Columns, Opinion

Bearing Witness: ‘Trauma for Sale’ in college admissions

Often times when applying to colleges, we are told to tell a narrative of adversity and explain the lessons learned. A loved one’s death, a sickness or injury, experiences with sexual assault and poverty fill the pages of college admissions essays nationwide. The reason for this seems to be two-fold. The first is to show character — to prove that you are a good and moral person. The second is to account for academic performance. Not only do colleges want to get a glimpse into your personality, but the essay can be used as as supplement to explain grades. But life isn’t an easy ride, and sometimes there may not be a lesson from adversity. What happens then?

Aren’t we more than our pain?

This past weekend, I attended a workshop that was a part of the BUNITED Conference — something that I think every BU student should attend. The workshop was titled: “Trauma for Sale? How POC Display Their Pain for a Ticket to White Academia.”  It was led by Taylor Camri, a recent College of Communication graduate with a degree in journalism, and a current graduate student in the School of Education. She also works full time with the national College Advising Corps.

In the workshop, we addressed this pressing question: “How can we judge someone on how they overcome their pain?”

When a student writes about adversity, pressure is put on that student to overcome. Sometimes it’s OK to not be OK, and there isn’t always a miraculous lesson learned.

On the contrary, it’s necessary to display pain in cases where students need to explain their academic standing. For example, for a student who has mediocre academic performance but suffered from a traumatic experience, an essay explaining their circumstance can be accounted for and taken into consideration.

Camri explained that college essays are often the first time students are asked to share their stories. The problem is that when at-risk students write about their pain and don’t get accepted, it could potentially devalue their pain, thus making the act of sharing mentally harmful.

Psychologists say that keeping a diary and displaying your pain is indeed therapeutic. Therefore, in English classes, people should always be able to narrate their lives. Not only is it therapeutic, but it is essential for democracy to teach kids that their story matters as it represents the varied American experiences of childhood.

In the movie “Freedom Writers,” which is based on a true story, a teacher by the name of Erin Gruwell encouraged her students to write every week in a diary and develop their narrative. When a teacher can validate a student’s struggle and express interest, it is impactful. People in poverty need to know that they have power, and this is one way to manifest that worth and power.

In terms of “selling your pain” to get into college, I’m not so sure how well it works. I would imagine that the child who has better academic performance and talks about their passions will almost always get in. They have grades to assure the university that they can achieve academically. The inherent problem with this is that people with a low socioeconomic standing do not have the chance to explore passions, live freely and think about identity and social change. The entire system of getting into college is based on where you come from and your access to resources. People say that the system is based on merit, but there is no merit in the education system.  

In the workshop, Camri brought up the idea of “the 24-hour education,” in which students who come from upper middle-class backgrounds are constantly learning. This matches the sociological research of Annette Lareau, who studied differences of child rearing styles in her study “Invisible Inequality: Social Class and Childrearing in Black Families and White Families.”

Concerted cultivation is commonly practiced by middle-upper class parents, and accomplishment by natural growth is usually practiced by lower-class parents. In the childrearing approach of concerted cultivation, parents orchestrate daily leisure activities that often match the child’s talents, interests or skills. With accomplishment by natural growth, the child “hangs out” with whoever is around them due to convenience purposes. This occurs because parents are busy struggling to make ends meet. This inequality creates a further divide in education, where children whose parents practice concerted cultivation are more equipped at school due to the advantages from extracurriculars.

This research is just one example of the inherent inequality in America’s education system. Until we tackle issues of inequality in elementary and secondary education, there will always be inequality in higher education admissions.

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One Comment

  1. Hey Ariel,

    Thanks for coming to my workshop and for sharing your opinions about such an important topic! It was nice to meet you!