Madison Trice, a sophomore at Harvard University, testified in Harvard’s affirmative action case.
Columnist

Earlier this week, a young African American woman took the stand in the Harvard University affirmative action case and spoke about the essay she wrote for the application that ultimately helped her get into the elite institution.

The essay detailed a pivotal moment in her life that occurred when she was 16 and attending a Washington D.C. school.

“It discussed how because I was bullied, it made it very difficult for me to learn self-love,” Harvard sophomore Madison Trice testified. “And then eventually I was told in my D.C. school by a friend of mine that I didn’t need to change myself, and it kind of sparked this journey toward self-love.”

“If you had been prohibited from identifying your race in your essay, would this have affected your ability to present your full self in your application?” she was asked.

“Yes.”

“How so?”

“I think that the way that I was bullied was kind of inextricable from my race,” she said.

Inextricable from my race.

Those four words strike at one of the main problems with eliminating affirmative action at Harvard or any educational institution, public or private. Forcing a university to be color blind would not just tie its hands when it comes to deciding which applicants to accept, it would also place a muzzle on high-achieving young people of color who hope to attend.

How can we expect applicants to share who they are and what has shaped them if we force them not to mention what people often notice first about them? And if they are allowed to mention that, then how can the school truly eliminate race-conscious admissions?

The case — which saw closing arguments in a Boston courtroom on Friday — isn’t just about checking a box. Edward Blum, the president of Students for Fair Admissions, the organization that launched the suit on behalf of a group of Asian American students, has said: “The cornerstone mission of this organization is to eliminate the use of race and ethnicity in college admissions. Period.”

But what would that look like in reality? How would that work when it comes to listing student activities? Would applicants not be allowed to mention they were president of the Latino student union, and if they did, would that be given no weight? If they wrote an essay about growing up as a black child adopted by an Asian family, explaining how they were fluent in Chinese before kindergarten, would that have to be disregarded?

Earlier this year, I requested a copy of my application from Stanford University in the hopes of getting a glimpse at notes scribbled on it by the people who decided to admit me.

I recognize that I likely benefited from affirmative action. I had a high GPA, but it was not the highest possible. I had a strong SAT score for my school, which was in a high-poverty, high-crime area, but it was not the perfect 1600 that was common at Stanford. The application I submitted had the word “Sample” stamped on the front of it. I was mortified about that at the time and included a Post-it note apologizing and explaining that it was the only application for the university in my guidance counselor’s office. She hadn’t expected anyone to apply to any top-tier schools.

A copy of my application arrived a few weeks after I put in the request. To my disappointment, none of the pages contained notes or anything that could provide insight into the internal admissions process. But the pages did show my handwritten answers to the questions on the application. None asked directly about race or ethnicity, but my responses revealed this: My Mexican American roots were inextricable from who I was at that moment.

The first question asked me to address which activity or interest was the most meaningful to me and why.

My answer: “ ‘Tu estas loca en la cabeza,’ my grandmother told me even before I was old enough to know what crazy was. I’m crazy for taking on a position in which sleep is a rarity and the stress level is high. I’m crazy for putting in 15-hour work days to catch an interview and convert it into news. I’m crazy for giving the journalism department everything I have. But, in truth, the department gave me more than I could ever give it.” (Apparently, my life hasn’t changed much since high school.)

I agree that it is not fair that some students who work hard and contribute to their community won’t get accepted to every school to which they apply. I sympathize with them and their parents. But it is also not fair that some students won’t get a chance to attend college — any college — because of persistent societal inequities.

Affirmative action is not about discrimination. It is about allowing colleges and universities to gauge potential when circumstances haven’t allowed a young person to reach their potential yet. It’s about allowing them to consider the entirety of an applicant, in all their inextricable qualities.

I spoke to Madison Trice several days after she testified. The 19-year-old said when she graduates from Harvard, she hopes to work for the Foreign Service and then settle down in the District because the city “played a really important role in who I am.”

By the time she was 16, persistent bullying had changed how she interacted with people. She constantly apologized, to the point that she prefaced questions with the word “sorry.” She also spoke with a higher pitch than normal in an effort to sound friendlier.

In her essay, which I asked her to send me, she discusses the semester she spent at the School for Ethics and Global Leadership in Northwest Washington. She describes a night she and her classmates spent under the Capitol, talking about their past.

From her essay:

“After we shared our stories, there was silence save for a few whispered words, and one sentence that I haven’t forgotten: ‘I hope you know that you don’t have to change yourself.’ Those words were the beginning of a journey toward finding my self-worth. . . . Now, I don’t change my voice. I substitute more beautiful words for apologies because I won’t diminish myself. I’m pursuing my dreams unabashedly because I believe I deserve them. Although my journey to loving myself is one of the hardest ones I’ve undertaken, I won’t look back.”

That is someone we should want at a university where many of our leaders are shaped.

As for the 16-year-old girl who uttered the words of encouragement that helped Trice realize her worth? She grew up in the D.C. area and is also African American. She, too, now attends Harvard.