I don’t know if there is a happy medium between meritocracy and diversity, but I hope that this is indicative of its possibility. I’m a pretty staunch proponent of affirmative action, especially when it comes to race (and to a lesser extent socioeconomic status, which is great for low-income kids but not fantastic in terms of racial diversity). Surprisingly, my opinion on the subject is more controversial than my support of mandatory HPV vaccination or same-sex marriage, and I find myself having to justify this viewpoint all the time, even at Harvard and even to my liberal-minded friends. As an Asian American, it seems particularly contradictory for me to take on this view since it’s against my self-interest. So here’s an explanation:
When I started high school, my mother had a plan in mind. That plan involved straight As, perfect SAT scores, and eventual admission to UC Berkeley. Surprisingly, I managed to deliver on the latter without either of the former. But while scores of second-generation Chinese teenagers would’ve killed for my position, I would’ve killed my mother if she forced me to go there. Berkeley’s population, with 42% of students identifying as Asian, was too similar to my alma mater where the student body was 48% Asian. I already lived in a city with the highest proportion of Asian residents in the country. The prospect of spending college in the same minority-majority illusion of my first 18 years was hardly appealing.
Besides, while the children of my mother’s friends were mostly science or engineering majors (stereotypical but reality), I aspired to freelance for New York magazine, toyed with the idea of a sex column, and dreamed of attending journalism school. I wanted to write for the American public — and the public was white, black, and brown, in addition to yellow. And so Northwestern was in, Berkeley was out.
But I never made it to either. Though I initially gave Cal a chance, our love affair (some would call it an arranged marriage) ended abruptly when my 14-year-old self first saw the campus during a February downpour and decided that flipping burgers at In-N-Out would be preferable to the gray prison before me. Four years later, I’d be at another prison — not Northwestern but one that was brick-fortified and ivy-covered. Harvard, however, was redeemed by an inmate population as colorful in personality as it was in skin tone. Best of all, my mother couldn’t argue. I got a plane ticket out of California; she got the pride that came with Crimson parentage.
Nowadays, there are a lot of things I miss about the San Gabriel Valley, where signs came in both English and Chinese (not that I could read the latter) and dim sum was just a short drive or walk away. Boston couldn’t be more different from home. Besides Sunday morning conversations with my mother, I hear Cantonese maybe twice a year here — each time because I’ve made a rare venture into Chinatown. With only one other undergrad hailing from Monterey Park, California — a good friend of mine, thankfully — I find myself in the new position of a minority. But I don’t mind. At Harvard, just about everyone is a minority in some respect.
As much as I complain about how unhappy Harvard makes me sometimes, I question if I’d be more satisfied at a place like Cal. Berkeley is a fantastic academic institution — one I’d recommend to just about anyone, but it’s not the place I’d go to meet people different from myself and it’s not somewhere I’d like to see my little sister at, if only because I think she needs to escape the same high school bubble I was caught in. Admittedly, Harvard is in the enviable position of having an abundance of applicants who are both diverse and equally qualified. Not every school is quite so fortunate, but that’s not an excuse as to why diversity should be lacking, especially since the initiatives at UCLA seem to bring about very tangible results.
Maybe I underestimate how much I would’ve ventured away from the familiar had I gone to Berkeley. Still, for all the autonomy I may have over who I become acquainted with, I doubt that my groups of friends there would be as diverse as they are at Harvard. And though I don’t value my relationship with JB because he’s gay any more than I love CK because she’s black, race — like everything else — still matters. I am positive that my relationships with people of different colors, sexual orientations, religions, etc. shape and influence my world view for the better and that I will be better off when I graduate for having known and loved people who are not mostly white, Asian, or Californian. Perhaps I would’ve met some of them (or their equivalents) anyway, but I know that at Berkeley, it would’ve been much harder to forge a bond with a tongue-ringed five-foot wonder with a Southern drawl and skin several shades darker than my own. And wouldn’t that have been a shame?