You Are Here Because You Belong

What Affirmative Action Means to College Students
Blog Post
July 10, 2023

“I think it's really important to make clear that numbers don't define students. Affirmative action does not prioritize people who don't deserve to be on college campuses. It actually improves access for people.”

In the final segment of New America's Affirmative Action Listening Tour Talk, the Higher Education Team had the opportunity to sit down with Sarah Zhang, Adela Zhang, Christina Huang, and Julian Taylor, student leaders of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (UNC) Affirmative Action Coalition. Since September 2022, the coalition has been actively advocating and informing UNC students across the campus about the importance of diversity and the role that affirmative action plays in ensuring that underrepresented students have opportunities to pursue higher education.

The interview started with the students sharing their motivations for mobilizing in support of affirmative action. Despite UNC's role as a defendant in the cases brought before the Supreme Court, the students were shocked to discover the lack of discourse on the matter. Taking a grassroots approach, they took matters into their own hands. First, they identified various anti-diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives threatening the postsecondary success of students of color. Then they initiated table discussions with fellow students to ask them what their needs and supports were to complete their degree. Lastly, they worked with staff and administrators to raise awareness and enact institutional policies that were in students' best interests, such as hiring more faculty of color and ensuring students of color are safe from racialized and gender violence. These efforts eventually led to them forming what is now UNC's Affirmative Action Coalition.

Each student emphasized how an affirmative action ban would threaten the safety of many academic programs and resources that many historically underrepresented students access. They each drew on their experiences as evidence of why diversity is essential and how it enhances the college learning experience. Moreover, they highlighted the need for diversity to go beyond just the student population but also to faculty and staff on their campus, who play an integral role in mentoring students to succeed.

To wrap up, the students issued a call to action, urging fellow students to engage in activism, organize, and collaborate with one another. They encourage students, particularly student leaders, to change their perception of diversity in higher education and understand how it benefits everyone. Even though affirmative action was overturned, its existence was meant to remedy the racial inequalities and structural barriers that have hindered communities of color from achieving equal opportunity and economic prosperity.

Here are some additional highlights from our Listening Tour Talk with UNC Affirmative Action Coalition:

  • “You are there because you are qualified. You are there because you did amazing work. You are there because you belong. I keep echoing this to many of my friends who sit there like, ‘Oh, I'm only here because of affirmative action.’ And l am like, no, that's not true. You are here because you did stellar in high school. And it's reflected not only in your test scores but in other things that you've done, and so on. After looking at applications, they saw something in you, and that's why you're at the university.”

  • “It's crucial that we continue to use affirmative action to create diverse campuses and communities that benefit not only students of color but all students on campus. Without a holistic approach to admitting students to campuses, generations of Black, Hispanic, Asian American, and Pacific Islander students will be shut out of the selective programs and universities. And it's not because they are not capable. It's just that you're not taking a whole holistic view of them as a student.”

  • “It’s more important to talk about the students who would not have access to that diverse environment in the first place. And for me, that's the immediate success of affirmative action.”

  • “I think we have all felt the effects of how important diversity is for a well-rounded education. We see so many different things coming into college - the experience of seeing so many new cultures and it fosters new ideas. Diversity fosters growth for all of us – whether it's educational or personal – it's genuinely valuable for this learning experience.”

To learn more, check out the entire conversation here.

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Related Topics
College and Career Readiness Higher Education Access and Affordability Affirmative Action