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Students Divided On Affirmative Action

August 2, 2003
Copyright © 2003 By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. All rights reserved. 

COLLEGE PARK, Md. (AP) -- The debate over the role of race in university admissions has simmered since the latest batch of teens entered high school.

And now, as they prepare to apply to college themselves, high school upperclassmen seem as deeply divided about affirmative action as the U.S. Supreme Court was in its split decision upholding the right of schools to use race as a factor in admissions.

At The Associated Press' request, a dozen young people of varied backgrounds recently got together for an informal discussion about affirmative action. They were all attending the University of Maryland's Young Scholars Program, where exceptional high school students from around the country earn college credits.

Split along racial lines about how schools should achieve diversity, the students were united in believing that their college experiences will be better if they choose a place with a diverse student body.

Chrisheena Hill, a black senior from Niagara Falls, N.Y., said affirmative action can still help minorities get into places that might otherwise be shut off from them.

``It gives us a chance to get our foot in the door to prove ourselves,'' she said, pointing out that -- even with affirmative action -- whites far outnumber minorities on American college campuses.

Eitan Bernstein, a white junior from the Maryland city of Rockville, took the opposing view.

``I just don't think it's fair for race to determine what type of education you get,'' he said. ``This process will not help solve the problem of racism, it will further it.''

Meanwhile, Colleen Swim, who is white, and Michelle Orr, who is black, each said that no matter who you are, it hurts to feel picked on because of your race.

A black junior from Washington, D.C., Orr said she feels the sting of racism each time a white store employee monitors her during shopping trips.

Swim, a white junior from Rockville, told how she'd once been denied admission to a middle school enrichment program because, as organizers told her mother, the school needed to boost minority enrollment.

Swim's eyes began to tear at the memory and Orr -- without hesitation -- tossed a wad of tissues to her distraught classmate.

Orr then called admissions policies that are blind to race and ethnicity ``a very Utopian idea.''

``We live in a world rooted in race and racism, so it's always going to be an issue,'' said Orr, who hopes to attend either a historic black college, Yale University or Sarah Lawrence College.

Joseph Green argued that, at most schools, race will be an issue only to a limited number of applicants who have fallen just short of a college's academic standards for admission.

``It only deals with a few people on the bubble and all it says to (both white and minority students) is that you should have worked harder,'' said Green, a white senior from Olney, Md.

Several minority students said they had already been debating internally whether to mention their race on college applications. As it happened, Camille Rivera-Garcia applied for a scholarship moments before joining the discussion.

When the application asked her ethnicity, Rivera-Garcia proudly filled in Hispanic. An hour later, she began having second thoughts.

``I'm thinking that maybe I'll change it,'' said Rivera-Garcia, a senior from Puerto Rico. ``I want to be accepted for what I've accomplished, not just because I'm Hispanic.''

A black teenager, James Brounson, shared Rivera-Garcia's concern that white classmates in the future will automatically assume that the color of his skin got him into college.

In deciding his qualifications, Brounson would prefer that college officials consider the strength of his character along with the obstacles he faced growing up in New York City.

But will he leave his race off all his applications?

``If it's a safety school I could care less about, I probably won't do it,'' Brounson said. ``But if it's a school that I really want to attend and I think it will help me, I'll use it.''


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