What struck me most about Aviv’s excellent story was a passage from the Penn Office of Student Conduct’s report on his investigation: “Mackenzie may have centered certain aspects of his career on the exclusion of others – for reasons we are certain she deems valid – in a way that creates the wrong impression.
This language – a mix of legal quirks, therapeutic talk and academic social justice terms like “centered” – is ubiquitous in elite progressive institutions. It is also generally incomprehensible and meaningless. But for the sake of discussion, let’s try to take it at face value. What exactly did Fierceton “focus” and what did she exclude?
Was the problem that a child who was placed in foster care and had no contact with his biological mother was not in fact a first generation student? Or was the real problem that Fierceton didn’t quite fit the profile of an ailing student who needed the benevolence of an Ivy League school?
It is clear that these institutions have constructed a loose and informal hierarchy of injustice and trauma. Fierceton’s upper-middle-class upbringing belies the horror she says she endured. The fact that she is white probably is too. One can imagine a prototype of the type of student to whom people like Fierceton are compared: a poor kid from BIPOC town who attends a “bad” public school but still manages to pursue academic excellence and community service or otherwise. The type of student, in other words, which places like the University of Pennsylvania, where only 3.3 percent of the student body comes from families in the bottom 20 percent of income, has few.
Aviv also writes about Anea Moore, a student at Black Penn, who said she was constantly paraded around the university to tell her story of triumph over adversity. “Penn dragged me to all the media that asked for an interview and sent a communications person from Penn with me to make sure I was saying the right things,” Moore told Aviv. “It was, like, ‘Oh, yay, Penn has a Black Rhodes scholar with deceased parents who grew up working class.'”
Students like Moore make schools like Penn appear virtuous and stubborn in their commitment to social justice. And the likely reason they kept asking Moore to be that spokesperson was probably because she was one of the only people on campus who actually fit the bill.
Students, of course, know all of this, which, in turn, puts pressure on candidates to come forward as testimonies of strength in the face of endless challenges. Elijah Megginson, then a high school student, wrote an op-ed last year about the conflict he felt about writing a college essay that he knew would reflect the difficulties in his life but define it. also in a way he resisted. He wrote:
In my life, I have had many unhappy experiences. So when it came time for me to write my personal statement for college applications, I knew I could sell a story about all the struggles I had overcome. Each draft I wrote had a different topic. The first was about growing up without my dad involved, the second was about the many times my life was violently threatened, the third was about dealing with anxiety and PTSD, and the rest followed the same theme Every times I wrote, then threw away, then rephrased, I didn’t feel right. It was like I was trying to get pity. I knew what I had been through was difficult and overcoming those challenges was remarkable, but was that all I had to offer?
These trauma competitions encourage a doctrinaire, almost algorithmic way of thinking about the difficulties a person might have faced, many of which may not concern the admissions committee. Emphasizing these details doesn’t mean the students are lying, nor do I blame them for trying to outsmart a system they didn’t create.