Last month, I helped some aspiring first-generation college students prepare for Ivy League admissions interviews and, as usual, I had to hold my jaw off the floor as they casually described their lives.
Lydia*, for example, was explaining why she wanted to study biomedical engineering when she mentioned that she learned to speak English in the hospital where she lived until she was five. English, by the way, that she used to translate between the doctors and her monolingual mother as a toddler. Later in the conversation, it came out that her dad was deported because of an action she took, not knowing he was undocumented. This left her, her mother and her younger sister homeless. After living in shelters with a mother who understandably melted down, Lydia at 14 took it upon herself to find a stable place to live. She set a goal of applying for nine apartments per month. It took her more than a year—including an interview with a landlord who yelled at her that she should “make her mom do all this”—but they got an apartment during her sophomore year. Now she’s applying to Harvard.
That’s all one kid, you guys.
Then there was Ewa who was born in Afghanistan. At six, her parents emigrated to Turkey where—before they could get citizenship—the borders were overrun with Syrians escaping ISIS. Turkey shut down the path to citizenship and Ewa spent eight years in a Turkish refugee camp. She moved to San Diego two years ago, not speaking any English, and is now a senior taking a full course load of AP classes.
“Why do you want to go to Harvard?” I asked.
“My parents didn’t leave their families and spend eight years as refugees for me to go to community college.” Her face for a moment showed all the fierceness you’d expect in someone with Ewa’s life story. “I’m going to be a doctor and save lives.”
A few days later, I switched roles and interviewed prospective Brown University students. They ran the vast spectrum of ambitious seventeen-year-olds, a curious mash-up of polished, awkward, nervous, curious, hustling and clueless.
One of the students, however, has been a pebble in my psychic shoe.
When I asked Caleb to tell me about himself, he described how much he likes to play golf. When I asked for something he was passionate about, he answered, “The Philadelphia Eagles.”
In that brief pause between his answer and my next question, a great battle raged in my head. On one side, eye-roll-filled judgment about such fatuous interests in a walking stereotype. On the other, my self-image as an open-minded person who does not evaluate people on their surface characteristics.
“What makes you passionate about the Eagles?” I asked aloud, hurling thought bubbles at him across the table: Give me something with emotional or intellectual depth. Tell me it connects you to your father, or that you’ve created an algorithm that calculates something football-y about various teams.
Nope. Apparently, the quarterback is just really good.
This has been creating an emotional blister because I am hyper-aware of my biases about white boys who like golf and football. Don’t get me wrong: some of my best friends (as they say) are white boys, many of whom like golf and football. Obviously Caleb has no control over his skin color; it’s not his fault that he won the lottery at birth, that he has grown up in a nice neighborhood and gone to a nice private school and perhaps had the kind of nice life where his deepest passion can be for a sports team. I’m only seeing a sliver of who he is. Maybe football is the safest passion he’s been allowed to express. Maybe no one tipped him off that “Philadelphia Eagles” is a suboptimal answer in an Ivy League admissions interview. Maybe he panicked and is now beating himself up for not mentioning his abiding interest in existentialism. He could be just as tenacious and strong and capable of great things as Lydia and Ewa, even if his life hasn’t given him the opportunity to show it.
I know that if I’m going to ask others to set aside their biases about people based on where they were born, what they look like, and what they care about, I have to do it too. But damn, it’s hard.
Confounding this problem, of course, is that I deeply believe that someone like Lydia, who has been homeless, is best positioned to come up with a workable solution for homelessness. Someone like Ewa, who grew up in a refugee camp, could powerfully shape the US’s role in creating stability in the Middle East. But who—in our current society—is most likely to end up with the power to affect those problems?
The guy who likes golf.
*Names changed because these are their life stories, not mine.