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Wednesday, Dec 6, 2023

Sarah Says: The diversity statement is an educational imperative

On a semi-weekly basis Sarah Miller shares her thoughts on culture and campus life.

I tried hard to write my Common App on race. 

It seemed like the smart choice. Early in my college admissions process, I had gotten the sense from educators and peers that my biraciality was the only aspect of my personality that distinguished me from the hundreds of other straight-A private school brats in my application cycle who also wanted to be writers. 

I submitted my drafts to a college essay consultant who returned each draft peppered with subtle notes of encouragement, though the message was the same: Try again, the topic’s still not working. 

The essay consultant’s advice frustrated me because I knew she was right; for all the effort I had devoted, my race essay remained not just half-baked, but bad. I thought if I kept working at the topic with enough diligence I might just cut to the meat of revelation. After all, hadn’t I spent all of my life as a half-Colombian? While my life has been more structured by the bountiful privileges of my upbringing than racial disenfranchisement, my race has still defined me. Why, then, did I struggle so much to articulate the shape of its influence? 

Eventually, as September drew closer, I changed my approach. The Common App essay I submitted was a well-written —albeit ideologically docile —treatise on gender roles, Mock Trial, my friends and the beach. 

Still, race continued to hang over my admissions process. I planned to check the Hispanic demographic question on my applications, which was often impressed upon me as a cunning act of strategy. How lucky was I to reap the benefits of a top private school while also gaining the presumed application boost from checking the diversity box? 

For a while, I believed I had won the game. 

Then, after several years at Middlebury, I came to a realization worthy of Faustain irony: I was not fully white. While the schools of my childhood were not bastions of diversity, I had grown up in a major city and took my fellow multicultural peers as natural and unremarkable. Yet somehow at Middlebury, I had found myself in the whitest space in my life. Not only were the overwhelming majority of my friends white, but so were the majority of my classmates (not surprising for a Creative Writing major) and my peers on the student newspaper, as well as the anonymous faces I shook my body in tandem with on Friday and Saturday nights. 

In 1998, my mother, a first-generation immigrant from a poor neighborhood in Queens, arrived at Fordham University. When I was little, she told me about how she used to count the heads of the people with dark hair in the room. I never quite understood what she meant until I got to Middlebury. 

I found myself conscious of my instinct to bring the conversation, whether it be among close friends or my seminars, to race. But, if at times I acknowledged my racial isolation, I let the feeling slide under the wave of my more urgent concerns, of which there were never any shortage. 

This changed in the fall of 2022 when it became apparent that the Supreme Court intended to overturn its precedent upholding affirmative action. I began to follow the coverage with an intensity of outrage that surprised me. 

Of course, there was the outrage on the macro level: To what extent would the impending decision set back national racial equity? However, in the very white classrooms and round tables of my very white college I found myself preoccupied with outrage on the micro level: What would it feel like for future students to attend an even whiter Middlebury

If Middlebury wants to truly educate us in the way of global citizens then they must invest in diversity. In a climate often hostile to “identity culture,” Middlebury’s only hope of recruiting a diverse class lies in action. 

In anticipation of the decision, Middlebury joined many liberal arts colleges in signing an amicus curiae brief with the Supreme Court in support of Harvard and the University of North Carolina. Before and after the decision was handed down, the college continued to affirm that “Middlebury has a long record of driving excellence through diversity; that value is core to our mission, and we will continue to be mission driven in our recruitment of the best students from across the country and the world.” 

However, in the months since Middlebury’s initial statement on the decision, we have heard nothing but silence on the subject from the college. Unlike Wesleyan University, we have not ended preference for legacy admits. Unlike Harvard University, we have not overhauled our application so that students must answer five short essay questions about their life experience. And unlike Amherst, we have not made diversity growth a significant priority.  

I would argue Middlebury knows exactly how their inaction will affect admissions outcomes. In the same brief they filed in the summer of 2022, Middlebury, along with schools such as Amherst College and Williams College, predicted that if the Supreme Court were to overturn affirmative action, the enrollment of Black students on their campuses would drop from approximately 7.1 percent to 2.1 percent. 

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Middlebury can also draw from historical precedent to understand the consequences of rollbacks to affirmative action. In 1996, when the passage of Proposition 209 banned race-conscious admissions in California, the public University of California system experienced a dramatic drop in Black and Latinx enrollment. Nearly thirty years and over half a billion dollars later, they are still struggling to reach their former levels of diversity. If California, a state far more naturally rich in racial diversity than Vermont, is still struggling to recover its previous diversity, we can only guess how long and how much money it will take for Middlebury to make a substantial recovery. 

At the end of October, the Middlebury Board of Trustees gathered to promote the college’s newest fundraising campaign, For Every Future. The campaign intends to raise $600 million to, among other directives, increase investment in Monterey and the Middlebury schools abroad, “strengthen our varsity athletic programs,” and develop students’ “21st century literacies,” so students lead “engaged, consequential, and creative lives” in accordance with Middlebury’s mission. 

Given that Middlebury has refused to roll back legacy admissions, continues to recruit a full slate of athletes, which at schools like Middlebury is proven to function as affirmative action for white people and has yet to make public any meaningful recourse to protect diversity on campus, one is left to wonder to whose futures the college remains committed. 

While I should hope that the benefits of diversity to our community are self-evident, I will take a moment to address them anyway. Across numerous disciplines, diversity has proven time and time again to foster higher levels of performance, generate more novel ideas and improve decision-making skills. If Middlebury will not be swayed by higher education’s moral responsibility to educate a diverse student body, then I urge the administration to consider the practical benefits. 

By failing to legitimately commit to diversity, Middlebury not only weakens the quality of our education, but also threatens to leave us less able and less qualified to “address the world’s most challenging problems.” 

Over my time at Middlebury, I have keenly felt the essential need for racial diversity in higher education. In classes, my learning is augmented by the presence of perspectives different from my own, just as, more often than not, my learning stagnates under sameness. 

As a biracial student, I have never been overly interested in how my race affected my college acceptance. With the exception of my race, all of the aspects of application were consistent with the kinds of highly privileged white students whom Middlebury readily accepts. However, I know that I will always be indebted to affirmative action. 

Thanks to affirmative action, I get to attend an institution that is significantly less white than it was even ten years ago, much less fifty eight year ago when Affirmative Action became law. My education, inside and outside of the classroom, will always be improved by a diversity of perspectives. 

When I think of the decision that was handed down this summer, I grieve for the students like myself who as “the diverse friend” serve as instruments of their white friends' education, but more so I grieve for students like my mother for commitments to diversity transforming the lives of the entire student body.

Sarah Miller

Sarah Miller '24 (she/her) is an Editor at Large.   

She previously served as Opinions Editor and Staff Writer. Miller is an English major on the Creative Writing track. She hails from Philadelphia and spent the spring studying English at Trinity College Dublin. She has interned for The New England Review and hosts a WRMC radio show where you can still listen to her many opinions.