Harvard Student Defends Affirmative Action

10.16.18
Thang Diep has come out in support of Harvard in federal court. (Photo credit: Catherine Ho)
10.16.18

I’m a current senior at Harvard. When I applied, I was open about being Asian-American and having immigrated to the States in the 4th grade from Vietnam. My SAT scores were below Harvard’s average. My acceptance into Harvard was most likely based on my personal statement, which reflected the diversity I brought to campus. As an Asian-American, I do not believe Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policy hurt me. In fact, I requested a copy of the admissions notes on my application and submitted them as part of the federal court case in defense of Harvard’s practices.

When I was eight, I enrolled in a  public school in Los Angeles. I vividly remember sitting in a classroom among strangers my age, tapping my foot on the wooden floor anxiously. I scanned the room and looked at unfamiliar symbols on the wall, forming words that I could neither interpret nor pronounce. When it was my turn to read out loud, I hesitated. I did not want my classmates to think I that I was too foreign to speak English properly.

At first, my classmates made fun of my accent and my foreignness, which pushed me to immerse myself in American culture. I was determined to assimilate. I was convinced that this was how I could achieve success and a piece of the American Dream. I had not realized in my childhood that my assimilation came with a heavy cost–losing my Vietnamese identity. My parents tried to warn me, and they kept reminding me to practice reading and writing Vietnamese. But I was frustrated with them for not understanding that I needed to make sacrifices and they happened to be the Vietnamese language and my Vietnamese identity.

In high school, I enrolled in a humanities magnet program to further improve my English. This meant that I missed out on many family and cultural activities, such as Tết or Vietnamese New Year, while my family celebrated, because I spent days before in-class essay exams memorizing specific sentence structures. My English skills were not at a point where I could write on the spot.

Junior year, I began to question my assumptions. Although I was originally enrolled in the magnet program to improve my English, the course work challenged me to reflect on my own identity and experiences. I learned about the model minority myth and the systematic oppression of immigrants and people of color. I came to understand that success, in America, traditionally was never meant for me or people who look like me. I saw that I had come to look down on other Vietnamese students at my school who seemed to not care about learning English or doing well in school. I had been wondering why they would only speak Vietnamese at school, and I thought, If I can work hard to learn English and be successful academically, why can’t they? Over time, I rejected these thoughts.

When it came time to apply for college. I went against the advice I received from college guidebooks and friends, who told me not to write about the “immigrant experience” in my college essay, because the narrative was overdone. How could I not highlight an experience that contains not only so much trauma, but also so much growth and learning? My “immigrant experience” is not a token narrative, but rather a formative experience that shaped me into the person I am today. I simply was too tired of hiding who I was and buying into a notion of success that continues to leave out communities of color, including the Vietnamese community.

In an effort to help combat systems of oppression that I learned about in school, I’ve thrown my support behind affirmative action. As a policy, it allowed colleges to look beyond my below-average SAT score and take into account my experiences as a Vietnamese immigrant and many other identities that make me who I am. It’s made me confront my uncles’ and aunts’ lived experiences as refugees from the Vietnam War. I see how their need to make money and survive confined them to cleaning people’s hands and feet, and prevented them from helping my cousins with homework. I’ve recognized how lucky and privileged I was to have parents who cared about my education and teachers who believed in my potential.

My stance on affirmative action is a gentle reminder to the rest of America and especially Edward Blum, the man behind the Students for Fair Admissions lawsuit against Harvard, that I, along with so many other Asian-Americans, refuse to be tools that perpetuate white supremacy and that we stand in alliance with the black and brown community. It is also a reminder that I will never let my Vietnamese identity, let alone any other part of myself, be erased again.

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