opening Oscar bit that argued that the feminist backlash was misplaced—according to Victoria Brownworth, MacFarlane was using satire to point out the inequalities in the Hollywood system. Although Brownworth fails to recognize that acknowledging a phenomenon without providing critique or an alternate vision only serves to reinforce the present, her reaction was not an isolated one.
One of the things that I have learned thus far in my life is that it is almost impossible to explain privilege to a person who is actively feeling the effects of that position and so a head-on confrontation is not always the best strategy. (This is, of course, not to say that one should allow things to pass without objection but merely that trying to breakdown the advantages that a party is experiencing in the moment is incredibly difficult.) If we recognize that the logic of neoliberalism constructs individuals who primarily understand importance in relationship to the relevance to the self—or, worse yet, do not think about interpersonal and structural forces at all—and that irony can be used as a distancing tactic, how to do we go about encouraging people to reengage and reconnect in a meaningful way?
This isn’t a new thing but I have to say that the Admission Problems tumblr (http://admissionsproblems.tumblr.com/) makes me so incredibly sad. As someone who used to work in the profession I have to admit that I get the jokes and I completely understand blowing off steam–a lot is asked of you as a professional and it is, at times, hard to remember why you do what you do. That is, if you even love it in the first place. I sympathize with the frustration of being continually misunderstood and seeing the same perceived shortcomings appear over and over again in students and parents but the thing is, I think, that we need to remember that the stakes look so different from the other side of the college fair table.
Our profession already struggles with an image issue and the danger of the tumblr is that outsiders are going to read it and judge all of us for what a few of us do. Outsiders are not going to understand the way that we might grumble but do so because we have so much hope for students and, perhaps unfairly, want them all to be as great as we know they can be. What does the blog do for students and families who are already nervous about navigating the college-going process? How many students will get the idea that they just aren’t good enough or that we don’t really care about them because of the tumblr’s vibe?
I get that a lot of the admission counselors who are on the ground are young but I also think that we should challenge ourselves to be better. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have faults and that we are immune from the occasional grumble session. We should be honest with our students and our families about how we are, just like them, human and we have human emotions that include frustration. But we should also be honest with them and let them know that this is not our dominant state of being–we are (with luck) not jaded and cynical and completely distanced from what it was like to apply to college. We should be honest and admit that sometimes we DO forget that this is, in many ways, the first time that these students can fail at something big and that an entire educational system has coached them to present themselves in ways that we occasionally find tiring. We need to be honest and tell people that our outbursts this don’t mean that we love students or support their goals any less.
We talk about how “students these days” can be narcissistic, individualistic, and needy. We talk about how our students aren’t smart about social media use. And maybe those arguments can be made. But we should consider how something like this Admission Problems tumblr implicates us in the very things that we think we are above. The tumblr talks about growth and how people can “learn” from the examples provided but makes evident that it knows nothing about what it actually means to be an educator. Is the information helpful? Maybe. But people should definitely be offended because the goal of Admission Problems is not to teach nor is it to truly understand. Admission Problems exists solely to critique and to judge and the fallacy of thinking that this is productive is a severely misguided notion. There are many things about the culture of college admission that I want to work to change but I also, at times, get angry enough to shout at these anonymous people, “Get out if you don’t love what you do. This work is too important to be done by people who don’t care.”
In so many ways I want to revise the tumblr’s subtitle and tell students that they ARE special in so many ways and sometimes we just can’t see that. But to also remind them that special doesn’t mean better than. I want to remind students that they are the protagonists of their stories but, at the same time, they are bit players in the stories of others and that being able to reconcile those two ideas is going to take them far in life.
One of the greatest mistakes, I have been told, is to do things simply because “that’s the way that they’ve always been done.” This is not to suggest that traditions and practices may not have endured for a reason, but I have been trained to continually question the assumptions and expectations that surround my object of inquiry. In so many ways, I have been continually told to fight against determinism, to reexamine evidence, and to think about what historiographical methods can reveal.
So when it comes to the college admission essay—something that I had been familiar with for a number of years—and a story from The Chronicle that reported on the Harvard Summer Institute on College Admission, I began to sit down and thing: why do we do what we do? I know the party line: that the essay is used to assess writing composition skills. This is not untrue, but as someone who has recently had to read undergraduate papers for the first time, I began to wonder if there was in fact any correlation between an ability to produce a (relatively short) essay as a one-off and the kind of structure/discipline necessary for the actual papers that students would be writing in college. Sure, we have composition courses to help students along but skills are often still lacking.
So all of this begs the question: “What exactly do we hope to get out of the college admission essay?”
