How affirmative action changed my life for the better: A Chinese student’s story

By Yuchen Luo

“Please indicate how you identify yourself.” It’s a standard question inquiring about race/ethnicity on the form of almost all U.S. college applications. Four years ago when I was applying to colleges in the U.S., I believed that my Chinese ethnicity would count against me in the application. Like most people around me, I thought such questions were there to benefit African American and Latino students, and disadvantage Asians. I was wrong. When I started attending the University of Michigan, my perception of affirmative action changed dramatically as I embarked on my academic journey.

Many of us as international students arrive on campus to a sea of different faces from different races. We all heard of “diversity” as a buzzword, but I only started to comprehend it after I became a member of the diverse University of Michigan family. I was fascinated to learn from my peers, who came from drastically different cultural and national backgrounds.

When I was struggling with language and cultural barriers as a newcomer trying to fit in on an American campus, one of the few people who treated me with empathy and patience was an African immigrant student, Hailey.* She immigrated from Nigeria as a child, and she understood my struggles — how it feels to be isolated and not understanding others’ conversations not only because of the language but also the vastly different culture. With her as my “cultural guide” and best friend, I made progress adapting and building my social circles and I was able to enjoy my campus life.

It is also in this environment that I finally came to scrutinize my own tunnel vision and my various privileges I took for granted. While I focused on my studies, thanks to my parents’ support, my friend Liz had to care for her young child as a single mother and work part-time to make ends meet. Another friend, Candace, while pursuing two majors, had to help her mother and brother battle addiction. Both Liz and Candace came from extremely underfunded school districts in the forgotten neighborhoods of Detroit and went through so much hardship as second-generation Mexican Americans. And yet they worked hard to persevere, and their eyes are gleaming with pride.

Their passion to give back to their community by working with young minority women and underprivileged youth in grassroots nonprofits fundamentally changed how I view success. They didn’t come from privilege, but they had good grades and worked hard at jobs and within their communities to make attending at the University of Michigan possible.

Being in a racially diverse student community made me realize that racial inequality is far more complex and deeply ingrained than I could ever know.

The passionate minority student groups and community leaders also made me realize that success should not be defined as what school you attend or how prestigious your profession is. It is through interactions with people from different racial backgrounds that I have become increasingly interested in sociology and started to contemplate ways I can give back to my own community. It also made me realize that someone who works twice as hard as me outside the classroom and overcomes significant cultural and economic barriers deserves to have academic institutions see those accomplishments. Affirmative action allows for students to be viewed with that lens.

I can certainly relate to the frustration and anger from many other Chinese students and parents because they or their children sometimes get rejected from the ultra-competitive universities. It is almost a natural reaction to blame the system, especially affirmative action. I have been there too, being rejected over and over again by top programs and thinking to myself that some African American or Latino student had an unfair advantage over me because of their race because all the misinformation of affirmative action. But when I took the time to better understand affirmative action, I realized that affirmative action in American education — a policy issue that many Chinese Americans are concerned about — is highly misunderstood. I have experienced the ethnicity bonus point system in China in the context of Gao Kao, where several of my classmates received automatic bonus points for being of Qiang or Tibetan ethnicity. However, this is fundamentally different from the affirmative action established in the American legal system. In the U.S., a racial quota is unconstitutional. Automatic racial points are unconstitutional. Affirmative action is to evaluate each application holistically with race as a factor among many other factors. Affirmative action helps the admissions committees take into consideration the race of students like my friends Halimat, Lizzett and Candace. Affirmative action takes into consideration the significant challenges students face in their personal life and academic life. It helps my campus have more diversity so that the student body more resembles the ethnic and racial makeup of society outside of school.

Growing up in an ethnically homogenous city where everybody else has similar mindsets, words cannot describe how fortunate I was to be in a diverse school, to have the support from other minority students, and to listen to different life stories. These experiences have motivated me to pursue a career in sociology to study immigration and racial inequality, and contribute to science and my community as a researcher. Looking back on my first day at school, I was not well informed about the role affirmative action plays on college campuses. I am grateful that the admissions office practices gave me a chance to meet diverse students who are now life-long friends. Now as I applied to graduate school, I can proudly check the “Chinese” box in the race/ethnicity question, with no misconceptions about the merit of my classmates, knowing that I am one of the many minority individuals making our schools and society a more diverse place.

If you want to know more about affirmative action, read this fact sheet. You can also watch this webinar to learn more about the ongoing Harvard affirmative action lawsuit.

All names in this article are pseudonyms for protection of the individuals’ privacy.

Yuchen Luo previously served as an Advocacy Communications Intern for Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.