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Harvard Student Discusses Why She Supports The University's Admissions Process


Harvard is defending its admissions policy in court this week. A group that opposes affirmative action has sued the school, saying it discriminates against Asian-American applicants. Beyond grades and test scores, Harvard rates applicants on personality considerations. And this lawsuit alleges that Harvard gave Asian-Americans lower personality ratings than other applicants, limiting the number of Asian-Americans who get in. Sally Chen is a Harvard senior, and she's Asian-American. She's part of a group of students scheduled to testify for Harvard at the trial. Welcome.

SALLY CHEN: Thank you so much. I'm so happy to be here.

SHAPIRO: Tell me about what you plan to say when you testify at the trial.

CHEN: I plan to speak very directly about how I really benefited by being able to talk about race and my being a Chinese-American from a working-class background, first-generation college student, how this was a really big part of my application and my personal statement. I spoke very directly about how I played the role of translator and advocate for my family and for my parents and how that really developed my sense of social responsibility and my sense of wanting to do work that would have a contribution to my community and the people who need that the most.

SHAPIRO: How do you think Harvard's admissions policies helped you or affected you as an applicant to be a student?

CHEN: When I was applying to college, I remember getting a lot of really confusing and conflicting advice. I mean, for one thing, I think my counselor said people with higher scores don't get into Ivy League schools, really consider some backups and another counselor who said don't write an Asian immigrant story, don't write something that's already been told before, that's been heard before and isn't going to be compelling. And I think those two things were really unsettling, I think, at the time to think that there was this idea that my story or my experiences would not be valued or would not be interesting. And, you know, with scores that weren't valedictorian scores, it was a really tough bind to be in. Despite that, I decided to speak most honestly about what made me who I am. And when I viewed my admissions file - and my interviewers really kind of saw the value in the ways in which I was making these connections from my experiences to what I wanted to do.

SHAPIRO: If a student says to you, look; I want to be judged on my merits alone, I want to be judged solely on my accomplishments, how do you respond to that?

CHEN: I think there was a really beautiful sign at the rally that I helped organize that said merit means nothing without context. Conversations on campus have evolved a lot to reflect this idea that we should, you know, beyond this case rethink how we are structuring our education systems and how we are viewing merit as if it is something that is reflective through test scores, through reductive, quantitative methods only. The kinds of barriers that people face and the kinds of - the ways that they overcome and work despite these barriers, I think, is really important to how we're thinking about the ways in which people can succeed and can lead.

SHAPIRO: There seems to be a good chance that this case could reach the Supreme Court where there appears to be a solid majority opposed to affirmative action. What are your fears about what happens if this lawsuit proceeds?

CHEN: I think knowing that, you know, when it reaches the Supreme Court, they won't take additional evidence, so student voice that comes through here will be the only voice that they hear when it gets to the top there. Whichever way this case ends up being decided, I think that in the long term thinking about how I think I want to get a message to future applicants that their stories matter and that they have mattered.

SHAPIRO: Sally Chen, thanks so much.

CHEN: Thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: She is in Harvard's class of 2019, and she's co-director of the Task Force on Asian and Pacific American Studies. She's also one of the undergraduates slated to testify in the trial. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.