As mentioned in the article, another common response is “authenticity.” We are looking for a glimpse of a spark, we are looking for something/someone fresh—we want a student who is unabashedly true to who he or she is. But we also want a student who fits into our often unstated range for who an acceptable student should be.
I’ve spent some of my free time last year thinking deeply about the implications for this (particularly as I began to work more with fan communities) and reflected back to all the times that I saw kids who were incredibly passionate about things like Harry Potter or dressage or Rubik’s cubes. It was no small secret that these sorts of activities were generally regarded with skepticism at best (and possible derision at worse, particularly if someone decided that an interview was the opportune time to demonstrate something). Authenticity, then, is only valued insofar as it speaks to values that I support.
So, if I were really being honest, what I’m really looking for is a student to tell me a really good story about himself or herself and I want that tale to hit markers of what I deem to be truth or authenticity. (And the insistence on a narrative is in itself a bias, right? There are “good” stories and “bad” stories, stories that have better formats than others, and this driving need to turn everything into a narrative although there are other forms of structure.) I think, as admission officers, we develop this internalized sense of what represents truth (i.e., we purport to be able to tell when students are being disingenuous or are overly polished) and perhaps blind ourselves to the way in which we can get played if a student manages to present as someone who ascribes to our ideal image of what a “real” candidate looks like. And to be fair, I don’t think that our filters our off—we all know those students who try too hard or who use sleight of hand to try to trick us—but I also don’t know that we are actively considering how we may be duped by false positives.
There has to be, I think, some real discussion about what we strive for as admission officers and whether our metrics continue to be up to the challenge. We must recognize that these tests and evaluations are born out of culture that is different from our own (not just in the structure of educational institutions but also fundamentally who our students are and how they function). Are we applying methods developed in the 20th century (and earlier!) to 21st century students? We shouldn’t throw out everything we’ve learned but, like with test scores, I think we need to be honest with ourselves about what we think we’re getting out of all of this.
As an admission officer, you have to be quick on your feet. More often than not, you’re on your own in front of an audience who is scrutinizing your every move. What you say, how you say it, what you don’t say—these are all things that are examined for hidden meanings. Grace, poise, enthusiasm (not unlike a beauty pageant contestant?) are attributes that the job demands, especially when you are trying to put out fires without breaking a sweat.
One of the most challenging experiences I ever had took place at USC’s satellite campus in Orange County. Current USC undergraduates were on hand to give local college counselors a taste of life at USC and were performing admirably until I heard those words float across the room:
“It was great to come to USC because you really got to see how the other half lives.”
I will fully admit that I hadn’t been entirely focused on the conversation, but, with that, my attention snapped back into focus. How do you fix something like that without drawing overt attention to it? Do you just hope that people didn’t notice? Is it worse that they didn’t? How do you come back from that?
Eventually everything worked out all right and, in the long run, that moment was much more instructive for me than it was damaging: it’s something that I’ve carried with me throughout my career and something that I think about when we come to the topic of ethnography.
It’s easy, I think, to claim that you are interested in understanding the mindset of others but it is another thing entirely to be open to such a practice. Even if we momentarily ignore issues of assimilation and the fear of losing oneself in or to a project (as if self identity was ever something that was static), it is still incredibly difficult to work against a process that automatically filters perceptions through layers of developed experiences. Despite our stated intent, it may take us longer than we expected to truly begin to understand those we wish to study.
I’m looking at you, Tyra Banks.
Needless to say, Tyra Banks going “undercover” as a homeless person for a day is not a form of ethnography (although I do not think that Tyra herself would ever employ such a word). Being made up to look homeless for a day undoubtedly fails to convey the sense of hopelessness that some homeless feel or, for that matter, even a very real sense of the pervasiveness of the issue. In fact, at its worst, Tyra’s undercover episodes are a form of stunt journalism that seeks to profit off of the very groups that she is purporting to help; entering with all of the trappings of privilege, it is her duty and her prerogative to expose injustice, wrongdoing, and prejudice. This is, of course, not to suggest that the objects of her inquiry (e.g., strippers, homelessness, sexism) do not deserve inquiry but the danger lies in individuals like Tyra believing that their investigative experiences are more meaningful than they actually are. Spanning across instances as varied as Tyra’s episodes, colonialist literature, and It Gets Better, we see a common theme: the story of the investigators is elevated above the tale(s) of the community.
Here we understand an opportunity for ethnography to redress the situation as it reasserts the relationship of the observer to those that he or she would study. Rather than striving to remove all traces of the observer (which is probably impossible anyway), I think that good ethnography acknowledges the impact of the observer and clearly outlines ways in which the observer’s presence might alter outcomes and how the observer’s perception of events is framed by personal history.
