Author note: This piece was written in the days before the Presidential election. The issues discussed here are only more pressing as a wave of bias incidents occur on our campuses and impact our diverse communities.
Can I speak to my white colleagues for a moment? Over the past several years, we Americans have been struggling to confront our racial history — frequent cases of police brutality, racist incidents on college campuses, and a controversial presidential election have dominated the national news cycle. As college admission counselors we may find ourselves engaged in these conversations as well (wittingly or not), given the ways in which racism affects a rapidly diversifying student population. For white counselors in particular, these conversations can feel like uncharted territory.
Earlier this year I helped coordinate a panel at the NACAC conference in Columbus to spark a conversation about race in college admission. Little did my colleagues and I know that the day before our presentation, the phrase “All Lives Matter” would be spoken during the opening session and a firestorm would be ignited amongst our membership. My experience during our subsequent session, and indeed throughout the conference as a whole, would illustrate to me just how crucial these conversations are at this moment in our profession. To state it plainly: if you are under the impression that race on campus is a topic to be pursued solely by diversity coordinators and offices of inclusion, you are sorely mistaken.
To give some context to this conversation, I am a white, Christian, upper/middle-class woman — for much of my life the deck has been stacked largely in my favor. Through a series of coincidences, however, I’ve spent almost 20 years working with students whose identities do not mirror my own. At Mount Holyoke College I spent 14 years recruiting on the West Coast, interacting primarily with students of color as well as first-generation, low-income, and undocumented students. I found myself woefully ignorant on the need for CBOs, financial aid issues for the undocumented, and how non-white students might experience my alma mater. In my current position I serve as a college counselor to Jewish students, challenging me to learn more about the BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) movement and understand how concerns around anti-Semitism dominate the college search for many of my families. Throughout my career I’ve regularly been required to think beyond my own identity in order to consider the needs of my students, and I believe that I’ve become a better college admission counselor because of it.
My experience at NACAC this year illustrated to me just how few colleagues have had the opportunity to think outside of their own identities. It was remarkable to see how three conferences seemed to exist at once: the one where professionals were enraged by the “all lives matter” comment, the one where colleagues were slowly educated through the controversy, and the one where it was a non-issue or even met with ridicule. These multiple realities have continued to express themselves well beyond the conference in our emails and on social media. To some degree, I understand it — as white folks we are often taught to believe that we do not have a racial identity, and we are certainly not encouraged to talk about race. The experience at NACAC disrupted those norms. I’d like to challenge white colleagues to lean into that disruption, and think about their whiteness as a racial identity. Your students of color see you as white; your colleagues of color see you as white. It’s embedded in every interaction you have, whether it be at a college fair, a conference, or working with your advisees on their college lists. To not acknowledge our differences — to stand in a “colorblind” place as a college admission professional —is to erase or ignore lived experience. But if we can recognize and name our differences while exhibiting cross-cultural competence, we can surely have more meaningful connections with the students we hope to serve.
There are many resources available within our professional community to gain knowledge around issues of identity and race. On the college side I benefited from attending the White Privilege Conference and the Social Justice Training Institute, as well as campus involvement in the Intergroup Dialogue Project. On the high school side, I am grateful for exposure to the Facing Race and NAIS People of Color Conferences. But you don’t need a robust professional development budget to engage — the ACCEPT: Admissions Community Cultivating Equity and Peace Today Facebook group is a terrific free resource, as is diversifying your social media to include quality organizations like The New Civil Rights Movement, The Southern Poverty Law Center, and the online magazine Colorlines. You are also likely to have resources right on your own campus, so I’d encourage you to contact your institutional diversity coordinators for more information.
Our country is currently in crisis around issues of race. We can see it in the media, in our political discourse, and most especially playing out on our college campuses. The good news is that we have the power, collectively, to effect change. If you are a white professional striving to do good work in college admission counseling, it is imperative that you recognize your whiteness and work on developing some proficiency around issues of race. To quote Sarah Sahim, the co-host of the podcast Not All Women: “You are white; use the unrivaled respect bestowed upon you as a societal birthright to acknowledge and rectify this.”
NACAC member Lauren Cook is dean of college and gap-year advising at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay (CA).