4 Black Students At Elite Universities Speak Out About College Admissions Scandal And How They Earned Their Way To The Top

What it's like to be a Black student on an elite, majority-white university campus

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| April 02 2019,

00:08 am

Being admitted into an Ivy League school is often regarded as a honor for students who hope to leverage this prestige in advancing their future careers. Top-ranked colleges and universities are symbols of knowledge, class and strong networks, especially now that the world learned this network runs deeper into pockets than originally expected.

The recent college admissions scandal revealed over 50 people, including CEOs, TV and film stars, as well as other influential names, paid millions of dollars to get their children admitted into elite universities. Meanwhile, Black and brown students gawked at the idea of the excessive privilege and completely flippant attitude of their Caucasian peers, who were able to work half as hard in order to receive a spot at the same institutions that expected students of color to genuinely earn their place.

Although the scandal pertained to undergrad admissions, it isn't far-fetched to presume that this inequity could occur with grad school admissions, as well. Blavity spoke with four minority students from top-ranking U.S. universities -- each of whom are also the student body presidents at their respective schools -- about their rise, the scandal and what happens next.

These students rose to the top of their classes without anyone paying their way in, and with higher degrees of scrutiny on college admission procedures, there is a hope that the playing field will be leveled for those in the future. Bribery and hefty donations for the sake of gaining entry may now be second-guessed, opening spots for those who earned it.

Darryn Lee

Dartmouth College, Tuck School of Business

Courtesy of Darryn Lee

A Compton, CA, native, Darryn Lee completed his undergraduate studies at Temple University before earning a full-tuition, merit-based scholarship to Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business. In his MBA program, Darryn currently serves as student body president, and has been offered a post-graduate position at a director at MetLife.

Blavity: What does earning admission into a top-tier school mean to you and your family?

Darryn Lee: This has truly been a blessing for my family and me. I grew up living with a single mother — mostly in the projects and low-income communities. As a first-generation student, I’ve had to go out and build my networks and knowledge base on my own in many regards, since my mother could not provide that direction. Even though I attended a top-tier high school, I was still insecure in my abilities, and therefore didn’t apply to any Ivy League [or] top-tier universities for college. My phenomenal experience at Temple University gave me much more confidence in my abilities, so when I was looking at business schools, I only applied to Ivy League [and] top-tier institutions. As Black professionals, we all know that credentials are very important — so I knew that an Ivy League institution would improve my pedigree and my standing within professional services industries.

Blavity: What was your reaction to the recent college scandal, in which it was revealed that wealthy parents were buying their child’s admission to top-ranked schools?

Lee: The recent college scandal is ridiculous, but it is not fully surprising. It has always been known that wealthy people would donate a significant amount of money for influence at the school, and to then leverage nepotism on the back of that for admissions. What surprised me the most, though, is the extent to which these people cheated the system to get their children in, such as fabricating athletic profiles to get on to sports teams, and having their children lie about their learning abilities to get more time for testing.

Blavity: Describe what it is like being Black or brown at your school.

Lee: At Tuck, I am one of seven Black American students out of almost 600 people across both classes. If we include those of Caribbean and African backgrounds, we get up to 28 students total. I frequently feel as if I’m speaking on behalf of all Black people, which is fine and is something I’m used to.

I had one conversation with a white classmate about private school versus public; he was educated in private school his entire life and loved the experience. I made him aware of the fact that even though my fiancé and I want the best education for our children, we are highly cognizant of the fact that putting our kids in such an environment may breed identity issues, as one of the few or only Black Americans at the school. This is not something he has thought about before, but being one of the few from my ethnicity has allowed me to have these open and candid conversations with my classmates.

I will say, though, from an academic experience perspective, my undergraduate class was 20 percent Black out of a school with over 30,000 people, so it’s a new experience being on campus and not seeing many Black faces. Furthermore, we only have two Black faculty members, with the last one being hired almost 20 years ago. This is a significant concern for me, and I’ve verbalized my thoughts to people on campus because it does impact the learning environment on campus.

I will say, though, that all of us Black and brown students maintain close ties with each other, especially through our networks, like the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management and Management Leadership for Tomorrow. Some of my best friends on campus come from these networks, and we consistently show love and support for each other.

Christina Whatley

Yale School of Management

Courtesy of Darryn Lee

After graduating cum laude from Spelman College, Christina Whatley earned a spot at the Yale School of Management. During her graduate level career, Christina worked as a summer associate at DBL Partners, a social impact venture capital fund in California.

Blavity: What was your reaction to the recent college scandal, in which it was revealed that wealthy parents were buying their child’s admission to top-ranked schools? Separately, do you plan to address this issue at your school — if so, how? If not, why?

Christina Whatley: The reality is that advantages from affluence are built into so many systems — why would college admission be any different? It’s even embedded into the criminal justice system through cash bail. In the context of this most recent admissions scandal, these individuals all broke the law and are being held accountable for their actions. With that said, there are a number of ways that affluence legally manipulates admission through things, like giving preferential treatment to applicants that have had family members that attended the school or to applicants from families that have made significant financial contributions to a school. I think there is a key difference between the recent scandal and the latter two admissions policies — and ultimately that is who benefits.

