Written by: Nia Satterfield Brown
Graphic credit: https://www.collegegrant.net/
As the college process for students from the class of 2021 begins, it is time to also think about how this grueling task impacts Black students. Issues such as affirmative action and guidance counselor’s care towards their Black student’s success arise as they seek the equal and impartial chances that their white classmates seem to effortlessly possess.
Affirmative action refers to the practice in which racial minorities are favored in order to extend opportunities to them as the underrepresented and underprivileged part of society. Oftentimes, Black students hear the words, “you only got into college because of affirmative action, which doesn’t make it fair.” These destructive words assume that the student did not earn their spot in college but rather they only got in because of the color of their skin. In addition to promoting diversity, affirmative action supports colleges in working towards racial equity in admissions and encouraging social mobility so to level the playing field by assuring that all students benefit from higher education.
I reached out to two, Black high school seniors who attend private institutions in New York City and asked a series of eight questions about their feelings going into the college process. Members include:
Sha-Emera Campbell, 17-year-old, student at The Brearley School
Lauren Gay, 17-year-old, student at The Horace Mann School
How has your school been preparing you for the college process?
Sha-Emera Campbell: My school has been preparing us for the college process since the spring of 10th grade! We were loosely told about how SATs and ACTs work, and given a quick rundown of all the written work we’d begin to do in junior year. We were told not to think about it too much until junior year, but almost everyone had started researching schools over the course of that summer. Heading into junior year, we had a class called XI SEMINAR where our college counselors would speak to us about the timeline for the year, demonstrated interest, how to research schools online, and any preliminary writing assignments they gave us to prepare for writing on the common app.
Lauren Gay: Our school started preparing us for the college process by assigning us a college counselor at the beginning of Junior Year. Halfway through the spring, one of our classes became college oriented and we started discussing how our identities play a role in the college process. We’ve had open communications with our counselors about what type of schools we’d like to attend and subjects that we’re interested in pursuing. We’ve also had two essay writing workshops over the summer to prep us for our personal essays.
Do you feel supported by your college guidance counselors as you head into the process?
Sha-Emera Campbell: I only feel supported by one of my college counselors. The other one has a history of being racist and specifically targeting and shooting down the black girls in previous years, and when this past year began she did much of the same to me. I felt really policed in any spaces with her, and just tried to avoid her as much as I could. But! That was incredibly difficult amidst all of the meetings we were having with BOTH counselors present. My skin literally crawls when thinking about her.
Lauren Gay: I definitely feel supported by my college guidance counselor. He’s always available to meet throughout the year and responds quickly to emails. He also manages to be supportive while also being realistic about the process and keeping me informed.
Have you been discouraged from applying to certain schools?
Sha-Emera Campbell: I’ve definitely been discouraged from applying to schools of a higher reputation, like many of the Ivies, and am constantly being told about other schools that I’ve explicitly said I wasn’t interested in location wise. It also hurt when they put a lot of my top schools way up in my reach category, when many of them are definitely attainable for me.
Lauren Gay: I haven’t been discouraged explicitly by my college counselor, but we do use a website called Kickstart, which ranks schools from how likely to unlikely our acceptance is. This is a little discouraging since some schools that I want to attend may be categorized as unlikely or as “reach” schools.
Have your counselors spoken to you about Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) ?
Sha-Emera Campbell: They’ve only mentioned Howard and I’ve brought up Spelman, but I couldn’t credit my knowledge of any of the other HBCUs to them.
Lauren Gay: We briefly talked about Howard when I brought up that I may be interested in attending, but we haven’t talked about HBCUs other than that.
If you feel comfortable sharing, has your school suggested or not suggested prestigious schools for you to apply to?
Sha-Emera Campbell: I’ve kind of decided that most of the colleges I’m looking at are as prestigious as is best for me, but they have DEFINITELY been suggesting some weird ones, like ones with no sort of prestige that wouldn’t even really suit my personality or interests. It all feels super careless.
Lauren Gay: I initially went in with my own list of schools, but since then my college counselor has suggested some prestigious schools for me to apply to.
Do you believe you are at a disadvantage because of your skin color?
Sha-Emera Campbell: Honestly, yes. It’s clear the kinds of students they treasure for this process, the ones who are legacies because their parents went there AND happen to still donate to the schools. They can afford to pay full tuition no problem, and where they were going was set before they even thought of the word college. It feels like I’m going to have to fight twice as hard to get the lists and results and advice I want. They give a lot of the black girls the same list of schools even when we compared the DIFFERENT information and requirements we had told them in our personal meetings. It just seems like they don’t really care where we end up.
Lauren Gay: I don’t particularly believe that I’m at a disadvantage because of my skin color but I do believe that there are a lot of misconceptions surrounding affirmative action. Plenty of people are misinformed and believe that just because I’m African American, affirmative action is one of the main reasons I’ll get into a good school.
Have students or teachers ever made comments towards you about affirmative action or anything else as such?
Sha-Emera Campbell: Ha! We had a senior last year say that the black students get “oppression points” when applying to college, implying that it’s much easier because we are black, a common assumption. Yet, it became even worse when she said that for that reason she wished she could erase her whiteness and use something to HER advantage. It was disgusting.
Lauren Gay: No one has made a direct comment towards me, but I have had one class discussion last year about whether affirmative action is discriminatory. I’ve also heard debates take place in the hallways surrounding affirmative action and whether it’s necessary or not.
Is there anything you wish your counselors would talk to you about/do during the process?
Sha-Emera Campbell: I just wish they would show unbiased care and concern. I mean, if you aren’t going to do your job in a fair way, does it make sense for you to be doing it? It just hurts that they disregard our experiences at school and completely disregard every part OF us when they fly over anything related to money or tours because the assumption is that everyone has the money to make it happen. Honestly, I just wish the process could be over much faster, I don’t think I want to deal with it this way any longer.
Lauren Gay: Of course everyone’s experience in college is different, but I wish counselors talked more about diversity and/or racism on different campuses. Personally, I’ve been looking at the black at … pages on Instagram while also searching up diversity statistics for different schools. I’ve managed to learn a lot about which schools are more or less inclusive and just wish this was brought up by my college counselor.
Campbell and Gay’s stories, while uniquely different, possess striking similarities about the culture and attitude around being Black and applying to college. It is evident that Black students must work a great deal harder to receive basic care through their process and not experience the weight of discriminatory remarks during an already fraught time. As the time to submit applications nears, it becomes clear that all these students want is to feel like they matter as they look for a racially equitable college community to call home.