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Indian Americans Recognize That the Underrepresented Need to Be Elevated But Not Through Race-conscious Solutions

Indian Americans Recognize That the Underrepresented Need to Be Elevated But Not Through Race-conscious Solutions

  • Even some who felt victimized by reservations back in India feel that making accommodations for the underprivileged in America is crucial to the well-being of society at large.

The listlessness has kicked in, and a wave of senioritis is sweeping through high schools across the U.S., now that the anxiety of receiving a college admissions decision is out of the way. For students in some communities, acceptance was an expectation, a path for which they had been groomed since childhood. For others, it represented an outlying example to be set for generations to come. 

Come fall, what kind of campus environment will they be stepping into? With the June 2023 Supreme Court decision to reverse race-conscious college admissions (affirmative action), some Asian Americans have expressed relief at the refortification of the American Dream and the emphasis on merit as the sole determinant of college admissions. 

Meanwhile, other South Asians have expressed indifference towards how the decision impacted their application strategy. Some, who have witnessed inequities firsthand, feel the decision is a step backward. It may take a few years to feel the decision’s impact on diversity within the college student body, but if the court’s decision was meant to assert anything, it’s that skin color is hardly the attribute to be used as the basis for promoting diversity on campuses. 

The Case for Affirmative Action

For years, affirmative action policies have helped increase diversity on college campuses. When race-based admissions policies were first challenged in 1978 by Allan Bakke, a White man rejected from the University of California Davis’s medical school, the court agreed with Bakke that allocating a specific number of seats without proof of past discrimination was illegal. 

Revathi Balakrishnan was recognized in 2016 by President Barack Obama as Texas Teacher of the Year. Top photo, Ayan Agarwal volunteering with Inspiring Together, a nonprofit that provides youth services, such as extracurricular activities, to foster children and underprivileged communities. 

However, the opinion also noted that minority status could be used as a factor in admissions, as diversity in the student body was beneficial to the educational environment for all — not just the minority. 

The case brought forth most recently by the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), led by litigant Edward Blum, challenged Harvard University and the University of North Carolina for their discrimination against Asian students, claiming that Harvard consistently used subjective criteria such as “likability” to weed out Asian applicants, even though this group consistently outperforms others when it comes to objective metrics like SAT scores and grades. 

Harvard denied the allegations. Per the SFFA’s case, Asians are set to higher standards even for the objective metrics: for instance, they claimed Asian students must earn at least a 1,350 on the SAT to receive recruitment letters, whereas black and Hispanic students need to earn a 1,100. Many colleges consider race as part of a holistic evaluation of applicants, and in practice, race may be used as a tie-breaker among several equally qualified candidates. 

But to Blum and the SFFA members, race classification in college admissions is a zero-sum game: “There is no way to increase the percentage of Black and Latino students without decreasing the percentage of Asian American and white students,” Blum told the New York Times. 

The court ultimately ruled 6-3 in favor of the SFFA, stating that Harvard and UNC admissions programs did indeed violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Chief Justice John Roberts in his majority opinion wrote, “Many universities have for too long … concluded, wrongly, that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned but the color of their skin.” 

“Can you imagine for a kid who has no knowledge of this process how it is stacked against them just to get into a society that celebrates their academic achievements?” Balakrishnan asks. “There is bias in systems,” she says. 

Roberts explained that a 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case upheld the use of race considerations in college admissions within limitations, including the fact that the use of racial preferences would no longer be necessary in the future. “Twenty years have passed since Grutter, with no end to race-based college admissions in sight,” Roberts wrote.

Response From Asian Americans

The Supreme Court decision has been met with mixed reactions from politicians, constituents, and students alike, including those of South Asian descent. In Georgia, Cambridge High School senior Ayan Agarwal, who will be attending Georgia Institute for Technology in the fall, said he was at ease after the decision was announced last June. He had initially feared that consideration of race would be the one thing keeping him from admission into his target school. Following the court’s decision, he also noticed his White and South Asian peers applying to schools that previously, they wouldn’t have approached. For his African American classmates in the “upper echelon” of academic performance, they can now feel assured that any admission they’ve been granted is based solely on their accomplishments, Agarwal says. 

“Everyone in my area thinks this is a good move,” echoed Advaith Nidumukkala, a high school senior at the Alliance Academy for Innovation in Cumming, Ga. “We all believe in equality— your talent and your skill —rather than arbitrary factors that are not in your control.” While Nidumukkala doesn’t feel personally affected by the Supreme Court decision, he says his White and Asian peers were relieved that they would now be evaluated on a level playing field. 

