Rod Newhouse lives in Reston, Va.
I am a black man. In 1992, I was valedictorian at a primarily black high school in Flint, Mich., and I went on to study aerospace engineering at MIT. I studied hard in high school, but when I got to college, I discovered that I didn’t speak the same language as my peers. Yes, we all spoke English, but they used words — such as “integral” and “differential” — that I had never even heard before.
Fortunately, there were programs available to help students like me catch up. But “catching up” at a place like MIT is like chasing a speeding bullet. You need to run much faster than everyone else just to finish even with them. I made it through — I even won some prestigious awards — but it was a hard, brutal road.
Some would argue that I should not have been admitted at all. Even though I was a high school valedictorian, I was “unprepared.” I “took a spot from someone who deserved it more.” My SAT scores were lower than my peers’. I’d mastered my high school coursework, but that didn’t matter much. “How did you get here without learning that?” other students asked me. “Someone here should just know this stuff.” The isolation and shame I felt stopped me from seeking help. I didn’t want to be labeled an “affirmative action student.”
But eventually I got over my pride, and when I did I found a wealth of tutoring, outreach programs and other resources to help me. In time, I thrived. But it’s still hard for me to listen to condemnations of supposedly unworthy minority students getting opportunities in place of non-minorities. These students deserve our praise and admiration for the enormous step up that they have to manage just to get to the same level as their peers.
When I entered MIT, most freshmen already had one to two years of college-level calculus. I had none. To just barely be able to understand my “entry-level” classes, I had to fight to learn a year’s worth of college-level material in my first few weeks at school — all while my classmates were moving forward at an incredible rate. (This was MIT, after all.) Affirmative action students do this every day, even as they are stigmatized and sometimes demonized simply for their presence on campus, as if they’re somehow at fault for the Zip code they grew up in. It’s a lot easier to go fast if you’re born in a Ferrari instead of a Pinto.
The alternative to affirmative action — purely merit-based admissions — looks at what a student has demonstrated in high school and on standardized tests. That is just fine, if you assume that all applicants start off in the same place and have equal access to opportunities to succeed. Unfortunately, that is not the America that we live in.
There is a vicious cycle in our educational system. Today, I am raising four really sharp kids in the D.C. area. Our local PTAs donate thousands to our schools each year to make sure our children have access to everything they need to succeed. When I was in high school, my textbooks were sometimes older than I was. Children in many places do not get the preparation necessary to pursue a college education. As a result, many do not even view it as a possibility. In turn, low college-admission rates cause resource-starved school districts to lower their ambitions for their students. The cycle goes on and on.
The reality is that a child from my old neighborhood may have to work much harder than a student from my new neighborhood just to reach the national average. Sadly, they simply start from a greatly disadvantaged position. There is a reason children of college graduates attend college at much higher rates than those of non-college graduates, regardless of race. Parents who know the system can better prepare their children. It’s not a “smart” thing or a “race” thing. You just can’t teach someone something that you don’t know.
At 16, my oldest son has mastered material I didn’t see until I got to MIT. We are working hard to get him ready for the college admissions process, and he’s even listening (a little). I’m convinced he will be accepted to a good school based solely on the strength of his application. But when he gets there, some will probably underestimate him because of his skin color. That’s fine. That can actually be used to his advantage. We’re preparing him for that, too.
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