On Tuesday, Jan. 31, the class of 2023 gathered for a class meeting to address comments made by students about the role of affirmative action in the college process. The meeting was led by twelfth grade dean Anna Howe, director of college counseling Emily Livelli and associate directors of college counseling Greg Wong, Darius Pardner and Fatmata Koroma.
The facilitators spoke about the need for seniors to change the nature of their reactions to their peers’ college decisions and provided ideas of how to more appropriately handle feelings of personal rejection.
“There was a need to have a meeting based off of concerns around how students, when decisions come out from college, are responding to news that they hear of their peers getting into college,” Marlo Thomas, the director of diversity, equity and inclusion, told the Bit. “It’s a good opportunity to just address it, get clear on it and help folks prepare for the next round of decisions.”
The meeting was first formally announced in an email sent by Howe to the senior class on Sunday, Jan. 8 with an invitation for a gathering at 10 a.m. the following day. Howe later pushed the meeting to Friday, Jan. 20 and then to Tuesday, Jan. 31. Livelli said the meeting was rescheduled purely due to scheduling conflicts.
Senior Pilar Holder, one of Howe’s advisees, said she found out about the meeting a couple of weeks before it took place. “She was talking to us about it in advisory, saying that there was going to be a senior class meeting,” she said. “I’m like, ‘What for?’ And she was like, ‘Someone in your grade said something racist.’”
Senior Mila Noshirvani said that in the meeting, the facilitators revealed that “someone—or many people—made comments about how people of color were only getting into their ED schools or really competitive schools because of their race and affirmative action.”
Thomas explained that some students had said “that affirmative action is part of a reason—or maybe the entire reason—why a student or certain students are getting into colleges of their choice.” Holder, Noshirvani and senior Christian Freeman said they had not heard the comments first-hand.
“I had heard that it was in the context of people EDing to the really, really selective schools,” Freeman said. “To a certain extent, race is the perfect vehicle. It’s the perfect scapegoat to escape ‘I’ve been rejected and I’m feeling awful about it.’”
Holder said that she believes comments like those that prompted the senior class meeting will happen every year because she thinks people don’t take into account each factor that goes into a college’s decision to admit a student.
“We always talk about the benefit of more proactive versus reactive responses to things,” Thomas said of the decision to hold the meeting.
Noshirvani added that she thought the facilitators could have been clearer about why the meeting was actually held. “If you didn’t know what happened, it was a little confusing,” she said. “No one directly, flat-out said what had been said. I’m still a little confused—I still don’t completely know what happened, and I think a lot of people in our grade might agree with that.”
Freeman said he found out what the meeting was going to be about through rumors from other students. “I wasn’t excited because I felt like they were just going to shame us, and I didn’t think that was the solution,” he said.
Holder said that Howe spoke first in the meeting to express that she was disappointed in the senior class and thought “this could never have happened” because she “expects more” from them. Holder added that Howe referred to goals the seniors set on their class trip in August about who they wanted to be during their senior year and said that the class’ response to the college process so far did not match their goals. Howe declined to comment for this article.
“I think what they tried to do at first was clear up any misconceptions,” Freeman said. He added that Howe said that historically, affirmative action has benefitted white women the most out of any marginalized group. He said he and others saw a separation between what Howe discussed and how affirmative action works today, and that he was confused why she spoke about affirmative action only in a historical context. “The whole thing is right now, who’s being affected by it? There’s a difference,” he said.
Noshirvani said what she thought the facilitators did well in the meeting “was that they sort of smashed this misconception that affirmative action is beneficial only to people of color.”
Thomas said the information Howe provided was an effort “to bring greater awareness” about how affirmative action “actually works and who it actually works to support, historically and to this present day.” Thomas added she thought that since some of the concerns the meeting addressed were about specific comments related to affirmative action, “it just became a prime opportunity to bring some education and awareness about what affirmative action actually is.”
“Broadly speaking, I think affirmative action is misunderstood,” Wong said. “The narrative around affirmative action in this country can be very misleading, and I think we wanted to broach that topic even though it’s complicated.”
Wong said he thought members of the senior class misunderstood how affirmative action works and who it benefits in relation to college admissions, both historically and today. He said that the meeting aimed to address any misconceptions. “We invited seniors who wanted to learn more about that particular topic to come and speak with any of us,” he added.
