Suzy Lee Weiss’ open letter to all of the colleges that rejected her is making waves on the internet due to what some consider to be her scathing critique of the college admissions process, as well as the racially derogatory nature of the commentary. Instead of using her forum and connections as the sister of a Wall Street Journal staffer to perhaps point to social injustices occurring in school systems everywhere, Weiss proclaims that having a lesbian parents, a tiger mom, or being gay would have certainly guaranteed her a spot in a top university.
After living in $700,000 home and attending a national blue ribbon school in Pennsylvania, she cites lack of motivation in sports, parents who were not willing to take on the role of encouragers, and her own lack of diversity, as reasons her top schools rejected her. In the commentary section, her letter has been interpreted as lighthearted, bitter, whiny, and offensive. Many have encouraged her to do well in whatever school she attends, while others have hailed her comments are heroic.
Although some commentators describe the letter as a naive young woman’s reflections on a hard life lesson, the letter left me with a sour taste in my mouth for several reasons. First, it is indicative of several widely held myths about the achievements of minority students in the U.S., and second, it indexes to problems of privilege, motivation, and entitlement in the millennial generation.
The Meaning Of Diversity in Higher Education
In her letter, Weiss writes: “For starters, had I known two years ago what I know now, I would have gladly worn a headdress to school. Show me to any closet, and I would've happily come out of it. "Diversity!" I offer about as much diversity as a saltine cracker. If it were up to me, I would've been any of the diversities: Navajo, Pacific Islander, anything. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, I salute you and your 1/32 Cherokee heritage.” Diversity seems to be a positive thing, right? Clearly something that can get you into any college that you desire, right?
Hidden behind these remarks about racial diversity are the histories of injustice, structural racism, prejudice, educational disadvantage, and chronic under-resourcing that affect the populations in question. While, for example, Chicago plans to close public schools and force even more students into an abject, unequal education with little hopes of ever going to college, the fairy godmother of diversity will wave their obstacles into non-existence by delivering a magic carriage of college prep courses and a glass slipper of generous advising. Right? Wrong. And Wrong.
Similarly, Weiss may have walked out of that closet to find hatred, bigots, physical violence, and separate but unequal marriage rights waiting to assail her on the other side.
Structural problems do not disappear simply by portraying oneself as a diverse individual. Many students of color and LGBT students lack financial and emotional safety nets during their college experience and struggle to stay afloat despite their own high academic competency.
Diversity in higher education has come to mean so much more than simply racial diversity. People that represent all the colors in the rainbow, and in fact wave the rainbow flag proudly as LGBT folks, may have nothing to add to the intellectual diversity of the nation’s elite universities. Their opinions and attitudes may be as bland as Weiss’ saltine crackers.
With that caveat in mind, universities continue to admit extremely qualified and motivated students of color and LGBTQ folk exactly for the struggles that they have persevered through. Being considered ‘suspicious’ and rising above racial hatred and stereotypes daily or coming out to your loved ones and facing their rejection takes the kind of courage and integrity that universities value in its students.
As the Supreme Court debates the value of Affirmative Action in the University of Texas vs. Fisher case, Weiss’ derogatory comments about tiger moms, Native American heritage, and Muslim headscarves signify a need to comment upon and understand diversity as not simply a parody or costume that we can put on or take off at our leisure and convenience.
"I’m Gonna Need You to Do Better With All That Privilege"
Maximizing our opportunities has always been a trope of the millennial generation. We want to do better and more faster than we ever had before. In some recent instances, this need to excel quickly has been critiqued as indicating sentiments of entitlement and self-centeredness in our generation.
It baffles me that as a member of a generation doing more, faster, better than our predecessors, Weiss would ridicule the students who indeed accomplished a lot in the extracurricular realm, completed volunteer work (in Africa, in New Orleans, right at home), or interned to get real life work experience. These are the very things that prepare millennials to be successful and competitive in the real world. The interesting thing is why wouldn’t Weiss be motivated to lead her school, participate in social justice activities or sincerely express concern for others. Oh wait. She was likely busy sitting at home watching Real Housewives. Hence the above quotation.
With the privileges of being middle, upper-middle, and upper class should come the responsibility to serve others as a community leader or volunteer. Many lower income students are burdened with everything from after school jobs to make ends meet and child care of younger siblings. Their opportunities to swim, play the piano or intern are often severely limited. To be a real critique of the admissions process, Weiss should have encouraged more young people who can to pursue their real passions instead of activities that will make their character and their resume look good. Instead, her lack of a significant passion and motivation shines through in her own jealousy for the accomplishments of others.
Each year, many competitive universities receive enough qualified applicants to fill their incoming class many times over. Each year at my own school, students are told they are the most brilliant, most motivated, most involved, and best looking class yet. The standards in college admissions and in the marketplace are obviously rising higher than ever before. Showing motivation, initiative, and some sort of honest passion will serve millennials like Weiss well as they attempt to become compelling, applicants, and hopefully, compelling humans.