Checking the black box


Sometimes I joke that, until my oldest child was 16, starting the college application process, she didn’t really know she was black.

Sure, our biracial family valued my husband’s family culture, I sought out African-American dolls and picture books — and part of why we homeschooled was a desire to teach our children about their racial and cultural heritages. Even so, perhaps because we’d been isolated from the culture-at-large, we entered the college-entry game without a clear sense of what we had to lose by continuing to act color-blind. At that time, I had this unconscious notion that it was noble to set aside conversation about race.

The Quest Bridge application changed that. I was amazed to realize how good it felt to engage in conversation that acknowledged situations I’d had to navigate ever since I married my husband. In turn, I came to realize that people who spoke of being “color blind” only talked that way because they’d been able to get through life without thinking about it.

It may be frustrating to try to find a way to explain the tricky aspects of color in America to friends who are color blind and honestly believe they’re behaving with integrity by ignoring how race and ethnicity affect how life a person’s life unfolds. But it can be excruciating, even impossible, to navigate college in a place that has put that approach into policy form. Here’s one example:

Believing that every person is created in the image of God and that Christ seeks reconciliation, the college is committed to ethnic inclusion, racial reconciliation, and the biblical view of men and women. In this faith context, Patrick Henry College does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national or ethnic origin, sex, age or disability in its admissions policy, financial aid programs or employment practices.

That sounds so nice and balanced, at least to conservative Christian ears. But what it meant was, “we welcome you if you come with cash, because we’re not going to offer money earmarked for any particular people groups,” and “we welcome you as long as your blackness doesn’t manifest in ways we don’t understand, which we may well choose to interpret as sinful and thus subject to discipline.” This color-blind approach also effectively shuts down real discussions of race and the discomfort that comes with acknowledging it. If you’re the person who complains about a race-related problem, you are more likely to be admonished that you’ve bought into a “liberal, politically-correct victim mentality” that isn’t necessary on the color-blind campus, than you are to be taken seriously.

As I compared college catalogs and policy statements, I began to realize that it was time to start paying attention to what race and color would mean. How we navigated the issue would make a tremendous difference in how my daughter adjusted to the next level of school.

Ultimately, this led to us asking The Question when we visited her dream campus. You guessed it. It was Patrick Henry College.

Nothing to lose

Nothing to lose

This might not comfort some parents, but I found it heartening. The fact is, admission to many top colleges is, as my teens like to note with admiration, “random!”

National Public Radio shed light on this little-known fact when a reporter tagged along during admissions decision week, as the committee at one of America’s top schools tried to pick 1,000 students from the 8,000 who’d applied. That’s 12 percent.

The bad news? Even valedictorians begin to look run-of-the-mill in this hyper-competitive atmosphere.

The good news? One committee member noted that she was “especially moved by stories of disadvantaged kids who might have few other options. Amherst calls itself need-affirmative — it gives preferential treatment to kids who are first in their family to go to college or poor. The SP-31s, as they’re called in admissions code, face a lower bar, like this kid being presented by Dean Parker, who says he gets ‘an offbeat sort of bohemian sense here. He’s a thinker and a seeker. Still, it will be the SP-31s that will make the difference. Accept with it, wait list without.'”

The entire piece, available here, is worth listening to. It bears out my husband’s observation that our children had nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by throwing their names in the admissions hat.

Inside look at Amherst admissions committee

American Promise

American Promise trailer  I loved this documentary. The families it depicted have such different life experiences than ours; even so, their stories resonated with me. I found it remarkable that the boys whose educational lives we witness over a 13-year span could have so much in common with my son, who’s growing up in a rural Kansas community.

Here’s a description from the American Promise website:

American Promise spans 13 years as Joe Brewster and Michèle Stephenson, middle-class African-American parents in Brooklyn, N.Y., turn their cameras on their son, Idris, and his best friend, Seun, who make their way through one of the most prestigious private schools in the country. Chronicling the boys’ divergent paths from kindergarten through high school graduation at Manhattan’s Dalton School, this provocative, intimate documentary presents complicated truths about America’s struggle to come of age on issues of race, class and opportunity.