So as I sat in an after-school tutoring session, I found myself racing to take four sets of notes: observations, possible meanings of what I saw, implications of those actions, and a running account that attempted to explain why I perceived things in the way that I did. In essence, I made a series of passes, adding additional layers of information each time I revisited my notes. Although this process would have ideally been aided by audio/visual recording, I think my mini-ethnography was quite instructive as I began to think about what things were worth recording (and which I had to let go because I just couldn’t keep up) and also how to rapidly shift between different layers of analysis. After three hours I found myself exhausted but with an interesting record of how the students in this center interacted with one another and their tutors; in my hands I held a formal record of what educators learn to do instinctively as they evaluate and assess each of their students (and themselves). Some students were easily distracted but amazing when focused, some were great motivators but not great leaders, some were bored when working with tutors but animated when teaching their peers, and some just seemed to feel uncomfortable in larger groups. To their credit, tutors seemed to have picked up on many of these traits (and undoubtedly more that I couldn’t even begin to see) and adjusted their mannerisms as they moved back and forth between students: to some they were kind, others stern, still others saw a stern exterior interrupted with sly smiles. Although I didn’t have the opportunity to interview the tutors after I observed them, I wondered how much of this process was automatic for them. Did they consciously consider how to best handle a student or did they just seem to “know” what to do? Had they, as teachers, done an exercise like this before? Did this sort of self-reflexivity make them better teachers? How had these volunteers grown into their jobs as educators? Did the skills exhibited in the tutoring center translate to a classroom?
I suppose there’s always next time…
The obvious answer is that if early Science Fiction was about exploring outer space, the writings of the late 20th century were largely about exploring inner space. More than just adventure tales filled with sensation or exploration (or cyberpunk thrill) the offerings that I encountered also spoke to, in a way, the colonizing of emotion. Thinking about Science Fiction in the late 20th century and early 21st century, I wondered how some works spoke to our desire for a new form of exploration. We seek to reclaim a sense of that which is lost, for we are explorers, yes—a new form of adventurer who seeks out the raw feeling that has been largely absent from our lives. Jaded, we long to be moved; jaded, we have set the bar so high for emotion that the spectacular has become nothing more than a nighttime attraction at Disneyworld.
At our most cynical, it would be easy to blame Disney for forcing us to experience wonder in scripted terms with false emotion constructed through tricks of architectural scale and smells only achievable through chemical slight of hand. But “force” seems like the wrong word, for doesn’t a part of us—perhaps a part that we didn’t even know that we had—want all of this? We crave a Main Street that most of us have never (and will never) know because it, in some fashion, speaks to the deeply ingrained notion of what it means to be an American who has lived in the 20th and 21st centuries.
For me, there are glaring overlaps with this practice and emotional branding, but what keeps me up at night is looking at how this process may have infiltrated education through gamification.
Over the past few years, after reading thousands of applications for the USC Office of Undergraduate Admission, I began to wonder how the college application structures students’ activities and identities. On one hand, I heard admission colleagues complaining about how they just wanted applicants to exhibit a sense of passion and authenticity; on the other, I saw students stressing out over their applications and their resumes. The things that I was seeing were impressive and students seemed to devote large amounts of time to things, but I often wondered, “Are they having any fun?”
Were students just getting sucked into a culture that put a premium on achievement and not really stopping to think about what they were doing or why? We can talk about the positive aspects of gamification, levling and badges, but as the years wore on, I really began to see titles on activity summaries as things that were fetishized, obsessed over, and coveted. Students had learned the wrong lesson—not to suggest in the slightest that they are primarily or solely responsible for this movement—going from a race to accumulate experience to merely aggregating the appearance of having done so. How could I convince them that, as an admission officer, it was never really about the experience in the first place but instead how a particular activity provided an opportunity for growth. It was—and is—about the process and not the product.
But, that being said, I try not to fault students for the very actions that frustrated me as a reader are reinforced daily in all aspects of education (and life in general). Processes are messy, vague, and fluid while products are not. How would one even go about conceiving a badge for emotional maturity? Would one even want to try?
Perhaps I am clinging to notions of experience that will become outdated in the future. Science Fiction challenges us to consider worlds where experiences and memory can be saved, uploaded, and imprinted and, really, what are recreational drugs other than our clumsy attempt to achieve altered experiences through physiological change? I don’t know what the future will bring, but I do know that my former colleagues in admission are likely not thinking about the coming changes and will struggle to recalibrate their metrics as we move forward.