When a family makes a financial contribution to the school, the whole community can potentially benefit from the additional resources: The school can build new labs, or offer more scholarships or one of the many other ways generous gifts help grow our school. When a family pays off an individual in the admissions process, only those involved benefit. It is an extraordinarily selfish act, with the only benefit of improving one’s own access to the school.

Needless to say, this hopefully can bring to light the bigger issue of how higher education is both structured and financed. Institutions like Yale rely heavily on public and private support to offer students a top-notch education, and give them the best opportunities thereafter. If we had a more equal education system, where more students across all socioeconomic backgrounds could get a Yale-level education and Yale-level opportunities after graduation, less people would feel incentivized to manipulate the system. Further, if we as a society further prioritized education and committed more collective support to higher education, then institutions would be less beholden to individual private donors.

Blavity: Describe what it is like being Black or brown at your school.

Whatley: Being Black at Yale School of Management can be tough in that I find myself often times being the “only” in really important discussions, particularly about race and gender. I’m in a fantastic class with Professor Jeffrey Sonnenfeld called Strategic Leadership Across Sectors, and we recently had a really interesting and robust class conversation on nonprofit organizations, with a focus on Bennett College; their accreditation status and their path to reinstatement. We even specifically got into how they were treated differently, and what that says about the overall system and potential bias at work.

First, I think it’s worth noting that I’m really glad we’re talking about topics like this in the classroom. Unfortunately, in a classroom of nearly 100 people discussing an HBCU for women — I was the only Black woman and the only person that had attended an HBCU prior to Yale — it can be hard to feel like you’re responsible for carrying these discussions, and making sure people are well-educated on a topic. But it’s a role I’ve come to fill proudly because it is a blessing to be able to represent Black women, HBCUs and the many other communities I identify with. However, my other task given that is to make sure that I’m working to make the community more diverse so that the next person sitting in my seat doesn’t feel as alone.

Blavity: What’s it like to be the student body president of your school? What are your goals within this role?

Whatley: It an amazing opportunity to be student government president at the Yale School of Management. Yale School of Management is a richly diverse community full of people dedicated to being leaders for both business and society. It’s allowed me to connect with my peers and the school administration in ways I’d never imagined to help create an environment where people of any background can learn to lead. I’d say my main goals as president are to make the community more inclusive, ensure everyone feels they have a voice and to make sure everyone has a good time in business school.

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Triston Francis

Harvard Business School

Courtesy of Darryn Lee

Triston Francis serves as the education representative in his section of Harvard Business School as he continues his graduate studies. The MBA candidate is also co-president of the student body, and plans on moving to Singapore after graduation to work with the Boston Consulting Group.

Blavity: What does earning admission into a top-tier school mean to you and your family?

Triston Francis: I am a first-generation college student from a humble upbringing, and therefore earning admission into Harvard means a tremendous amount to my family and me. Growing up in Jamaica, Queens, I never envisioned college as something that would have been a possibility for me, yet alone a top business program, such as Harvard.

Blavity: What was your reaction to the recent college scandal, in which it was revealed that wealthy parents were buying their child’s admission to top-ranked schools? Separately, do you plan to address this issue at your school — if so, how? If not, why?

Francis: The recent college scandal is upsetting news. Even though Harvard was not one of the schools involved in this scandal, my student government team and I have discussed the implications that this has on the brand of top academic institutions.

Blavity: What do you want other minority students interested in seeking admission at your school to know?

Ricardo Sutherland

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management

Courtesy of Darryn Lee

Ricardo Sutherland is a first-generation, Afro-Colombian graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management. After having interned with Google's media, broadcast and entertainment partnership group last summer, Ricardo has since accepted a full-time, post-graduate position with the company.

Blavity: What does earning admission into a top-tier school mean to you and your family?

Ricardo Sutherland: For me, earning admission into MIT is my way of showing my family that the sacrifices they made for me growing up did not go to waste, and the lessons they taught me about the importance of education did not fall on deaf ears. Looking forward, I feel like being at MIT means that the future generation of Sutherland's will have a better shot at gaining access to opportunities that my parents and the generations before never had access to.

Blavity: Where do you see evidence of privilege on campus?

Sutherland: I notice privilege in the informal networking that happens during the two-year process. While many classmates receive fellowships to help with the cost of tuition, those fellowships do not cover the costs of many of the trips and adventures that make the MBA experience so unique.

The other place I see privilege play out is in the pursuit of entrepreneurial endeavors. While many venture funds express interest in wanting to invest and support diverse founders, the reality still remains that it’s easier for white classmates to raise funds for their entrepreneurial ventures. Several aspiring entrepreneurs color have also commented on the difficulties associated with bringing on interns and talent to their entrepreneurial endeavors. Finally for many folks of color, the obligation of being a support system for family right after school prevents many from even exploring entrepreneurship.

Blavity: What was your reaction to the recent college scandal, in which it was revealed that wealthy parents were buying their child’s admission to top-ranked schools? Separately, do you plan to address this issue at your school — if so, how? If not, why?

Sutherland: It's definitely not surprising. It sucks that people from underrepresented communities are the only ones that are either directly questioned, or constantly feeling the need to prove to the rest of the world that they belong at these top-tier environments.

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