Freeman said that members of the college counseling office spoke after Howe to more directly address students’ reactions to college acceptances and rejections. “There was a moment where Darius was like, ‘Well, this is kind of on us—you’re going to get negative news, you’re going to get rejected from somewhere. We didn’t try to help you with that, so obviously, the ways that you might deal with it would be negative, and we should have done more,’” he said.
“Emily began talking about how throughout the college process, every choice was our own choice. We chose how we responded to good or disappointing news,” Noshirvani said. “She sort of segued into how we respond to disappointing news and if the way we respond to disappointing news is automatically assuming it has something to do with race or ethnicity, sexual orientation or anything like that, that is the wrong approach. And then if we feel that we need to talk about that with other people, that makes it even worse.”
Freeman said at one point, Livelli said that since you don’t know what goes into people’s college processes, you can’t attribute a person’s acceptance or rejection from a college to their race. “It felt like the implication was—certainly, that’s true—but the implication was ‘You can’t act like it’s a factor at all because you don’t know,’” he said. “It seems like the outburst that caused the whole controversy was somebody acting like it was the one singular factor, which obviously doesn’t make sense—that’s wrong. But what’s equally wrong is pretending like it’s not a factor at all. It affects admission; it just felt a little disingenuous.”
Freeman added that comments from college counselors essentially told students to “discontinue” negative thoughts they had when they were faced with rejection—thoughts like “I didn’t get in, and it’s because of this.” He said they “spoke extremely euphemistically about it, which also, I didn’t like,” and added that he thought the college counselors’ comments made it seem like they didn’t regard students’ discontented feelings during the college process as valid.
“It’s understandable you would be upset that you didn’t get in. It’s not understandable that it came out that way,” he said of the comments that prompted the meeting, “but you need help working through it. And I think the decision to just be like, ‘Oh, hey, just don’t talk about it at all’ or ‘Just pretend like you’re happy when you’re not’ is definitely not the solution. To me, it feels like bottling it up like that is what’s going to lead to the hurtful outbursts, as opposed to the healthy expressions of your own disappointment.” He added that he agreed with an idea Wong shared that students should try to work through their emotions in a healthy way, by doing something like going on a run, if they feel disappointed with results they receive from colleges.
Holder said students were talking about the meeting in the hallways after it ended. “My friends were talking about it like ‘What just happened?’ and ‘Why did we need that? It was unnecessary,’” she said.
“It wasn’t all bad, but I think the prevailing sentiment—and maybe this is sort of confirmation bias; like it’s what I was looking for going into it—but I felt like the prevailing sentiment was ‘Bottle it up,’” Freeman said. “And I don’t think that that’s the way to do it.”
Both Freeman and Noshirvani said they wished the meeting had been less lecture-like and had incorporated room for students to respond to the content they were presented with.
Wong said that plans to incorporate discussions about affirmative action into college counseling programming in the future are part of an “ongoing conversation with our team and definitely something that we could explore further in our college discussions with students.”
Thomas explained that each senior was asked to fill out an exit ticket before they left the meeting in which they could share important takeaways, how they felt about the information that was shared or insights they wanted to give the facilitators for future conversations.
“Based off of what I could see, in terms of how students responded, in large part, most of them were appreciative of the information,” Thomas said. “I think some, as always, felt like they didn’t see value in the time. But those numbers were very, very small in comparison to students who overwhelmingly expressed appreciation for the conversation, some sense of disappointment that we had to have it, and yet thought it was important that we addressed it.”
Thomas added that she believed that in their exit tickets, seniors expressed that they wanted to live up to the goals they set on the senior trip. “That’s what I think is great about GDS; we’re always going to come back to the mission,” she said. “When we’re feeling that there’s a disconnect or we’re not aligned with it, we hold space to talk about how we re-center, regroup and get back in alignment with it.”
Though Wong did not read the exit ticket responses, he thought seniors were receptive to the meeting based on his conversations with students. “From what I heard from students, they felt it was worthwhile,” he said. “I did talk with several seniors after the meeting and asked them what their takeaways were. And they, in large part, understood why we were having that conversation and understood the need for it as well, even if they themselves weren’t directly impacted.”
“That’s what my greatest hope of the outcome of that meeting was—that folks can understand why that conversation was important to have and why it’s important that we hopefully don’t have to have a conversation of that nature in the future,” Thomas said.