March 7, 2013

GUEST ROOM: Any Person, Any Study, From Anywhere?

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We Cornellians pride ourselves on many things: our outstanding hockey team, our beautiful campus, the impressive definition on our calves due to all the inclined walking we have to do. But I am most proud of the progressive nature of this University. As a woman of color, I swell with pride at the fact that my University was the first in the Ivy League to admit both women and minority students, truly backing our almost 150 year old motto, “any person, any study.” Ezra Cornell’s vision for this institution was delightfully enlightened, and the rhetoric behind this motto is on point.  However, as of late, I’ve been interrogating our cherished motto and have started to think about what it really means in the context of American society. Our motto is appropriate in that Cornell admits all types of people of different cultures, abilities, ethnicities and economic background. However, in thinking about the groups of people who have been cyclically disenfranchised generation after generation because of overt personal prejudices that have turned covert in the form of structuralized racism, The “any person, any study” proclamation loses some juice. Allow me to explain.

It is a fact that in our society, most of the people who live in middle to higher income neighborhoods are white, while low income neighborhoods are mostly occupied by black and Latino families. Why? Well, because of the racist structural inherencies that continue to reward white privilege and penalize people of color. Admissions officers rarely even consider students who don’t have AP/IB classes on their transcripts, which is reasonable since they are understood to be a prediction of how well you will fair in college courses. However, students who live in low-income neighborhoods, where the schools might not even offer such classes, are automatically looked over. Same goes for prep courses that are readily available in higher income neighborhoods but not as common in low- income neighborhoods. Because many of these communities, and thus, schools, are not invested in education as much as others, many kids might not have even heard about these advanced classes or prep courses, or know that they are necessary if you want a fighting chance of getting into a top-tier school.

So even though Cornell, and other top-tier schools for that matter, does not deliberately reject students based on race, the fact is, our society has historically and perpetually made it harder for minority citizens to achieve upward mobility — making it even more difficult for parents to provide better learning environments for their children. Because of this, “any person, any study” mostly applies to those who are fortunate enough to live in, or at least have access to, a community that is well funded. And, for the most part, these are the communities that are largely populated by Caucasians.

This motto is an amazing concept in theory, and yes, Cornell works to live up to it by admitting people of different hues and walks of life. However, because of the prejudice-inspired social system that we are compelled to live in, which continues to make it harder for their disadvantaged minorities to acquire the necessary tools and cultural capital needed to compete with their more economically advantaged peers, the motto can’t live up to its potential.  The subtext of our motto, therefore, becomes “any person, any study (given that you are lucky enough to not be a casualty of our society’s racist systems).”

In closing, I love my school and I love the gesture behind our motto, but I still look forward to the day when our culture allows an idea like “ any person, any study” to be genuinely fulfilled.

Kimberly Kerr is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Feedback may be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Kimberly Kerr