Love out of Nothing at All?: A re-examination of popular culture’s presence in the college application
College application essay, identity as narrative, popular culture, digital media literacy, self-branding
Structured talk (30 minutes), discussion (30 minutes)
Secondary school counselors, CBOs
Harry Potter. Twilight. Video games. Twitter.
The media environment that surrounds today’s applicants seems rife with topics that likely sit high atop lists that solemnly declare, “Bad Essay Ideas.” And, perhaps, not without reason, for the typical college application essay is one that often treats these subjects (along with more traditional ones like leadership, sports, or community service) lightly, evidencing a cursory understanding of the material at best. Students seem to struggle to infuse meaning into activities that appear on resumes, attempting to convince admission officers—and perhaps themselves—that these pursuits constituted time well spent.
But what if we could encourage students to rethink their engagement in these activities, while also challenging them to respond to the question, “Why does this matter?” Instead of asking students to conform to a process that privileges particular activities over others, how might we inspire young people to cultivate genuine interests while simultaneously thinking critically about the implications of their actions? Similarly, how might we encourage adults to recognize the potential nascent political themes of Harry Potter, see young people negotiating family structures and gender roles through Twilight, witness creativity and collaboration through video games, and understand how Twitter can develop the skill of curation? Instead of promoting the chasm between digital media/popular culture and education, how can we use the space to promote the skills that our students will need to be competitive in the 21st century?
College attendance and completion (at a four-year institution) has come to represent a significant demarcation in American society with studies showing a positive correlation between obtainment of a bachelor’s degree and total lifetime income. But more so than a mere economic advantage, higher education represents an opportunity for social mobility and the accumulation of social/cultural capital. If we accept that college attendance represents at least a partial transformative experience, we realize that understanding who is accepted is important.
Informal reports from educators (an opinion pieces in The Chronicle of Higher Education) have hinted that the current generation of college students display a wide range of skills and intelligences but also appear to be distracted by social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter while in class, suggesting that digital media is generally seen as inhabiting a space separate from education (although this might be changing, albeit slowly).
However, I suggest that some of the types of skills professors desire (e.g., critical thinking, academic inquiry, engagement, and risk-taking) can be, and are, cultivated through pop culture and digital media use/production but it is my belief that, as a whole, the undergraduate admission process systematically devalues participation in such spaces, privileging more traditional—and readily understood—activities. There seems to be a potential disconnect, then, between selection criteria and the skills that schools hope to attract; if an institution values traits like proactivity, are admission officers fully sensitive to the range of ways in which such a trait might present or manifest? Or have we become overly influenced on quantitative measures like GPA and test scores and the relative stability they purport to provide? If such a bias exists, a possible effect of the college application structure (and the American educational system) is to cause those involved in the admission process to internalize a mental barrier between digital media and education.
It seems evident that the admission selection process (as reflective of an institution’s values) plays a large part in shaping who is able to attend a given school. Highly-selective schools, however, seem to have a disproportionate amount of influence in American culture as their practices create a stance that other colleges and universities either aspire or react to. Therefore the position that highly-selective institutions take on the integration of digital media and education likely has a trickle-down effect that affects the admission profession as a whole and is likely internalized by college counselors and high school students who aim to be accepted by these schools.
Ultimately, I hope to foster discussion between high school students, high school college counselors, and admission officers that examines how we collectively conceptualize and articulate the value of the connection between pop culture, digital media and education. I argue that higher-order skills can be cultivated by youth practices such as remix but that incongruent language employed by youth and adults makes recognition of this process difficult. After giving a short talk that explores the ways in which the everyday practices of youth can be seen as valuable, I will ask participants to join in a discussion that seeks to uncover strategies to enable youth to articulate their process and how we can challenge our peers to become more sensitive to the manifestation of traits that mark a “successful student.”
A 6-year veteran of undergraduate admission at the University of Southern California (Los Angeles, CA) Chris Tokuhama was responsible for coordinating the University’s merit-based scholarship process and 8-year combined Baccalaureate/M.D. program. Working closely with high school populations, Chris became interested in issues that ranged from self-harm to educational access and equity, which has helped to inform his current research interests in digital media literacy, learning, and youth cultures. In addition to his role as an advocate for youth in Education, which included a Journal of College Admission publication on the effects of branding in the admission process, Chris studies the relationship of personal identity to the body as a doctoral student in USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Employing lenses that range from Posthumanism (with forays into Early Modern Science and Gothic Horror), the intersection of technological and community in Transhumanism, and the transcendent potential of the body contained in religion, Chris examines how changing bodies portrayed in media reflect or demand a renegotiation in the sense of self, acting as visual shorthand for shared anxieties. When not pursuing his studies, Chris enjoys working with 826LA and drinking over-priced coffee.
