Kawsar Yasin, a Harvard sophomore of Uyghur descent, found last week’s Supreme Court decision banning racially conscious college admissions heartbreaking.
Jayson Lee, a Taiwanese-born sophomore, hopes the court decision opens the door for him and others to enter competitive schools.
And Divya Tulsiani, the daughter of Indian immigrants, can’t help but think the decision wouldn’t end the poisonous side of college admissions.
Asian Americans were the focus of the Supreme Court’s decision against Harvard and the University of North Carolina. In both cases, the plaintiffs said that high-achieving Asian American applicants lost out to less academically qualified students. In the case of Harvard, Asian Americans have been hooked on a personal assessment, according to the lawsuit, starting a painful conversation about racial stereotyping in admissions.
But in the days following the court’s ruling, interviews with about two dozen Asian American students revealed that for most of them – regardless of their views on affirmative action – the decision was unlikely to allay doubts about the fairness of the college admissions.
« I don’t think this decision has resulted in any kind of leveling of a playing field, » Ms. Tulsiani said. « It kind of did the opposite. »
The lower courts held that Harvard and UNC did not discriminate in admissions. But the Supreme Court ruled that, « however well-intentioned and implemented in good faith, » the colleges’ admissions practices failed constitutional appeal, and that race could no longer be considered in deciding which students to admit.
The court noted that the two universities’ main response to criticism of their admissions systems was, « essentially, ‘trust us.' »
The universities said they would comply with the ruling. Harvard added that « it must always be a place of opportunity, a place whose doors remain open to those to whom they have long been closed. »
In a community as large and diverse as Asian American, views on affirmative action were wide-ranging. A recent The Pew Research Center poll expressed the ambivalence of Asian Americans. Only about half of Asian Americans who had heard of affirmative action said it was a good thing; three-quarters of Asian respondents said race or ethnicity should not be a factor in college admissions decisions.
Some students have found hope in the Supreme Court’s decision.
Mr. Lee, a sophomore in Maryland, is interested in the study of science and technology and supports standardized testing and other traditional measures of merit.
« Before the case, yes, I was concerned that my ethnicity was a factor in college admissions, » he said. « But if colleges implement the new court rulings to get rid of affirmative action, then I think it will be better, and more uniform, for every ethnicity. »
Others had more mixed feelings. Jacqueline Kwun, a sophomore at a public high school in Marietta, Georgia, whose parents emigrated from South Korea, said she felt the sting of stereotypes when people thought she was « born smart. » .
Even so, he said he believed the court’s ruling was wrong.
« Why would you shut everything down? » she asked. « You should be trying to find a way to make yourself happy and make other people happy at the same time, so it’s a win-win situation, rather than a no-win situation. »
In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that colleges might consider mentions of race in essays students submit with their applications if they could be related, for example, to overcoming discrimination through personal qualities such as « courage and determination ». But many Asian American students had doubts about that prescription.
Students are already feeling the pressure to write about the hardships, said Rushil Umaretiya, who is attending the University of North Carolina in the fall. She wrote in her essay about how the women in her Indian immigrant family were breadwinners and intellectuals, and how her grandmother rose through the ranks dominated by white men in the Roy Rogers restaurant chain to become a regional manager.
Even before the decision, she had seen anxious classmates at her selective high school, Thomas Jefferson High School, in Alexandria, Virginia, make up stories about confronting racial injustice.
“I think college admissions has really plunged into this trauma dumping fad,” she said.
Ms. Tulsiani, who is studying for a master’s degree in sociology and law at New York University, is a veteran of the application process.
She wrote a question essay for Georgetown about her family — her father worked his way up from deli worker and cab driver to restaurant owner — in response to a suggestion about diversity.
« You accept that you have to sell some kind of story to appeal to this audience, » she said.
She was glad the court had preserved the diversity essay option, but she felt sympathy for the plaintiffs who had to divulge their most intimate secrets and speak with moral force. « It’s a huge burden for a 17-year-old boy, » she said.
He thinks the stigma of affirmative action will persist. « The narrative will be, instead of ‘you entered because of affirmative action,’ ‘you must have entered because of your class,' » she said.
Some Asian American students believe, contrary to the dominant narrative in the court case, that they have benefited from affirmative action. Evidence presented in court showed that Harvard sometimes favored some Asian American applicants over others. For example, applicants with families from Nepal, Tibet or Vietnam, among other nations, were described with words like « deserving » and « Tug for BG, » an abbreviation for background.
« I think I was a beneficiary, » said Hans Bach-Nguyen, a Harvard sophomore from Camarillo in Southern California. Lui said he wasn’t sure until he requested his he admissions file and discovered that one of the two reader comments in it involved his he Vietnamese heritage.
He was happy, he said, to be recognized as a member of an underrepresented minority in higher education. But he wondered if he was fully deserving. His parents came to the United States as refugees around his age and graduated from state universities.
« I think my guilt stems from the fact that I didn’t grow up on a low income, » he said.
Echoing a common criticism of the university, he noted that many Harvard students, « even if they come from minorities, come from financially stable or more affluent families. »
In California, affirmative action has been banned since 1996, but even so, some Asian American students seemed suspicious of what they thought was a secretive admissions process.
Sunjay Muralitharan, whose family is of Indian descent, was rejected or waitlisted from his top five college picks, a mix of public and private colleges in California. He believes his race was a factor. He ended up at the University of California at San Diego, where he’s a sophomore.
« I know people say, ‘Oh, it’s just going to be merit-based, merit-based, merit-based, » she said. « No it is not. »
However, she said, she has gotten over her initial grievance. « I grew up middle class, I never had to worry about where the next meal would come from, » she said. “Like it or not, I have been placed in a number of mentorship programs. It’s understandable to give an opportunity to someone who didn’t have the same amount of opportunity when they were younger. »
Colbi Edmonds AND Anna Betts contributed report.