Dear Suzy Lee Weiss,
When I initially read your op-ed in The Wall Street Journal and watched your subsequent appearance on the Today Show, I was disgusted. Your sense of entitlement and privilege was outrageous. However, it didn’t take long for me to realize that I couldn’t hold it against you. Four years ago, I was you.
You and 17-year-old me have a lot in common. We both come from white, upper-middle-class families. According to Wikipedia, the racial demographics of our respective high schools are quite similar. We’re both hard-working students, boasting high GPAs, admirable test scores and a palatable smorgasbord of extracurricular activities. We’re both formidable writers. And we both poured our hearts into our college applications.
We also both got rejected from name-brand colleges. For you, it was Yale, Princeton and University of Pennsylvania. For me, it was Harvard and Cornell.
I remember feeling frustrated. I did everything right. I worked tirelessly for perfect grades, barely slept due to my packed schedule of extracurricular activities and fulfilled the appropriate amount of community service and leadership opportunities to round out my resume and essays. What more could those schools possibly want?
Like you, I was riddled with unearned privilege and completely unaware of it.
I was accepted to other schools that appealed to me, including the University of Michigan. After a few months of deliberation and a campus visit, I eventually decided to attend college here. I have a million reasons to be thankful for the fact that I chose the University; reading your article gives me yet another.
I’m thankful that my University education has made me aware. I now know how my words and actions impact others beyond the obvious; it made me aware of how aspects of my identity beyond my control — my skin color, my gender — are active forces in systems of power and oppression. It made me aware of others’ experiences, many of which I couldn’t previously even fathom. My University education made me smarter, more articulate, more compassionate and more understanding, but I’m most proud of the fact it made me a better human being.
While I’d love to credit the University as the only school capable of such a transformation, it’s likely not true. Not everyone who graduates from here leaves with social awareness, and plenty of other universities (and experiences outside college) instill it as well. Nonetheless, I’m grateful that I chose a school that turned my world upside down in the way I most needed it.
I hope you choose to attend the University, and I hope it’ll change you like it changed me. I hope you participate in Intergroup Relations, where you might get the chance to dialogue with someone who’s a lesbian, has two moms or wears a hijab, and learn to respect that the unique life challenges he or she experiences are just that and didn’t fodder for their college application. I hope you take the community-based classes I did, like the one where I taught an inner-city seven-year-old to sound out the word “the.” She’ll be fortunate if she graduates high school, let alone gains acceptance to an Ivy League school. I hope you’ll read the research I did about drug abuse and violence in low-income communities, about unending racial and cultural stereotyping, and most of all, about the enormous chasm in educational opportunities afforded to students from backgrounds like you and me versus students living in poverty all around our country and the world.
I hope that you’ll feel as disheartened by these realities as I did. Then, I hope you’ll feel as empowered to quit whining and do something.
Jill Mailing is a University alum.