After a ban on affirmative action, they rewrote college essays with the main theme: race

Astrid Delgado first wrote her college essay about a death in her family, then reshaped it around a Spanish book she read as a way to connect with her Dominican heritage.

Deshayne Curley wanted to leave his Native American heritage out of his essay. But he reworked it to focus on an heirloom necklace that reminded him of his home on the Navajo reservation.

The first draft of Jyel Hollingsworth’s essay explored her love of chess. The final focused on the prejudices between her Korean and Black American families and the financial hardships she overcame.

All three students said they decided to rethink their essays to emphasize one key element: their racial identity. And they did so after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions last year, leaving essays as the only place where applicants could directly indicate their racial and ethnic background.

High school students graduating this year were working on their college applications, due this month, in one of the most turbulent years in American education. Not only did they have to prepare against the backdrop of the war between Israel and Hamas — which sparked debates over free speech and anti-Semitism on college campuses, leading to the resignations of two Ivy League presidents — but they also had to navigate the wading through the new ban. on race-conscious confessions.

“It was a lot to process,” said Keteyian Cade, a 17-year-old from St. Louis. “There’s so much going on in the world right now.”

The court’s ruling was intended to make college admissions racially blind: Answers to the question about race and ethnicity in applications are now hidden from admissions committees. recent Gallup poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans support banning affirmative action. Some strongly believe that race should not be a consideration in the admissions process.

“I think it’s wrong,” said Edward J. Blum, president of Students for Fair Admissions, the group that brought the case to the Supreme Court.

But the ruling also allowed admissions officers to consider race in personal essays, as long as decisions were not based on race, but on the personal qualities that emerged from an applicant’s experience with their race, such as perseverance or courage.

This led many students of color to reframe their essays around their identities, following the advice of college counselors and parents. And several found that the experience of rewriting helped them discover who they are.

Sophie Desmoulins, a Guatemalan living in Sedona, Arizona, wrote her college essay with the court ruling in mind. Her personal statement explored, among other things, how her indigenous characteristics influenced her self-esteem and how her experience volunteering with the Kaqchikel Maya people helped her build self-esteem and embrace her heritage.

For Julia Nguyen, a child of Vietnamese immigrants living in Biloxi, Mississippi, rewriting her essay made her more aware of how her family’s upbringing shaped her. Julia, 18, said she felt “more proud to have this personal statement because of the affirmative action case.”

In Keteyian’s case, he said he felt “much more passionate” about his essay after changing his approach. As a black student interested in engineering — a field that has struggled to diversify its ranks Keteyian concluded his personal statement with a mixture of fear and hope.

“It is intimidating to realize that I may be one of the few Black people in my workplace,” he wrote, “but if the ruling stands, it is something to prepare for and an opportunity for me to to rewrite reality.”

While some parents said they were happy their children could reflect on their identities in their essays, others feared the court ruling would make it harder for their child to find community while in college.

“Even with affirmative action, it is still a struggle for people in our community to attend and succeed in college,” said Deshayne’s mother, Guila Curley, a guidance counselor on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico.

Not all students valued the rewriting experience equally. Some found that the statement made them feel like they were writing not for themselves, but for someone else.

In her first essay, Triniti Parker, a 16-year-old girl who wants to become the first doctor in her family, talks about her late grandmother, who was one of the first black female bus drivers for the Chicago Transit Authority.

But after the Supreme Court’s decision, a university adviser told her to make clear references to her race, saying it shouldn’t be “lost in translation.” Therefore, Triniti modified the description of her and her grandmother’s physical features to refer to the color of their skin.

The new details gave her pause. “I felt like I was following someone else’s rules,” she said. Triniti added: “Now it feels like people of color need to speak up, but if we don’t, we’re going to be watched.”

Some chose to leave out their race altogether. Karelys Andrade, an Ecuadorian living in Brooklyn, focused her essay on her family, who faced eviction and were forced into a shelter during the pandemic. “That experience was a story that needed to be told,” said Karelys, 17.

In previous years, some Asian American students avoided writing about their heritage because they believed affirmative action was largely disfavored, said Mandi Morales, an advisor at Bottom Line, a nonprofit organization for first-generation college applicants that focuses primarily on students of color. But the end of affirmative action on college campuses has prompted some to reconsider, advisors said.

Ms. Morales quoted a student who added a mention of his “conservative” Chinese family as an example. “The explicit disclosure of his ethnicity would not have made it into the final draft before the ruling,” she said.

Some experts argue that the court’s ruling encourages students to write about racial conflict, trauma and adversity. Natasha Warikoo, a professor of humanities and social sciences at Tufts University, said the Supreme Court justices “expect a story of adversity to play the role that race played when we got race-conscious confessions.”

But Joe Latimer, director of college outreach at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts, said he believes there is no need for students to “sell their trauma.” Instead, he advises his students to present their identity as “strength-based,” and to showcase the positive qualities they have built through their experiences as people of color.

Critics of affirmative action say they worry that essays will become a loophole for colleges to consider an applicant’s race. “My concern is that the system is being manipulated,” said William A. Jacobson, a law professor at Cornell University and founder of the nonprofit Equal Protection Project.

Since the court’s ruling, colleges and universities have reaffirmed their commitment to diversity, and some officials said their institutions will continue to promote it through outreach and tools like Landscape, a database of information about an applicant’s school and neighborhood. And officials have said race can still influence decisions, as long as they are based on the applicant’s character and connection to the university’s mission.

However, some students, including Delphi Lyra, a senior at Northfield who is half-Brazilian, have reservations about the new admission requirements.

“The idea behind the statement is not to check a box,” said Delphi, 18, referring to the issue of race and ethnicity in job applications. “But I think in some ways it has even created a need to check a box.”

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