When it came to applying to Columbia, many of my high school friends discouraged me, reminding me of the competition, the difficulty, and the tuition cost. A teacher told me to consider applying to community college “just in case.” But the lack of support also came from my own low-income minority community that did not see the point in applying to a prestigious school. I would get comments from my neighborhood friends like, “You do know it has a 6 percent acceptance rate, right?”, “You can’t afford it,” and my all-time favorite, “What’s your SAT score?”
Most comments served as warnings to show the competitive reality of the Ivies taking the “best” and “brightest” students. But the “best” and “brightest” are not truly represented due to lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity. Even if low-income minority students were valedictorians, the traditional definition of “brightest” doesn’t include our under-resourced public schools, which did not allocate time for SAT tutoring and had families that couldn’t afford private tutors for chemistry. When people ask me, “You do know it has a 6 percent acceptance rate, right?” they are really saying, “you do know you’re not going to get in, right?”
Had it not been for the Fresh Air Fund’s blind faith in me, I probably would have accepted these comments and denied myself the opportunity of higher education before it had even accepted or denied me. But the FAF kept encouraging me to apply.
The Fresh Air Fund has a long history of serving low-income children in New York City. Whether it is through locating free SAT tutoring programs like Let’s Get Ready, scholarship opportunities, or even writing letters of recommendation, the FAF helped me understand that I was not the problem when it came to college acceptances. The problem was the systematic lack of resources available that put me at a disadvantage.
Thousands of other poor students of color who come from under-resourced public schools are negatively impacted by the systematic inequalities of the SAT. As a result, these kids grow up thinking that they are “not bright enough” for elite college admission. We are not less qualified. Low-income minority students were never given a fair chance to begin with.
Having a support system like the FAF helped me see that despite all the hurdles placed before me, I still deserved the chance to apply for higher education. Especially for people of color, this is a dire step in improving accessibility. The empowerment I received as a young woman with a low-income minority background made me see that despite my social identity, I really could do anything. So what if my SAT scores weren’t perfect? My definition of brightness is not confined to the four digits of the SAT.
Through FAF’s support, I am now a part of the class of 2022, but this does not stop here. There is still more work to be done. Although Columbia is known for its supposed diversity, as Rashel Mejia puts it, “the lack of socio-economic diversity discourages poorer applicants from applying.”
Everyone should start now by helping these students cultivate the mentality that they too deserve a chance if the student body at elite institutions such as Columbia will truly ever change. So go out and become a college application mentor for the low-income minority students of Harlem and Morningside Heights through Columbia's Achievement Initiative, or become a tutor for first-generation college-bound Manhattan youth through the Double Discovery Center. Or better yet, extend your help to all NYC low-income minority students by becoming a counselor for the FAF or an SAT tutor for Let’s Get Ready.
There are so many ways Columbia students can help bridge the gap between low-income students of color and their accessibility to higher education so that when these students apply to colleges, they too see their value as applicants beyond their low-income status.
We all deserve a chance for higher education.
Samantha Figueredo is a first-year at Columbia College who is currently freaking out about deciding on a major. Her hobbies include watching The Office, listening to Bad Bunny, and saying “tragic” when things go horribly wrong. She also is a part of the Achievement Initiative. She would like to thank her ASP community and the Fresh Air Fund for all they have done to support her.
To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.