Opinion | Op-eds

A legacy status, not a leg up

“Oh, your parents went here? You must be loaded, right?”

Well, dude from my OL group whose name I can’t remember: If only that were true. While my parents do have degrees from Columbia, my family has never been “loaded.” My dad is the assistant principal of a financially disadvantaged middle school in Miami. My mom is a registered nurse. Growing up, we always had enough to eat, clothes on our back, and a roof over our heads. We’ve always had what we needed, but my parents’ Ivy League educations never secured us a spot in the 1 percent.

My parents raised me much like they were raised, always emphasizing the importance of working hard and succeeding in school. Seeing how far they had come in their lives made me want to go even further. Their acceptances to Columbia weren’t handed to them, and I knew mine wouldn’t be either. I worked hard knowing my quasi “legacy” status would not be enough for me to get into Columbia. Besides, I wanted to earn it on my own merits, not my parents’.

Those who knew my goals for the future—namely, an acceptance to Columbia—called me foolish for attending a no-name public school where, according to U.S. News and World Report, 53 percent of students are economically disadvantaged and less than half are proficient in math. According to our local ABC affiliate, my alma mater had the eighth highest number of reports on drug use in 2015. Those statistics, while appalling, were not enough to deter me from going there. I firmly believed that Columbia would respect my achievements, even more so because of the odds I had to overcome.

I took as many AP and honors classes as I could, got involved in extracurriculars, filled my summers with meaningful Common App essay-worthy experiences, and worked on SAT and ACT prep every day. I was a National Merit and National Hispanic Scholar. I finished in the top 10 of my class and was voted “Most Likely to Succeed.” I strived to be the best version of myself in the hopes that Columbia would admit me.

On an unseasonably cool day in March, my dream became reality. This was a big deal not just for me and my family, but also for my school. I’m one of just a handful of students in my high school’s history to have been accepted to Columbia. I was proof that someone could graduate from there and make it into the Ivy League. Many of my teachers, guidance counselors, friends, and even classmates I’d never or barely spoken to congratulated me, but not everyone felt the same way—one former teacher claimed that my admission was a product of affirmative action. I often wonder what she would have said if a white male student with my credentials had been admitted.

Some claimed my “legacy” status was a factor. This critique hurt me the most, even though it isn’t entirely applicable in my case. My parents are graduates of Teachers College, and the Office of Undergraduate Admissions defines “legacies” solely as the children of Columbia College and School of Engineering and Applied Science graduates. I don’t meet these criteria, but the office also notes that being the child of a Columbia University graduate from any school or college “may be a slight advantage in the admission process.”

In the eyes of my skeptics, “slight” might as well have meant “definite.” Never mind the fact that my father is an immigrant. Never mind the fact that my mother’s parents did not believe that women should go to college, let alone graduate school, which forced her to take out loans and work several jobs through undergrad and grad school just to make ends meet. Never mind the fact that I’m mixed race and have to battle sexism and racism every day. And never mind the fact that my parents raised me to work “twice as hard” and be “twice as good,” knowing how unfair the system is for women of color.

I’m fully aware of the privileges that come with having two college-educated parents, but to say that I’ve gone as far as I have because of their degrees is flat-out insulting.

I will never know if or by how much my parents’ credentials helped me get into Columbia, nor would I want to. But the one thing I do know is that I have worked hard enough for it not to matter.

The author is a mixed race Columbia College first-year majoring in political science and statistics. Her father, a Haitian immigrant, and her mother both graduated from Teachers College in 1984.

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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