Nidumukkala has been preparing for college since eighth grade when his teachers provided high school course suggestions. Both his high school teachers and South Asian family friends have supported him by sharing insights about the college application process, recommending coaching for SAT prep, and offering advice for essays that follow a formula for success. 

Inherent Setbacks

Revathi Balakrishnan, an award-winning assistant principal from Round Rock, Texas has witnessed firsthand the stark contrast in how some student groups are groomed for opportunities while others sit in the dark. 

Balakrishnan immigrated to the U.S. when she was 21 years old. After earning her master’s in economics and working as a systems analyst for an insurance company for 12 years, she pivoted to become a teacher in 2005. Her daughters, Divya and Preethi, were enrolled in the public school system at the time, and she felt public schools in Texas left much to be desired. She worked as a teacher for 16 years, earned her master’s in educational administration, and became an assistant principal at a middle school in Round Rock, Texas. 

During that time, in 2016, Balakrishnan was recognized as Texas Teacher of the Year, commended by President Barack Obama for all of her efforts to create inclusive learning environments for students from all walks of life. To her, the court’s opinion seems well thought through and still leaves room for applicants to talk about race in an individualized manner. That is, students can elaborate on how their identity or unique challenges they have overcome have contributed to their character rather than simply mentioning their race as their sole differentiator. 

Additionally, there are other measures that colleges can use to help minority students showcase their abilities. Earlier this year, Dartmouth announced it would reinstate mandatory SAT/ACT score reporting as part of their admissions process, as data has shown these are better indicators of success and performance at the college level. During COVID, many universities dropped test scores as part of the required admissions process, but after lockdowns, some schools allowed students to report scores if they wished. 

Arun Vishwanathan and his family — wife Vidhya, and daughters Sushmitha and Sanjana, at Navarathri festivals, October 2023.

According to a February New York Times report, students from lower-income households avoided reporting their scores, thinking that their scores were too low, when in fact, their scores were high enough to give them an advantage in the application process. In the test-optional environment, some of these students were rejected because the admissions committee didn’t feel confident enough about their academic performance. 

On the other hand, Radhika Rao, a senior at Stanton College Preparatory in Jacksonville, Fla., said she chose to share her ACT scores this year because she knew it would work in her favor compared to the SATs she took earlier. She wasn’t originally planning to share test scores. “I definitely ate the ACT up the summer before applications!” says Rao, who has been thinking about college since she was in seventh grade. “I used a test prep course for the SAT but used all of that knowledge towards the ACT.”

Not everyone would have the insights into the benefits of taking each test and how it can play to an applicant’s strengths, according to Roswell, Ga.-based Shankar Mahadevan, a volunteer with Sewa International, a Hindu faith-based nonprofit that offers development programs focused on family, education and welfare services. In October 2023, Mahadevan hosted a two-hour college preparedness seminar where a panel of recent college entrants shared lessons learned with high school seniors applying for college. The college students advised applicants on how to humanize their essays, showcase their personalities, and choose the standardized test best suited their abilities.

The event, which was publicized in desi forums, garnered a South Asian attendance. Examples like these contribute to Balakrishnan’s view that some underprivileged minority students, unlike Asian American students, don’t have the proper support system to guide them through the college application process—  whether that be the personal statement essay or when to report test scores that would benefit them. “If they do apply to a college of their choice, they might write without knowing what they should write to give them an advantage,” she says.  

Facilitating opportunities as an assistant principal at a middle school whose student population is more than 50% Asian American, Balakrishnan proactively takes steps to help students who may be at a disadvantage despite their academic achievements. For instance, when it came time for seventh-grade students at her school to apply for the National Junior Honors Society (NJHS), she learned that the few eligible African American and Hispanic students in her school were not even familiar with the concept of NJHS. In contrast, the predominantly Asian American student base had been primed for the multi-step application process. 

Applying for the society requires a student to fill out a Google form to express interest in applying, and obtain paper forms to request three teacher recommendation letters. When Balakrishnan encouraged one of her top-performing African-American students to open the invitation email and apply, his first response was, “Am I in trouble?” 

“Can you imagine for a kid who has no knowledge of this process how it is stacked against them just to get into a society that celebrates their academic achievements?” Balakrishnan asks. “There is bias in systems,” she says. 

See Also

Balakrishnan used her lunch hour to walk minority students through the application process. Of the 7-8 with whom she worked, she was able to get 4-5 kids to complete the application. “It takes a lot of work. You have to stay on top of them,” she says, noting that some of these students may have family situations at home that are simply not conducive to promoting high achievement or career development. 

