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Reimagining Education: an Invitation for College Admissions to Go from ME to WE

The invitation in the pursuit of higher education is to re-center and re-claim traditional seats of power and to fully embrace the joy of learning together.

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©2020 Belinda Chiu
©2020 Belinda Chiu

Once the California university system went test-optional, it was only a matter time before others followed suit. Admissions officers around the U.S. had heart palpitations at the challenges of a non-SAT world and welcomed the opportunity to evaluate students beyond a number. Families freaked out at the futility of SAT prep courses paid for since the 5th grade and sighed at the release of a pressure valve their children experienced. Students reeled at yet another change to their plans and rejoiced.

As with everything else where the status quo is being questioned with the pandemics of COVID-19 and civil injustices, so too is the competitive process to university. Pope Francis said it well, “let’s not waste these difficult times.”

The invitation is open to imagine how not to replicate a flawed status quo built on a faulty foundation. Now is the time for all the stakeholders of this ecosystem – admissions officers, families, and students – to move from “ME” (I must get in; my yield rate must drop) to “WE” (how going to college impacts my family and society; how access impacts systems).

The saying goes: change starts with each of us. To take part in this shift towards a more equitable approach to learning opportunities, we must each take responsibility to raise awareness of our mindsets, emotions, and behaviors. Doing so is neither a selfish endeavor nor an isolated one, however. Doing so does not absolve us of our complicit contributions to systemic injustices. As author adrienne maree brown wisely notes, “how we are the small scale is how we are at the large scale.” Individual actions translate to collective outcomes.

Rhonda Magee astutely noted that the practice of self-awareness “has been presented as a personal improvement practice” in the West. Even the pursuit of education often takes a “ME” approach in modern society (“my” university admit rates; “my” child’s acceptance; “my” admit letter). In actuality, the practice of self-awareness and the pursuit of learning has always been part of the “WE,” how we have survived as a species.

Let’s be clear on a few things: attending to our individual mindsets, feelings, and behaviors doesn’t clarify for admissions officers how to recruit for the Class of 2025 in a lockdown world. It doesn’t assure parents that their child gets a favorable admissions read. It doesn’t inoculate students from others making assumptions about them based on their hometowns or last names.

However, expanding the perspective from the singular allow us to do more than patchwork an interrupted system (e.g., replace SATs with X). Learning has always been contextualized within the “WE,” the family and society. For many college hopefuls, “getting in” has never been a solo rite of passage, but a way to uplift their families and communities and to contribute to the betterment of others.

The invitation now stands for all stakeholders to reexamine how the college admissions process collectively shapes who we are as a “WE”:

1. The invitation for admissions officers

This is a moment for admissions officers to pause and consider the impact of subtle use of language based on unconscious assumptions. How might a senior officer influence their junior officers through subtle and unconscious language? Imagine these two sentences: “He’s Asian-American…but he’s from Kansas.” “He’s Asian-American…and he’s from Kansas.” What assumptions are made with ‘but’ versus ‘and?’

This is also a moment to look at who is sitting at the senior leadership table. Which voices are present – or not? When ones are valued and heard – or not? Even if for a year,  senior leaders in higher education have the opportunity consider more equitable ways on who gets in and who doesn’t. How is impacted by who is at the table.

2. The invitation for families

This is a moment to check the myth that there are only a few worthy brand name institutions or the judgement behind subtle language usage (e.g. vocational versus liberal arts). Research suggests that unchecked parental expectations can have a negative impact on children’s stress, self-esteem, and cognitive performance for a lifetime. One parent shared that they made it clear to their son that he has the choice of two Massachusetts universities to attend. The child now suffers from panic attacks. The child is ten.

Without judgment, let’s keep in mind that for many families, a degree from a prestigious university is one way to uplift entire communities. Even then, many of these young people face internal doubt and external suspicions of whether they “belong” in such “rarified” spaces. How we encourage individual achievement and collective responsibility validates and values the many different lived experiences and future dreams.

3. The invitation for students

This is a moment for students to stretch, explore, and mess up. Students naturally love to be challenged. This means students also need to cut themselves a bit of slack. Often, society places the onus on the youth to “change the world!” But students haven’t yet even figured out themselves, much less how to be superheroes righting the many wrongs of those before them. Right now, simply establishing the foundation of moral courage, curiosity, and compassion will get them light years ahead of adults.

Admissions officers want to celebrate young people’s potential and create communities alive with ideas and possibilities. Families want their children to care about the world. With the old playbook tossed to the sidelines, students have the permission to re-center and re-claim traditional seats of power and to fully embrace the joy of learning together.

As President Obama said, the generation coming of age during the most challenging of times is primed to be the “next greatest generation.” As we build towards a “New Next,” the invitation stands for each stakeholder to move from an insular “ME” to a collective “WE.”

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