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The year I became a 'minority'

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Esther Cepeda
March 1, 2012
— Is the sky falling for minority students because the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case seeking an end to using race as a preferential college admissions factor?

Not necessarily. Despite handwringing from those who cherish the value of diverse college campuses -- and outrage from activists who consider any thought of eliminating coordinated racial balancing as an assault on civil rights -- taking race and ethnicity out of the admissions equation could eventually turn out to be a good thing.


If the court's ruling makes merit-based admissions the norm, would students of all races begin respecting each other as equals rather than assuming that minorities only got in to "diversify" the school?


How many years of confidence in college admissions procedures would it take for groups of co-workers at any given organization to assume that a minority peer was in his or her position because of talent and not merely to fill a quota?


There are many people out there who hope to see that day because -- contrary to the beliefs of whites who feel they have been passed over for admissions, scholarships, internships and jobs because they weren't a minority -- preferential treatment for race or ethnicity is an "advantage" that's not all it's cracked up to be.


I graduated from a diverse public college preparatory school and attended an equally diverse public university where no one ever felt anyone else got in because of affirmative action. My strong undergraduate performance earned me a full-ride scholarship to a prestigious marketing graduate program at Northwestern University, ranked in the top 10 of the prestigious U.S. News and World Report "Best Colleges" list.


I think of it as the year I formally became a "minority." In all my classes I was the official Hispanic, routinely called upon to enlighten my white classmates about Latino consumers' struggles in the barrio with English language acquisition, gangs, and discrimination -- none of which I'd ever had any experience with.


It was obvious that most of my fellow classmates knew I was there on a full scholarship and assumed that I'd gotten into the school through some official attempt at diversity.


Here's the thing, though: that may have been exactly why I got in. And guess what? I was not academically equal to my peers and woefully unprepared for the math-heavy statistical analysis needed to complete the basic courses in data mining. My low first-quarter grades put me on academic probation and I later ended up leaving school never having gotten that graduate degree -- another statistic showing that minority access to college does not guarantee completion.


The well-meaning admissions people who thought that I'd find a way to succeed academically were, as it turns out, a little too sunny about my potential, and I left with serious bruises on my psyche and ego. But it was painful preparation for the "real world" because since then I've not held a job -- in teaching, government or journalism -- where someone didn't imply, or flat out declare, that I got it just for being Hispanic.


Untold numbers of minority readers will study this column and react with the certainty that they might not have gotten where they are today had they not been given a race- or ethnicity-based opportunity. But I bet those same readers will be able to share the pain of being seen as someone who succeeded only because of affirmative action. It's a sting that never seems to go away.


Diversity on college campuses is vital to a diverse workforce in a global economy and taking special admission favors away might have short-term consequences for minority applicants. But diversity must not be achieved through college-level quota systems that might admit students who are not as academically prepared as their peers to endure the trials of a rigorous higher education.


Income level, not race, is the main barrier to a good education in this country. It's America's responsibility to ensure that all low-income students have the opportunity to get an uncompromisingly meaningful K-12 education that will propel them into college based on their brains, not their skin color.


If we could find a way to fix the inequality in access to great teachers and strong curriculums long before college, every year earned from then on would be valued equally -- regardless of race.


Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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