Similarly, Balakrishnan analyzed months of her school’s data to prove that certain minority students couldn’t attend after-school activities because they relied on the bus to get home. She encouraged school administrators to pilot a schedule that allowed kids to attend club activities during the school day at least once every three weeks. 

Long-term involvement in extracurriculars is crucial to demonstrating to college admissions boards a student’s dedication and leadership qualities, Nidumukkala notes. Seeking diversity, cultivating tolerance With race-based diversity measures stripped from college admissions, Balakrishnan hopes that students, parents, and educators will seek other ways to create diverse, tolerant communities. 

This could include reading books by authors that are culturally relevant, developing friendships with people outside of one’s community, or creating environments that cultivate shared experiences while allowing individuals to thrive based on their unique abilities. There was once a time when Asians were simply trying to “make it” as immigrants, but now, it’s time to give back and support other minority communities to share lessons learned, she says. 

When done right, South Asian students can strike a balance in fulfilling personal and social outcomes. Agarwal, the senior who was afraid race could impact his admissions, believes that one of the most differentiating aspects of his college application was his essay describing his involvement and leadership role with Inspiring Together. The nonprofit organization provides free services to improve the lives of foster children and children in need through tutoring, arts, sports camps and other extracurricular activities. These are the very activities needed to provide underserved students – similar to the ones Balakrishnan guides – the boost they need. Agarwal feels his involvement over the years would demonstrate more about his character than any essay on his Indian identity could. 

Reminiscent of Reservation

Elevating underprivileged individuals at the cost of more qualified applicants is an idea that Arun Vishwanathan, a father of two girls, originally didn’t understand when he faced discrimination back in India during his youth. After having lived in the U.S. for 26 years and raising a family in Johns Creek, Ga with his wife, Vidhya, he now feels making accommodations for underrepresented groups is crucial to the well-being of society at large. 

Viswanathan recalls the reservation system back in India, which allocates a certain percentage of state university and employment seats for members of historically disadvantaged castes. Though he felt like a victim when he was denied a college seat in India for mathematics (his 85% score was insufficient for pursuing higher studies in the field), he begrudgingly pursued economics instead, resenting his peers for being handed highly coveted spots for achieving lower scores. 

His bitterness motivated him to succeed in other areas. He improved his English, honed his public speaking skills, and landed a job in computer science, moving to the U.S. shortly thereafter. His situation forced him to work even harder and learn new skills, and that’s the same mentality he has inspired his daughter to take. The cloud development manager for Cox Communications said the time that he spent in rural America opened his eyes to why affirmative action measures are necessary. 

During a two-year stint in Oklahoma, Vishwanathan witnessed kids playing hooky, not studying, and untethered from digital devices. At first, he thought these must have been the happiest kids, free of responsibilities, but he soon realized these families didn’t even own a laptop for kids to finish their school assignments, and they would likely end up in menial, low-wage jobs. 

“I realized then that affirmative action is not stealing something from the other person and giving it to somebody,” he says. “This is about uplifting people. Not just one person, but a whole generation.” He doesn’t hold his daughters to standards of perfection to vie for seats at elite schools. Instead, he tries to maintain realistic expectations and advises them to find a career that plays to both their strengths and interests. “As a parent, I will accept my child getting 80-100%, knowing that by getting 80, she may struggle a bit for college admission.”

His older daughter, Sanjana, attends the University of Georgia for Computer Science,  and his younger daughter, Sushmitha, is in the 11th Grade. In light of the Supreme Court decision, Sanjana thinks there are other ways for universities to boost opportunities for underrepresented communities besides race. Socioeconomic status or zip code, for example, could be used as a proxy now that the race box will be missing from college applications.

In light of the Supreme Court decision, Sanjana thinks there are other ways for universities to boost opportunities for underrepresented communities besides race. Socioeconomic status or zip code, for example, could be used as a proxy now that the race box will be missing from college applications. Per Blum’s arguments, these could be better attributes to consider when trying to build diversity.“…Cast a wider net to kids who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, kids who attended high schools that don’t send very many students off to college, kids who come from single-parent households, kids who come from households that have very modest incomes, virtually no wealth — cast your net in that direction,” Blum told the Times. “You’re going to have a much more individualized student body.” 


Amritha Alladi Joseph, a freelance journalist and former reporter for Gannett newspapers, The Hindu, The Gainesville Sun, Gainesville Magazine, and CNN-IBN, is now a customer success strategist at Salesforce and lives in Sandy Springs, Georgia, with her husband and two children. She writes about travel, vegetarian food, and finding fulfillment on her In Transit Travel + Food Blog at joinmeintransit.com 

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