As a person of color, any type of application, whether it be college, job or internship applications are always equipped with stress, self-doubt and insecurity. I feel alone in academic and social settings at the University of Michigan, with about 55% of the student population being white and the median family income being a staggering $154,000 for the Fall 2020 undergraduate population. I, as a minority student who does not have the privilege of wealth nor whiteness, have had to endure a college experience overrun by feelings of imposter syndrome. Here at the University, I constantly feel the pressure of social and economic factors like race and social class that lead me to lose belief in myself academically and professionally. I dream to go to law school and become a lawyer, which I know will force me to exist within more intimidating environments of professionalism, whiteness and years of enhanced feelings of being an imposter.
Interacting with students in my sociology, political science and public policy classes has resulted in very interesting yet uncomfortable conversations. It seems like almost every student has been interning for their local congressman since high school and have parents who own their own law firm. Comparing my background and experiences to others, the overwhelming sense of competition makes me anxious and worried about my future at the University and beyond due to my lack of experience compared to my peers. When it comes to discussions surrounding internships or any other professional opportunity, the number of white students who seem to have been handed positions because of their family’s privilege is honestly astounding.
This past January, I started my application to the Ford School of Public Policy. Even before the start of my freshman year, I already knew I wanted to apply to this program come the winter of my sophomore year, and I worked my ass off both academically and professionally to try to secure an acceptance. I completed the prerequisites courses early, pursued internships that aligned with my political interests and became an involved student at the University to solidify that public policy was my passion while proving to admissions that I was a dedicated student. I thought what I was doing would be enough and that I would stand out among hundreds of applicants all competing for a spot in the 70- to 80-person cohort. But when talking to other students who had the same dream of attending the Public Policy School, it seemed that their experiences, grades and accomplishments were much more prestigious than mine. And when it was time to start my application, I needed to think of something that made me different from the rest of the applicants. There was an easy conclusion: my ethnicity. I am a Latino student at the University; I am a part of the mere 6.98% of the undergraduate population that is Latinx.
Diversity has been proven to be beneficial in the classroom. Whether it’s ethnicity, socioeconomic class or religion that sets individual students apart, learning in diverse environments improves students’ cognitive skills and critical thinking. By boosting an individual’s abilities and intellect, diverse classrooms nurture further academic success and innovation. More diverse classrooms not only make me feel more comfortable, but they also create an open space for dialogue regarding important issues affecting various cultures and ethnicities. I knew my ethnicity would benefit the Public Policy School’s cohort, but I did not want to wonder if I had only been accepted for the sake of the school’s diversity numbers. My imposter syndrome made me feel that my experiences and grades would not be enough for the acceptance email that I’ve been dreaming of since I learned about the Public Policy School.
I had to come to accept that a majority of the students applying, on paper, most likely appeared to admissions as identical. So many of us are pre-law, political science majors waiting on an acceptance to the Public Policy School. Most of us are politically active and involved in related organizations on campus, and some of us naively believe we can become president one day. Due to this, I knew the one place I could truly stand out would be in the application essays. It felt like the three 300- to 400-word essays would determine my future.
After filling out basic demographic information in the early part of the online application, it was finally time to view the essay prompts. Unsurprisingly, the first one was the staple “diversity essay.”
This year’s prompt started out by informing the applicants about how research has shown that diverse work groups are better at solving problems. They noted, however, that working in such groups can present considerable challenges to students who struggle to work with others from different backgrounds. The question then asked the applicants to write about an experience working in a diverse setting and specifically asked that the essay be focused around the challenges of working with differences. The final part of the prompt questioned the applicants to discuss in what ways one could improve on how productive and respectful they were to others of a different background.
Though I was expecting at least one essay to prompt me about my background, this question was the most difficult one to write, taking me weeks of constant drafting and editing. I think it’s important for admissions committees to ask questions which allow students to vulnerably talk about their identities, but when it comes to this specific question, it seemed that the committee was only trying to see how white students have been able to interact in diverse settings. Instead of just asking about an experience in working in a diverse community, they asked about how the environment was challenging. After rereading the prompt over and over, I began to get angry. In what environment at the University have I had the opportunity to even work in a diverse setting? To me, this question asked, “How, as a person of color, have you faced challenges working in a diverse environment despite never being in one?” I’m almost always one of about three Latinx students in 300-person lectures, the only person of color in discussion sections and one of four brown students crossing the entire Diag, the center of the University. In all of my group projects and breakout rooms, I often find myself having to settle without having my ideas appreciated, being talked over and feeling stupid. I wish I had the opportunity to work in a diverse group setting so that I could finally be listened to, not doubted or ignored, but that is simply not the reality here at the University.
I reflected on the final part of the aforementioned prompt: “Are there things you wish you had done differently or might do differently in the future to work more respectfully and productively with people who differ from you?” No, but this question caters to white students who trample the minority students at this school, creating a welcoming prompt for them to ease their way into. When talking to older friends in the Public Policy School who helped edit my essay, we all agreed that this prompt seemed to be purposefully phrased so that admissions would be able to see which white students were “woke” in appreciating diversity and understanding its importance. These students are obviously necessary for a holistically diverse environment, but the ease of being able to discuss working with people of different backgrounds provides advantages to white applicants over actual students who would contribute to a diverse cohort. I am a person of color who has solely been in majority-white environments, I could not think of a time where I faced a challenge working across differences, because I have rarely been presented with differences in my work environments. A challenge I have to constantly deal with is not being valued as a thinker and student within the classroom. It’s not my duty to respectfully and productively work with students who can’t see past my skin color.
Columnist Hugo Quintana can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org