I still remember sitting in my calculus class and hearing students talk about how, “it’s not fair that schools support minority groups, I might as well say I’m gay just so that they’ll let me in” or “if they didn’t offer financial aid to poor kids, I’d be way more likely to get in”.
They were hitting some great points on how the system is unequal. Elite schools are very much products of an elitist society that wishes to create an exclusive image of not only the best and the brightest, but who the best and the brightest should be: “masculine, heterosexual, socially capable” and so on.
But before I could even worry about getting into college, I had to worry about paying for it.
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If financial aid wasn’t given to lower-income students, then they were correct.
Many lower-income students would not have a chance to even dream of attending Ivy League schools or schools that specialize in careers that lead to higher income jobs.
Thankfully, financial aid is given to lower-income students, but it’s not enough.
An amazing thing can happen when you’re a low-income student that can access an elite education, you’re able to not only have a superior academic experience, but you build up a network to give you access to higher paying jobs and bring your family out of poverty.
However, people underestimate the impact that being in a low-income background has on being a high achieving student. Even low-income Valedictorians top of their class will find themselves guided away from elite colleges. The resources available do not motivate students to believe their voices should be valued.
You are forced to learn to be independent.
There’s no money for tutors or psychiatrists. You are less likely to be encouraged by peers, educators, guidance counselors, and parents alike to pursue academic success. It stops just being about being about not having enough money. It becomes the family as a result of poverty. It becomes the culture of the community as a result of poverty.
And so, the system of inequality continues, keeping the chance of higher incomes out of reach for these students.
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When I tell my story, I’m unapologetic about having a diverse background because I know that I fought to stand on the same playing field along with everyone else. I didn’t choose to struggle just for the sake of looking better on an application. I didn’t choose to be outcasted by classmates, friends, and family, or risk becoming homeless.
My fears and my risks are an understatement compared to what my parents and people like me have had to live through just to give me the opportunity to come to this point, even if it means I can only go to college if my entire tuition is guaranteed to be paid for by scholarships.
I still have my own level of privilege.
Growing up I was told that I shouldn’t voice the problems I saw with the world around me because my voice was too small and insignificant. I hated myself and my obscure identity for all the ways my classmates resented minorities in the college admissions process.
I had support from my community to help me I overcome that anguish. I had the determination to persevere and show them I deserved to stand on this platform. Now, I speak out unabashedly about who I represent for the sake of inspiring others like me to reach beyond the limits of the expectations people place on them.
However, not everyone gets that opportunity.
For some staying true to one’s identity means their voice will never be heard in a system of inequality. No matter how much you try to teach kids to speak up in their own ways, they will continue to avoid it, because it has become ingrained into them by a system that told them that it was wrong to express their voice.
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I realize that there is a major fear in the back of my classmate’s minds that don’t have to do with them is trying to mock the poor or be racist or homophobic, even if that is the product.
They’re afraid because they have to compete in a much larger application pool than I do in order to get into the margin of elite schools that offer spots for LGBT+ students, ethnic minorities, and low-income students.
Even with a fantastic education, many students do not realize the value in being taught how to craft their voice even though they have the privilege of voicing it.
For those for whom being diverse was never a conscious part of their identity, trying to answer a question like University of Michigan’s “How do you bring diversity to college?” essay in 2003 leads to many students coming to me to edit essays that sound undeniably cookie cutter saying, “there’s nothing special about me, should I just make it up?” I am reminded of all the ways that people will stop nothing short of in fabricating an absurd essay just for the sake of appearing unconventional.
These kids didn’t have to worry about what made them who they were until October of their senior year. Some will pay their way through and continue never come to such terms with themselves or their writing. Me? I’ve had to worry about it my whole life.