Race is one of those things that immediately causes most people to take a position. We have all grown up in a world that is still struggling with racial equality and we have all been exposed to the racial profiling that took place after 9/11. Outwardly, we all recognize that it is no longer PC to call someone by a racial slur or to discriminate in an overt manner—and this is where we begin to enter dangerous territory.
Many of my students have grown up in an environment that shuns racism; we all profess to believe in equality. We think the lack of lynch mobs or ethnic cleansing in our surroundings means that we’ve somehow moved past all of this. But we still have Minute Men, we still have genocide, we still have the KKK, and we still have people dragged behind pickup trucks with their faces melting against asphalt. We exist in a country that is becoming more polarized than ever and it is frankly a little frightening. We are learning to turn our backs on each other and form communities that ascribe to the same beliefs that we do.
Racial issues affect all of you.
If you think that this statement is untrue, look at the world around you. Think about your place in your community and the niche that is carved out for you by others. Where does society tell you that you can exist? What is it safe for you to be? How much of this is determined by your physical features?
On a related note, the concept of Affirmative Action was explored by Thursday’s session—something that I happen to know a little about. Some students voiced concerns over the practice while others stated that they did not support it. Let me start off by saying that I get where these students were coming from as I was no different in college. Like it or not, however, all of you have been affected by Affirmative Action. USC as an institution values diversity and practices Affirmative Action; the term, however, does not mean what most people assume it to. In our eyes, Affirmative Action is about providing equity and access to education. You might think that such programs lend a helping hand to indigents at the expense of “more qualified” individuals; I would challenge you, however, to think about what makes one student more qualified. Is it test scores? Is it GPA? Is it the fact that you went to a fancy prep school and deserve to be at USC? Do you think that this somehow makes you better than someone else?
Now think about how many other people are just like you.
Affirmative Action aims to recognize the strengths that different individuals can bring to the table. Do Latinos and Blacks who have had to struggle to finish high school have a different perspective on the world than Asians (who might have benefited from positive aspects of the Model Minority myth)? Do these students see things in a way that you don’t? Is there a benefit to interacting with them and learning how other people think?
Affirmative Action doesn’t just apply to Blacks and Latinos, however. Are you Southeast Asian? Are you first generation? Are you from a low socioeconomic class? Did you have to work in high school to help your family? Are you from a state that does not typically send a lot of students to USC? Are you from a minority religion? Do you hold atypical political beliefs? Are you a female interested in Math or Science? Are you a male interested in Communication? If any of the above are true, then you have benefitted from the type of thinking that supports Affirmative Action.
Moreover, you all benefit from the diversity that Affirmative Action creates. The depth of experiences that you have at USC is in part due to the voices that we bring in. Every student has value.
And, to turn things a bit, if you think that Affirmative Action is wrong, let’s think about football. Many of the students on the team were individuals who may have scored lower than you on SATs or received lower GPAs. Why aren’t as many people upset that these “lesser qualified” people were admitted? Is it because you enjoy going to football games? Do you only extract value from people when it suits you? My point is that the entire USC community benefits from the presence of gifted athletes (who manage to graduate just fine, by the way) and that these individuals—analogous to ethnic minorities—can bring something invaluable to the table.
I think that the reaction against Affirmative Action stems from fear: we instinctively lash out in order to protect ourselves when we feel threatened by the encroachment of undesirables. We want to secure our hard-earned victories and may feel that our achievement are cheapened by the acceptance of people whom we do not respect.
Fight to see the similarities that you have with others; fight to see their worth. Think about how important it is for other people to see you and fight to feel the same way about others. Fight against the indoctrination that you’ve suffered for so long that has engrained these patterns of thinking into your minds. Fight the urge to think that you’re more important than you are. Fight the need to feel comfortable and fight the urge to judge. Fight for your life and fight for your life to be the way that it should be. Fight to understand the things that we’ve been talking about this semester; fight to find meaning in our discussions. Fight to make the world better for your children, for your friends, and for yourself. Fight for people who don’t have a voice. Fight in whatever way you can…but just fight.
It has been my pleasure to work with you this semester and there’s no real way to convey how hopeful I am that this will be a turning point in your lives. I don’t expect that you’ll all become crusaders for API rights (nor should you feel compelled to), but I do hope that we’ve been able to get you to see things for the first time or to feel empowered to make change happen. Take the critical thinking skills that you’ve learned from CIRCLE and go out and find your cause. We’ve got a long way to go, but you’ve already taken the first steps.