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To be a first generation student in a time of college scandals

In light of the recent admissions scandal, I consider my experience as a first-generation, low-income student of color and important considerations to make beyond the news cycle.

If you have not been inundated with news articles surrounding the college admissions cheating scandal, the situation refers to the 50+ individuals who have been implicated by federal prosecutors for malpractices involving college admissions, entrance exams, and recruitment efforts. Wealthy individuals have allegedly conspired with elite institutions in order to secure their children's acceptances into some of the country's most prestigious schools, including Georgetown, USC, Yale, Stanford, Wake Forest, UCLA, and Texas. Many parents paid between $15,000 and $17,000 per college entrance test in order to bolster their chances of acceptance. The accused includes America's favorite cool aunt, Lori Loughlin, as well as an (Actually) Desperate Housewife, Felicity Huffman.

Though news continues to emerge quite literally by the hour, what I find most fascinating is the fact that the parties involved are actually being held accountable for their illegal actions, despite their wealth. Loughlin's career since Full House has become widely associated with her slew of movies with the Hallmark Channel. News has since surfaced that she has been dropped by Hallmark's parent company, Crown Media. Loughlin was arrested and recently let out after posting bail for a hefty $1 million. Loughlin's daughter, Olivia Jade, seems to be following in her mother's footsteps, as big companies like Sephora and TRESemmé have severed ties with the burgeoning social media influencer. It has also been reported that neither of Loughlin's daughters will be returning to the University of Southern California next year in wake of the news fallout.

When I woke up to the news a few days ago, initial articles and perhaps what made the story so viral was the focus on Loughlin and Huffman- celebrities that were facing material consequences for actions that many people like myself have always assumed to happen behind closed doors. Despite my own very positive experiences with admissions representatives as an educator in higher education, stories like Loughlin and Huffman's were of no surprise to me. After attending "prestigious," "high-ranking" institutions like New York University and the University of Virginia whereby tuition costs more than the sum of my family's annual income (including extended family- yep!), like so many others, I am quite familiar with wealthy peers whose parents pay for their $40,000-75,000+ tuition in cash. I can recall several instances whereby peers admitted that they were unsure if they were admitted into schools based on their individual merit, like when a girl at Pint Night told me she was almost positive that her admission was related to her family's vast influence in foreign investments. Or when my friend matched with a guy on Bumble, who felt the need to tell her almost immediately that, why yes, the building was named after his family. Or that one guy whose father was notably one of the highest paid faculty members; after he graduated, he had no job or place to live, but he was nonetheless able to finesse a room in a certain undergraduate student housing deemed so prestigious that even the brightest, most influential student leaders throughout campus must fight to secure just an interview for a spot.

The articles have since grown into conversations about the broken admissions system within higher education as well as community action whereby students are filing lawsuits against schools for these alleged inequities. Publications like the Rolling Stone posit that the university system is a scam in itself. As a lifelong educator and advocate for college access, even I am inclined to agree that universities now most closely resemble corporations whereby audit culture is often privileged over student success and retention. Universities feel pressure to produce good research and STEM programs to stay competitive and fund student programs, but this in turn tends to defund other important components of the university system (like the arts/humanities and hiring of full-time faculty) which thereby directly disenfranchises students who have made the conscious decision to center at least four years of their young lives at an institution whose "business model" could be unsustainable.

When thinking about the implicated universities and more broadly about the pervasive elitism amongst many college campuses, I cannot help but think about my own family's experiences in education (or lack thereof). I think of how my grandmother had to drop out of school by 6th grade in order to financially support her family in the Philippines. I think of how my mother was held back in school as a child because administrators inferred that her broken English meant she was inherently "less capable" of learning (by the way- she wasn't and they later reversed this decision). I also think of myself; how I was the first in my family to attend college (let alone a "prestigious" institution like the University of Virginia); how I balanced multiple jobs and unpaid internships throughout undergrad because I had to pay for my own education while still fighting tenaciously to earn respectable positions in unpaid labor just so I could be afforded the same chance at the career I wanted as everyone else; how I endured elitist behaviors and microaggressions daily and was constantly reminded that these spaces were not built for "people like me."

I think about how I am earning my Ph.D. with the purpose of teaching future generations to think otherwise and to be able to identify communities of support that are largely lacking.

As these conversations continue to escalate, I hope they will not dwindle or become exhausted prior to properly confronting the issue in context to the broader Western university system. Instances like Loughlin and Huffman may be intriguing and buzz-worthy, but I believe that a wide array of students would agree that such cases are nothing new; it is the public recognition and ostensible repercussions that make this current scandal so viral. Because such cases have largely withstood the test of time (and perhaps will continue when the media eventually takes these stories out of their news cycles), our public memory must not forget. Rather, we must use this time to mobilize.

We must address how structures within higher education perpetuate inequity and inaccessibility through their admissions and recruitment processes but moreover through financial aid, campus policies, budgets, housing, etc. We must educate our peers to understand that when wealth is not an option, students who work hard to obtain admission are accepted based on their own merit rather than on the mere basis of affirmative action (a classist, uninformed assumption I have heard from several misguided, wealthy individuals). We must acknowledge that admission into these universities does not equate to success, for we are not adequately preparing students for the "hidden curriculum" they will unknowingly be challenged to overcome. We must recognize that paying for children to "get ahead" is merely participating within institutions that are pre-structured to encourage the breeding of such self-serving behaviors; that universities have co-opted neoliberal models to the point that schools more closely resemble big business corporations rather than actual spaces for learning. Further, we must solve how to make admissions and university life more just, transparent, and equitable for vulnerable populations— including “people like me," my mother, and my mother's mother.

An old photo from my college advising days with some of my students. As first-generation students with recent admissions into two- and four-year colleges, the photo marks the celebration whereby each received a $6,000 scholarship after committing to a two-year program that promotes college preparedness, student retention, demystification of the admissions process, and moreover, student success.

* Thank you, Miranda Cavagnaro for your wit with this reference!

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