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When Harvard University reopened this fall, I was eager to re-immerse myself in its ecosystem. Zoom fatigue was swiftly replaced by Zoom intrigue. It had been months since I had last seen so many of my classmates, now scattered across the world.
And I would be making new friends, too. I would soon learn from our short introductions that we had Indigenous, Black, white, Latinx and Asian American students on the same Zoom call. These distinct identities came with a number of perspectives. This diversity — in interests, experiences and backgrounds — is a testament to Harvard’s complex and multilayered admissions process.
However, a core element of the admissions process that brought us together has come under threat by a lawsuit, brought forth by Students for Fair Admissions. The suit, which casts Asian Americans as the victims of racial balancing, aims to gradually eliminate any consideration of race or ethnicity in decisions of who gets into top colleges.
Despite efforts to overturn the policy, affirmative action remains an essential element of higher education. For more than 50 years, affirmative action has opened academic doors to those who have been historically excluded. This has enriched the academic experience of all students.
After U.S. District Court Judge Allison Burroughs rejected claims that Harvard discriminated against Asian American applicants in 2019, Students for Fair Admissions took the matter to the court of appeals. Earlier this month, Harvard lawyers delivered oral arguments before a three-judge panel, asserting the importance of a diverse academic environment. Many legal experts believe the case will ultimately land before the Supreme Court, which may put an end to affirmative action at Harvard and many of its peer institutions.
If that happens, we will lose what makes the curricular environment of higher education so unique. And we’ll omit essential voices pushed to the margins throughout our history.
I believe my race helps create a flourishing environment, one where students bring as much to the conversation as they take away.
As a South Asian American student, I moved to the United States at the age of 5, after hopping around a series of towns in the United Kingdom. I moved again to different places in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and spent most of my childhood in a small Garden State town. My family’s roving came with numerous difficulties, the kind that often get brushed over by the monochrome gloss of the model minority myth.
When filling out the Common Application, I proudly shaded the small bubble next to “Asian,” knowing that my race would factor into the admissions process. I was gratified that colleges would consider my background, which has informed much of my experience and my contributions to this academic space, alongside the other components of my application. I believe my race helps create a flourishing environment, one where students bring as much to the conversation as they take away.
When asked what the best part of Harvard is, my answer, resoundingly, is the people. You will be making a mistake, a professor once told my packed 400-person lecture, if you do not spend every day learning from the people around you. He was right. Encounters with different perspectives and ideas have imbued my work with purpose as much as any class discussion.
A study by Nicholas Bowman in the Review of Educational Research found that experiences encountering diversity strengthen one’s civic attitudes and behavioral intentions. This is especially true of interpersonal experiences. We learn from one another, not from textbooks.
When students are exposed to people of various cultural and racial backgrounds, we gain an understanding of the world unparalleled by anything we could glean from within a classroom.
As I attend my Zoom classes, I am aware that the fate of my experience rests on the decisions of judges and lawyers, as opposed to students and professors. I am gratified that Harvard’s lawyers defend the diversity that makes our academic biome thrive.
Swathi Kella is a sophomore at Harvard University studying social studies. She is also a member of the Harvard South Asian Association, a client of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in this case.
This story about affirmative action was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.