One of the words that’s been rolling around in my head recently is the noun (or verb) ‘merit.’ Cambridge Dictionary offers a number of synonyms and related words for merit, including ‘deserved’ and ‘hard-earned.’ But one synonym really stuck out to me: ‘birthright.’ The McDermott program, like many similar scholarships, has branded itself as a merit award. And yet, substantial and systemic inequities prevent admissions to such prestigious programs from being anywhere close to a truly fair or equitable process. Instead, all over the country, acceptance into competitive scholarships and fellowships looks far more like a birthright than a meritocracy.
There are countless articles and studies demonstrating deeply unequal access to educational opportunity in America, with race, socioeconomic status, and parents’ educational attainment serving as key factors in this disparate access. If you need a starting place on this subject, I would recommend The Atlantic’s piece ‘Good School, Rich School; Bad School, Poor School’ by Alana Semuels and the NYT’s article ‘School Data Finds Pattern of Inequality Along Racial Lines’ by Motoko Rich.
This problem is not only national, but personal: it impacts the McDermott program, and thus is something that we as alumni should be invested in helping to solve within our own community. We cannot and should not write this sort of inequality off as a national issue that must be addressed by policymakers and educators. I think of the advantages I myself received in the McDermott application process: parents with graduate degrees from top schools; a brother who attended the program before I did; SAT tutoring, which increased my math score by over 100 points. This lifetime of advantages is extremely difficult to account for, and any attempt to do so must include reforming admissions systems to stop rewarding these factors as much as possible. But, in addition, we must ask ourselves as alumni what we can be doing to help level the playing field as much as possible. How can we as individuals work to equalize the tangible and intangible resources available to applicants?
This past month, I founded Dear Future Colleague (DFC), a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting underrepresented students applying to graduate school (beginning with law school as a pilot) and to competitive scholarships - both at the graduate and undergraduate levels. DFC matches students with volunteers who have successfully been through the same application process, and who can offer advice on topics such as writing personal statements, studying for standardized tests, and prepping for interviews. We can’t fix all of the problems in our broken education system. Some of the change must indeed be national, and some of it must come internally from the programs themselves (for example, eliminating the standardized test score requirement). But each of us as alumni of the McDermott program have the opportunity to give back by sharing our knowledge about the application process. In this moment, we have the chance to step up and to make the admissions process at least slightly more equal for the future decades of scholars to come – our future alumni, and our future colleagues.
If you would like to get involved in DFC, either at the leadership level (we are especially seeking folks that are/were themselves underrepresented students) or as a one-on-one volunteer, please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow us on social media: @dearfuturecolleague on Facebook/Instagram and @futurecolleague on Twitter. If you’re interested in participating in the McDermott alumni Equity & Justice Working Group, you can reach out to Elyse Mack at email@example.com – to get involved with the Board and integrate this group's efforts into the Association's mission, please reach out to any of the Alumni Board members here.
-- Nancy Fairbank (’13)