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Opinion: How the Supreme Court made me rewrite my college application essay

Opinion by Sivaan Sharma

(CNN) — My older sister frequently reminds me that I’m not a White person. She tells me that as an Indo-Fijian, I have to work significantly harder to achieve the same success as many of my White classmates who have been raised with more financial and educational privilege than I have.

To a certain extent, I understand what she is saying. As the son of an immigrant single mother, I know how challenging raising a non-White family in Austin, Texas — a largely White and increasingly expensive city — can be.

But I had not fully experienced the challenges that my racial identity could pose in an academic space until the Supreme Court ruled in June that colleges and universities could not consider race as a specific reason to grant admission. Though many would consider me a part of a privileged minority — Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders — likely to benefit from the decision, the reality is that Pacific Islanders like me do not have the same educational outcomes as our Asian American peers.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, as of 2019, the college enrollment rate for Asian Americans (62%) was almost 20 percentage points higher than the rate for Pacific Islanders (43%). And that difference may be reflective of our performance on traditional standardized tests. According to recent College Board data, Asian Americans outperform White students on SATs, while Pacific Islanders score significantly lower than both groups on the same exam. Indeed, our scores — typically in the mid-900s range — are more like that of our Black and Latino classmates’.

Given those disadvantages — and my desire to acknowledge them in some capacity in my college application — I am beginning to understand the depth of my sister’s words. The usual box that I had assumed I would check, indicating I was a member of a small minority group with historically low academic outcomes, may now be concealed from colleges. According to the Common App, which manages the main portal for college applications, as of August 1, colleges are able to “hide” any self-disclosed racial or ethnic information from application files for first-year students.

As a first-generation non-White American, I do not want to ignore or discount the role my racial identity has played in my upbringing or in my access to opportunity. Fortunately, the Supreme Court left a loophole in its decision. It noted that schools were allowed to consider “an applicant’s discussion of how race affects his or her life” in college essay form.

While this loophole creates an opportunity, it also poses a dilemma. I never intended to write my essay about being Indo-Fijian or the struggles I faced because of it. I had intended to write my essay about my true passion — mending the rift between art and artificial intelligence (AI).

Despite AI’s many promising features, many in the television and cinematic space view it as a threat. For over three months, writers across the country have been striking, bringing the film and television industry to a halt, while demanding that AI not be used to undercut their compensation now or into the future.

Fundamentally, I understand these writers’ frustrations — AI should not be deployed to displace or undercut any creative person, and in my college essay I hoped to write about how I thought the two fields could be married, and how college could help me deepen my exploration of both.

I have always been highly engaged in the world of the arts. At age seven, I began learning guitar and piano. At age 10, I started directing my first films, creating small documentaries and editing YouTube videos with friends. At age 13, I got my first job teaching music.

And now, in an arts-focused high school, I play music in a band, write scores for films and record and edit fashion shows. Simply put, I consider myself an artist with an appreciation for the craft.

But I also love computer science. Learning beside my older brother, I’ve acquired some basic coding skills over the last few years. And coding is something that I would love to explore more in college. I think I could translate some of my coding knowledge into developing AI tools that would help artists expand the breadth and reach of their craft, without displacing them from the creation of it.

Yet, as I stare at my computer screen wondering in what direction to take my college essay, I am struck by the fact that not including my racial identity — and the financial challenges that accompanied it — could be a disadvantage.

As my mother worked hard to care for my two siblings and me, she did not have the means to pay for advanced academic classes or expensive tutors. Consequently, my college transcript is not full of honors classes, perfect standardized test scores or half a dozen AP courses.

The reality is neither she nor I ever had the luxury of time. I work every summer to earn enough money to help contribute to my family’s household, to pay for gas and to cover some basic amenities. I want colleges to understand that — and in the absence of a box that might begin to hint at the reason why, I know the Indo-Fijian essay is the one I will ultimately submit.

But there’s an added layer of frustration, even if I choose to write about my racial identity, there is no guarantee the college I attend will reflect the diversity of my generation. When California voted to eliminate affirmative action at state colleges and universities in the 1990s, there was an immediate drop in Black and brown enrollment, and even today it has not fully returned to its pre-elimination of affirmative action levels.

If we continue to force minorities to choose between sharing their passion or sharing their struggle, the campuses of our most elite academic institutions will likely become more and more White and less and less reflective of the richness of identities that has come to define our country.

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