PBS streamed this film online in February 2014, and it’s currently available in bits and pieces on the Web. I’ve included a link to the trailer to give you a taste. If you have the opportunity to see this remarkable film, make the time. But bring some tissues: If your family faces any of these issues, the film may bring you tears.

Emotion aside, what I loved about “American Promise” was the way it conveyed experiences that transcend class and geography. The fact is, black students in America, boys especially, have much to overcome. Money doesn’t necessarily change that, nor does opportunity. Hearing these wealthy, highly-educated parents worry about the exact things that trouble me was somehow comforting.

Be brave

One day my “Financial aid is real!” friend called to share an idea with me. She knew my daughter had her heart set on a particular college, a small, private Christian place in Virginia, Patrick Henry College. But Alexandra asked, shouldn’t we consider other schools, top-tier ones? Finances shouldn’t be a problem, she said: my daughter was poor, black, from the Midwest, and brilliant. Admissions officers would love her. And she would love learning with people who were her intellectual peers.

I wasn’t really open to what Alexandra said; I politely replied that I appreciated her thoughts. Fretting over airfares for our college visit to PHC, I put the suggestion firmly out of mind.

Then something miraculous happened. My pastor’s wife called out of the blue to tell me about a program she’d noticed in the weekly announcements at the public high school. Her daughter, also a senior, wasn’t interested in this program, but Eydie thought it sounded like something perfect for Ananda. Maybe I should check it out, she said. “It’s called QuestBridge. Look it up on the Internet.”

QuestBridge seemed too good to be true. Top colleges — places like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton — offered needs-blind admission to high-achieving, low-income students of all races, giving special consideration to those who would be first-generation college graduates.

The deadline was in three days. And the application was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Now I know that it is a hybrid of the Common Application and the individual colleges’ requirements, with that extra layer of query designed to allow the students to tell the stories of their lives. Then, it just looked intimidating, maybe even impossible. I had no idea how to begin. Ananda was unsure she wanted to mess around with it, but for some reason she called Alexandra and asked, “Do you think I should do it?”

“Yes,” Alexandra said, “go for it!” Alexandra had been on the campuses of two-thirds of the schools that participate in Questbridge; Her dad attended MIT, her mother went to Brown, her husband graduated Harvard and she had friends and colleagues at many of the other schools. The world of elite college admissions was not foreign to Alexandra, and she offered to be our guide.

okra3 Though she was eight months pregnant, she came to the house and worked until midnight, coaching and editing and placing phone calls to friends who worked in various admissions departments, and cheering us on. My husband cooked the last of the garden okra and green tomatoes, and fed us plates full of comfort food while we labored away. The deadline to fax the application was 2 a.m.; we hit “send” at 1:59.

Later, Alexandra confided that she encouraged us to try QuestBridge without any sense of whether or not it was realistic to hope for success. 
“I just knew it would get both of you thinking about what your daughter wants, and where she would like to go, and what the choices really are,” she said. “That by itself made the effort worthwhile.”

She was right. The act of conquering that application changed something for our entire family.

Financial aid is real

I’ll never forget the intensity on my friend’s face as she coached my oldest child through the college application process.

“Don’t worry about whether or not you live below the poverty line,” she said. “Financial aid is real!”

She went on with a list of commands: stop thinking about how much college will cost; think about how much you want to attend. Stop thinking about whether you fit into that world; think about how you want to change the world. Stop thinking about whether or not you’re good enough for them; think about what you want.

Until that conversation, I hadn’t realized that life experience — my past — was limiting my aspirations — the future. Not just my future, but the futures of my children.

We listened to my friend, in the nick of time. Three days remained before the deadline that would define my daughter’s life.

“That’s just 72 hours, you know,” my friend reminded me.

“I know,” I sighed.

Short story: we made the deadline, with one minute and a few inches of fax machine roller paper to spare. My daughter made the cut and was accepted at an elite school, with a full financial aid package. She pays less than $2,000 a year for a $60,000 education.

If you are in the market for college-journey inspiration, you’ve come to the right place. I can’t take you there, but I can share my family’s journey, maybe shed a little light on the path, and cheer you on as you find your way.