In light of the recent college admissions scandals, the entire Penn community and nation at large have been on a frenzy to uncover the corruption and inequalities behind elite colleges. Various affluent institutions, students, and parents have been charged with conspiracy to commit racketeering and fraud. Everyone wants the best for their children, these parents included, but this should not be at the cost of the welfare of others. And while Penn was not named in the nationwide college admissions scandal, there has been a lot of debate on how the admissions office must re-evaluate the process.
People are heated because the scandal represents a blatant symbol of injustice — using massive wealth for students who seemingly did not deserve a spot at an elite institution. But this question as to whether or not someone deserves to be in the Ivy League, or attend a top-tier college, gets a bit tricky when you factor in affirmative action, legacy admissions, and more. Regardless of these factors, people are forgetting how we ourselves can contribute to a system of inequality.
It’s so easy to get wrapped up in this scandal on a surface-level and ignore the true underlying implications of societal norms surrounding education. But there seems to be some hypocrisy in decrying the actions of the wealthy elites yet buying into the same actions when they benefit you. We should be more cognizant of the other forms of privilege — including having the ability to attend a top-quality high school, being able to afford academic tutors, or having the emotional or financial security in growing up knowing that college was always a possibility for you.
As someone who didn’t have these opportunities, I have a more critical view on what the real issue behind our elite academic institutions. I wanted to be a first-generation college student so badly, I forgot why I came to Penn in the first place. When I received my college acceptances, my parents’ reactions were different than the typical Penn parents. My parents had never heard of the Ivy League and could not understand why I cared so much about pursuing higher education or the challenges that would come with it.
At Penn, it’s so easy to forget. To forget that your identity is more than a platform checkbox for the elections of our student body representatives. To forget that you’re more than just a statistic used to bolster an institution’s bold claim to diversity and inclusivity. To forget that you belong to a class that makes up 80% of America but less than 20% of the Penn student body.
We glorify the first-generation students who have made it to the Ivy League. An elite diploma is all it takes to upgrade a label of “dumb, poor, and ignorant” to “first-generation, low-income.” But who gets to decide when these stories are laudatory or when they are nothing more than a pity story?
But there is an important conversation we must address surrounding the larger picture of social inequality and classism that we perpetuate beyond our college years. At Penn, this can mean how we approach club application processes, social outings, etc. Student leaders must recognize when they are placing unfair expectations or requirements that bar students of marginalized backgrounds. Just as institutions act as the gatekeepers of academic and social opportunities, Penn students are forming their values of diversity and inclusion here.
For every Penn FGLI student you meet or hear about, there are hundreds who wish that they could have had the same opportunity. Just because my Penn peers treat me with respect, doesn’t mean that they will give that same respect to other individuals. For FGLI students, Penn offers something we could not have in our other life - food security, housing, the ability to be independent, physical safety, etc.
We’re the ones you learn about in class about inner-city kids struggling with educational inequality. We’re also the ones you claim to be stealing your financial aid. So as great as it is that you’re learning more about us at Penn, it’s even more important that you understand that there are many people who could have been us.
And to my fellow FGLI peers, we’re becoming the same people we hate the most. Do we take our education beyond college to help the socioeconomically disadvantaged or do we ourselves perpetuate the status quo? Rather than lifting up our own communities, we shame people who do not follow our traditional views on how to become successful. We disregard the hardships that many people face because in our eyes, we made it and there’s no reason as to why they can’t either. Some Penn students may be FGLI, but many were also afforded opportunities that most people would never see in their lifetimes - whether that be having an encouraging high school teacher, a college fair that happened to be in the area, or a supportive family that many people do not have.
We’ve talked about how alienating it can be on campus, or how it looms on our career prospects, or even how it affects our social life, but we’ve never talked about how hypocritical it is to champion this ideal of progress when we churn out the highest number of professions that completely undercut our ideals of reducing social inequity.
We might be first. And I certainly hope we’re not the last.
Privilege doesn’t begin or end at the college admissions level. After the scandal has blown over and the dust has cleared, Penn students need to evaluate how they will either contribute or dismantle a system that upholds an unjust status quo. If you’re criticizing legacy admissions now, you should also be considering how people should be investing their time and money into their children’s future so that we create a more equitable and fair system for all children to succeed, not just the children of the privileged.
The admissions scandal is very complex but we need to focus on what happens beyond it. This is the time for people to re-evaluate how to overcome the biases that have been ingrained in us. It starts with recognizing our biases and uplifting the voices of marginalized individuals in a non-tokenizing way.
TON NGUYEN is a college junior from Atlanta, Ga. studying Politics, Philosophy, and Economics. Her email address is email@example.com.