"You Won't Get In": Reflections on Justice Scalia and a College Counselor's Advice

January 25, 2016

I started this post on December 10th and it's been on my mind since then. I'm not sure if I've figure out the right tone yet, but it's been knocking around for long enough that I feel the need to write something.

 

Y'all have already heard about Abigail Noel Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin, I am assuming, yes? So, during this case, Justice Scalia, of the Supreme Court of the United States of America, made a comment some weeks ago suggesting that black students may be better served by attending less demanding institutions. His comments immediately reminded me of an experience in high school.

 

 

 

I went to an arts high school partnered with a local public school. Thus, I spent the mornings at EC Glass and then afternoons, back at the arts school dancing, rehearsing, etc. During my senior year, when it came time to decide on next steps  -- I did what I always do. I developed spreadsheets and tasklists and long and short lists and medium lists and color-coded lists. My parents had stopped reviewing my report card in 6th grade, realising that I tended to hold down the fort all on my lonesome with my own anxiety and worry about grades, performance, and achievement. They spoke with me often, listening to me think through my logic, and offering support and a soundboard with no advice or restrictions. I considered college as one path, dance as another, service and travel as yet another. I left open doors, windows, and screen porch swinging doors. I did not see, and still do not, the utility of closing off a path towards opportunity at a time of transition.

 

When it came to developing and crafting this list of schools, my imagination got to run wild. I loved this list. I thought of it every day. I imagined the dance programs at some schools, the rigorous academic opportunities at other, the call for travel at a few, and the progressive social atmospheres at many. My list became an extension of myself: a place where disparate aspects of my identity could exist, neatly ordered, in process. Columbia next to Goucher next to Wake Forest next to Howard next to UC Berkely next to the University of Arizona.

 

 

 

When it came time to meet with The Counselor for Students with Last Names S-Z, I was aflutter. The Counselor asked for my list. Eyeballing it efficiently, she told me that I did not have a chance at most of the schools I had listed, crossing out the schools that were beyond me "not enough AP courses...not a good fit for you." She suggested schools I had considered and rejected carefully. A look at me, at my transcripts, was enough to convince The Counselor that I should play it safe. The list she returned was stale - devoid of the Ivies and top-tier schools. She left behind, how did Justice Scalia say it, "the less-advanced school, a less — a slower-track school." 

 

Looking back on this young, black woman in Jerry Falwell's aptly named town of Lynchburg, I have to wonder about her dismissal of me. Without knowing or talking to me, viewing my PSAT or SATs scores or personal statement. Or listening to my reasoning behind each and every one of the -- what?15 schools?-- I had added to the list. I think some of this is informed by this culturally-bound belief about IQ and achievement and scores. That some students are destined to be Just So Great and others are not. That this overworked and underpaid counselor had given in to, as we all do, the relief of schemas that make it easy to put people in boxes and streamline your mental energy ("A Columbia applicant has a transcript full of AP classes, all A's, a generous helping of student leadership, and a dash of community engagement, tied together with a unique bow.") Unfortunately, these beloved schemas can be harmful. 

 

Luckily, I am a stubborn little so and so and the story ended happily with me pleased by my decision to apply to the schools I wanted to (with application fee waivers) and choosing Wake Forest, followed by the University of Virginia. I'll end this now (as it is already too long) with three question:

 

  1. Do you believe that regardless of cultural background, all people are equally intelligent and capable?

  2. If so, how do you explain the disparity in degree attainment and diversity in some of the top tier schools?

  3. If we are all truly created equal, is it possible that something else is getting in the way?

 

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© 2019 by Dr. Janelle S. Peifer