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Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action has students questioning where to apply


The Supreme Court's decision to effectively strike down affirmative action in higher education is changing where and how students are applying for college. Whitney Gouche is the vice president of programs at EMERGE, an organization that helps high-achieving students in low-income areas.

WHITNEY GOUCHE: We work with students to identify which schools they would be challenged academically at, but also would thrive.

MARTÍNEZ: She says the ruling left some students in her program feeling deflated and wondering if they should even apply to these highly selective institutions.

GOUCHE: When you look at the data, 1 in 4 students who have the grades and the test scores to get into these institutions are even applying. And this was before the decision. And so what we want to ensure and let our students know is, yes, you should be applying. And if you have the grades and the rigor and the test scores, you can be a competitive applicant.

MARTÍNEZ: How have you explained to your students what the Supreme Court's ruling on affirmative action is and what it means?

GOUCHE: Of course, we're still learning ourselves how colleges will respond to this decision and how we might need to adjust, and what that means for our students when we're advising them. But one thing that's been really affirming, I do think, is colleges have been releasing statements. And in it, of course, they're saying we are going to comply with the law. Of course, they will. And they're also still committed to admitting a diverse student body. And so what we've explained to our students, we've just affirmed them and we've let them know that regardless of the decision, you still belong here. And you have the merits to be a successful student at this campus.

MARTÍNEZ: If race is no longer a factor but they want to talk about their race in the, say - like, these college essays, what do you say? How do you advise them to approach that?

GOUCHE: Our advice for now won't shift. We will continue to advise students to reflect and write about a key personal story, experience or moment in their lives that has shaped who they are. And for many of our students, their background or identity is a key factor that has shaped who they are. So many of our students will choose to write about the community that they come from, their family dynamics or a significant life experience that is centered around their identity.

For example, one student shared in her essay about coming from an immigrant family where her mother built their house in her home country. And when they moved to the U.S., their low-income neighborhood didn't have sidewalks. This influenced the student to want to study architecture at Carnegie Mellon, where she's now a sophomore. And so I think that many students have backgrounds and identities that are so salient to who they are. And we want to continue to encourage our students to share their stories in that way.

MARTÍNEZ: California banned affirmative action a long time ago. Before this ruling, when you had students that wanted to apply to a university in California, did they have to or did you advise them to change or tailor their applications to fit California's laws?

GOUCHE: That's a great question. I actually can speak to a personal experience because I applied to UCLA at a time where affirmative action was banned. And I had a mentor who helped me navigate the complex process. And I'm glad that I didn't let the low number of Black students attending UCLA at the time to turn me from applying. I thrived at UCLA, built a strong network there and graduated in four years.

I think one thing that we're sharing with our students is share as much context and information as you can that shows who you are as a student, what values you have, what you will contribute to the campus community. And just really put your best foot forward. And I think once students do that, there's this thing we call a ripple effect. So once one student goes, then other students from their community can see that they've thrived and they've excelled, and they're more encouraged to apply.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Whitney Gouche, vice president of programs at EMERGE. Whitney, thanks.

GOUCHE: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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