It was always expected of me to go to college; education and family were the tenants of my home. After school, after completing all of our homework assignments, my brothers and I were expected to memorize the spelling and definition of a list of vocabulary words that our father assigned to us. This was the only thing my father could give us, the only advantage that he could bestow on his kids so that they could get a leg up in the world. Work harder than most and use your natural talents and intelligence, that was it.
On Tuesday, news broke of a large college admissions cheating scandal where wealthy families, which included actresses Lori Loughlin aka Aunt Becky from Full House and Felicity Huffman of Desperate Housewives paid millions of dollars in bribes and falsified college applications to get their children admitted to top schools including Stanford, Yale, and the University of Southern California. Gasp….wealthy white people bought the system...you don’t say! This is not news for people with far fewer advantages in life. For those of us who have to get in through the front door the hard way, we’ve always known that someone else was cutting corners and getting in through the back.
My junior year of high school, I began working at the George Washington Carver Community Center in Norwalk, CT. It was a place where black and brown kids like me could go after school to do homework, find mentorship, and hang out with friends until our parents got off of work. The Carver Center had tutors, programs, and resources that I’m sure those families embroiled in the Varsity Blues Scandal were probably paying top dollar for.
That same year I started taking chess lessons with Mr. Patrick at the Carver Center. He drove a lime green mustang but wore sweater vests and played chess once a week at Barnes & Noble. He also recruited my brother and I to his mock trials team; we were given a fake trial to prosecute against teams from across Fairfield County. I have a terrible fear of public speaking. Before I have to stand before a crowd and open my mouth, my heart starts pounding; I could hear the pulse in my ears. The pulse echos in my voice as I speak making it shake. I would have never volunteered myself for mock trials if it weren’t for Mr. Patrick. It was also an extracurricular activity that I was able to put on my college applications; an extracurricular that those families forged, some of whom went as far as photo-shopping the heads of their kids on the bodies of athletes.
Mr. Patrick also hosted a free SAT prep class that helped me get solid scores on my verbal and squeak by with decent math scores on my SATs. There were other players in my roster that helped me get into college. Ms. Vanessa took a cohort of young black girls under her wing. She mentored us, helped us find our voices, she challenged us, and she made us feel worthy of every room we entered. Ms. Lisa was the director of the Carver Center. She gave me a job as a teacher’s assistant for one of the youth programs. She taught me leadership and financial literacy. She also took us on college tours to state schools in Connecticut including the University of Connecticut which became my Alma mater.
College has long been lauded as the great equalizer, but realistically, the pathway to
college is far from equal. I was admitted to the top public school in the Northeast with the help of my village and what little resources they had to offer. There are students whose resources are far more sophisticated and within the legal bounds of college admissions whether that be attending private schools, hiring tutors, hiring college admissions coaches, or even making contributions to the school of your choice or building a library (I’m talking about you, Jared Kushner). It surprises me that these well-to-do families could have and probably did tip the scale in their kids favor to get into the college of their choice, yet still, they felt the need to conduct a white collar crime. I mean how basic can Becky’s daughter be?
Oh but there is a plethora of basic Beckys and mediocre Matts who hop on the conveyor belt of higher education and exit those institutions as the next lawyers, doctors, leaders of Fortune 500 companies, and even become president of the United States. What is particularly harmful about this scam, both legal and illegal, is that it continues to perpetuate the myth of meritocracy, that hard work is rewarded by success; if Kylie Jenner can become a “self-made” billionaire, so can you.
Often times, when under-served populations do “pull themselves up by the bootstraps” and find themselves in those privileged spaces, they’re made to feel as though they don’t belong.
After I graduated from college I went on to get my Masters in Higher Education & Student Affairs. Part of what I do every day is to be the Mr. Patrick, Ms. Lisa, or Ms. Vanessa for the students who need me most. The students who don’t have the wealth to buy their way into college. Instead, those students can find wealth in the support systems that provide a legitimate pathway forward.