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Being a token for diversity has a cost for students

CHICAGO – My guiding philosophy in life has always been to go where I’m not wanted. This includes the insular, majority-white world of journalism, the insular, majority-white world of public education, and the insular, majority-white world of governing nonprofit organizations.

I’ve always said that those institutions needed me more than I needed them, because diversity equips them to speak more effectively to an increasingly multicultural America. It was an economic pitch, one that scores of Fortune 500 corporations have adopted and profited from.

But marketing wisdom tells us that the profit motive for diversity only works for products or services looking to gain market share; luxury products are basically immune to changing tastes because their appeal is exclusivity.

This is why it’s unlikely, despite ongoing court challenges, that Harvard University will be forced to change much about its methods for admitting what it believes is the right mix of students for its campus.

A key part of Harvard’s appeal is how difficult it is to get into. This is what gives graduates from elite universities so much cache in the marketplace – though apparently not enough to overcome racism, considering studies have shown white candidates with degrees from highly selective universities still get more employer responses per résumé than black.

The truth is that, even today, I would jump at the opportunity to study at Harvard, but I fear it would be fraught.

You see, even though I wish more Asians, Latinos, Native Americans and African-Americans could go to Harvard, I cringe at the thought of those students – with all their hopes, dreams and sense of accomplishment for just getting in – … on campus … partly for the sake of enabling schools to boast about diversity statistics.

Schools that have actively worked at being designated as Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs), Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institutions (AANAPISIs) have made commitments of time and money in the form of diverse teaching staffs and grass-roots outreach to those communities. But elite universities are not primarily dedicated to nurturing first-generation college students for the sole purpose of promoting social mobility.

Harvard’s mission statement is lofty, seeking to create “a diverse living environment, where students live with people who are studying different topics, who come from different walks of life and have evolving identities (where) intellectual transformation is deepened and conditions for social transformation are created.”

This sounds pretty awesome, but I’ve been down that road before. Trust me, being the campus diversity – and representing a whole demographic for a mostly white peer group – is soul-deadening.

I secured a full-ride scholarship to a prestigious graduate program in marketing at Northwestern University but became every class’ “official Latina,” routinely called upon to enlighten my white classmates about Hispanic consumers’ struggles in the barrio with English-language acquisition, gangs and discrimination – none of which I’d ever experienced.

Being the diversity-scholarship recipient, which is how it felt the other students saw me, was no fun. This is the opposite of how I’ve felt when observing the warm, nurturing environments of HSIs like Chicago’s Dominican University, which is nearly half Latino, about a third white, and 17 percent Asian, black and international.

On a campus that has made its mission to serve Latinos and other students of color, it’s difficult to imagine anyone feeling like they were admitted for the sole purpose of rounding out the life experiences and social interactions of people so rich they’ve been sheltered from having to get to know people of other races.

Yes, this is a thing; for at least a decade, academic research has found school integration potentially benefits white students more than students of color. Even scholars who research bilingual or dual-language programs have worried that white students benefit from Latino students’ culture and native-language skills more than the students working to learn English while maintaining their mother tongue.

What it all boils down to is that students are increasingly seen by universities as consumers with choices. And while all high school students should aim high, they should also aim to be welcomed at schools that are looking out for them, rather than proffering an added diversity benefit for a college’s core, white, customers.

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