Ziad Ahmed had filled out his Stanford application — all the academic credentials, all the information about his volunteer work and activism — when he came to the last question: What matters to you, and why?
Kind of an enormous question.
What high school senior hasn’t gotten to that question, or similar ones at other schools, and snapped the laptop shut for the night, crushed by the vastness of … that?
Ahmed thought about it for a long time.
Then he wrote one hashtag.
One hundred times.
“I was certainly taking a risk,” the 18-year-old from New Jersey said. “But it was a risk I wanted to take.
“Because I wanted to write an application that was authentic,” he said, one that expressed his true voice. He wanted it to reflect his intensity, his desire to effect change, his willingness to take a chance to make that point, the urgency of the cause, the commitment of those who had led that effort.
His tweet about his offer of admission went viral. Bonkers viral.
So now he’s well aware that some people — many people — don’t appreciate his decision. They would have answered differently. They would have written complete sentences, linked to an essay. They would have chosen another cause. They would have, if they were on the admissions committee, extended an offer to others.
And he’s had a chance to think about what all this means, at a particularly divisive time in our nation.
Stanford has always had one of the lowest acceptance rates in the country. This year 44,073 students applied — the most in the school’s history — and 2,050 were offered admission.
A spokeswoman for Stanford confirmed that Ahmed was offered admission.
She did not respond to a question about whether that was his response to the essay question.
By the time he had gotten to the essay, Ahmed had already shared a lot of the things that are important to him: his hard work, his grades, his volunteer work, the nonprofit and the company he founded, the internships in Congress and the State Department, his involvement with a presidential campaign and, oh, that time he was invited to dinner with Barack Obama.
Ahmed told Mic that his Islamic faith and his commitment to justice are intertwined, and he wouldn’t be practicing his religion if he ignored injustices the black community faces.
“When I think about the change I want to see in the world,” he said to The Washington Post, “perhaps no movement is more pertinent than Black Lives Matter.” For centuries, he said, black people have been demeaned and marginalized, and the activist movement, he thinks, has beautifully ignited outrage and united that energy with other causes.
In 2013, when he was a freshman, Ahmed launched a website, Redefy, which now has hundreds of worldwide contributors writing, talking about ending prejudice. “It really is so hard to hate someone you know,” he said. “A lot of the misunderstanding comes not out of malice but misunderstanding.
“We all grapple,” he said, “with that question of: Do I belong?”
Since he tweeted about Stanford, he has found how many people can hate someone they don’t know.
“The vitriol is sobering to me,” he said of the flood of angry responses he has gotten. But although “the hatred has been acute, the love and support has been heartwarming.”
He’s hopeful the attention will be directed to the causes, and the people who have led the way on the causes he cares about, rather than to him.
He’s grateful, he said, for the acceptance to Stanford.
But he’s not sure yet whether he will go there.
Yale and Princeton also said yes.