Saturday, February 12, 2011

An Open Letter to President Spar

If there is one thing that people know about me, it is that I LOVE Barnard College. Even four years after I graduated, I'm on or near campus almost every day. Yup. Proud of it. As a student I took advantage of as many opportunities as I could while giving back in as many ways as I could. It is no different now as an alum.

Just a few days ago, my seasonal Barnard Magazine came in the mail. I excitedly opened it up and began with the Presidents page. Please take a moment to read "A Stacked Deck," page 3 and continued on 71.

Now, please take a moment to read my response:

Dear President Spar,

After reading your recent essay in the Winter 2011 Barnard Magazine, “A Stacked Deck,” I am compelled to write you and express my concern. At the close you state, “it is critical to remember that this country is still damned by the tragedy of millions of Tonyas - good kids, smart kids, whose access to education is condemned by the circumstances of their birth.” To that statement, I must ask you: What are you going to do about it?

Ask anyone who knows me; particularly my former Barnard professors and mentors, and they will tell you that I am one of Barnard’s biggest cheerleaders. The institution is a place where ambitious young women go to nurture and manifest their dreams into reality. I wish that every bright, independent, ambitious young woman has the privilege that I did to develop in a place like Barnard.

As a current Barnard Alumnae Admissions Representative, former Barnard Student Admissions Representative and Senior Admissions Fellow, I understand that acceptance for all bright young women at a highly selective liberal arts college simply cannot happen. I have witnessed first hand how brutal the decision making process can be when so many applicants are absolutely stellar. What I have always loved about the application process, that I believe sets Barnard a part, is that admissions officers read each application twice and really try to gain a sense of the whole person. Test scores are not all that matter.

Perhaps I feel for Tonya because I too am from Baltimore, and know first hand what kind of underprivileged school she may attend. Perhaps I feel for Tonya because as an applicant in 2003, I did not have a perfect SAT score, or a perfect grade point average. From your description of her situation, I certainly had more advantages and opportunities going for me that helped me get into Barnard (mainly attending and excelling in one of Baltimore’s independent all-girl prep schools), but to this day I believe my acceptance and subsequent thriving academic and now professional career was made possible because my area admissions representative, Bola Bamiduro, fought for me in the admissions office to have the opportunity of a life time.

The tone of your essay leaves one to believe that because Tonya does not have certain privileges associated with being of a better class she is utterly a lost cause i.e. living in a better neighborhood instead of her “poor, crime-ridden corner of Baltimore,” coming from a two parent home instead of just with her immigrant Puerto Rican mother, and being financially stable instead of “virtually no income.” Perhaps it is just the idealist in me, but this does not have to be true. We do not have to live in a caste system, especially when women who are in your position of power have the opportunity to make and encourage significant change for young women like Tonya.

Tell me, is it better to continue the cycle of privilege by only admitting the students who have had access and opportunity to the best of the best? Or do you give the young woman who shows so much promise that you choose to write about her in the alumnae magazine, a chance out of her situation? Are you going to give her access to unbelievable opportunity? Will you choose to continue and develop the on campus programming that will support her when she arrives?

I challenge you to do more than take pity on Tonya and the applicants like her. I applaud the plan to bring her to campus to better evaluate her academic potential, but I implore you to remember that Barnard is not a place that has to perpetuate the educational ills of our country. I want to see the institution that provided me with the tools to advocate for change, to do more than observe and note how messed up the education system is. Please, set the example. 


Sydnie L. Mosley
Barnard Class 2007
What do you think?


Bettina Berch said...

The column is titled "A Stacked Deck," but it's Spar who stacked it. She's made up this story of Tonya, a young woman of many cliches (crime-ridden neighborhoods, teachers with no time to write glowing computer-generated applications, father "unknown," etc) to make some point--either that SHE, as Lady-Bountiful, will finally admit the deserving poor girl...or as a prelude to a pitch for more money for the Scholarship Fund. We won't even go into the issue of the Puerto-Rican "immigrant" mom--didn't anyone tell Spar that we're all American?
Spar is an embarrassment to all of us Barnard alums.

Sydnie said...

Bettina, I don't think she is an embarrassment per se... I just think it was bad taste to write this essay.

Mexifro said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mexifro said...

I'm going to play "devil's advocate" here and see if I can't bring a different, and yet still disturbed perspective to the table. I think Spar is right that by the point that many "underpriviledged," underserved" " get the point" young women reach application time, they either have the tools that they need to survive at a college like Barnard or they do not. I have a very similar background to Tonya - a full blown scholarship kid. But what I did have that so many Tonya's and other student's like "us" at Barnard did not have, was a stellar prep school education from 4th-12th grade. That education along with the support, encouragement, and feeling of entitlement - yes, entitlement - that I received from the adults in my world made all the difference.

I saw kids from "our" background come into my prep school in 9th grade and fail miserably because they did not have the skills to compete against kids who had been preened for Harvard since age 4...well, really 4months if you consider the waiting list for my former school.

All this to say, that fixing the problem, might take a Barnard initiative that goes into high schools and middle schools and starts weeding out the Tonyas and giving them the support they need early on. It's not to say that she couldn't hang at Barnard with the proper tutoring and support, but it is a really different ball game when you're competing with the top 10% (and what their wealth, skin color, and privilege has to offer them).

Sydney, I am glad that you pushed Spar to go a few steps further than just acknowledging the issue. Knowing is half the battle, but the other 50% is a bitch, so it's time to get to work!

Lady L said...

I was shocked and saddened by the same lines that you emphasized Sydnie, but not just because I was amazed that Spar was taking no responsibility to rectify the situation. I was amazed that in her position, knowing what she must about the incredible mess our education system is, she would make zero comment about how our societal value of education has dropped - leaving students like 'Tonya' to fend for themselves because of the 'curse' of their birth. come on, man. to not even talk about the potential of acknowledging this mess, and our responsibility in helping to change this insane education disparity is so careless and disappointing. I thought the Barnard ethos was women who are changing the world, who see no boundaries, who constantly fight to ensure opportunities for our sisters. to have a complete lack of aspirational commentary about how barnard grads can lead the fight to reduce the educational achievement gap - or any wealth of insights about what this means to us and our careers - was just so... pessimistic. Lazy. Privileged. Not words I associate with inspired young women. I hope she gets a lot of mail about this. Thanks for posting and writing.

Bettina Berch said...

Well, consider Barnard's decision to stop sponsoring a neighborhood (Morningside Heights) program tutoring high school students, reported in the Spectator last fall, I believe. Barnard's excuse was that NY State was not reimbursing Barnard for the costs of the program quickly enough. So it seems more like hypocrisy than mere bad taste.

Mexifro said...

Well Bettina, to your comment about the closing of the program, that is unfortunate. I do not know the circumstances, nor do I know the curriculum of the program, but what I'm talking about would be much bigger than just tutoring. I think that we alumnae who feel like we have any kind of kinship with a Tonya need to think bigger and therefore ask the school to think bigger about solving this type of problem. I'm talking nation-wide mentoring, tutoring, and enrichment programs that take little women like us and make them forces to be reckoned with. I really think a young person's success has so much to do with the adults in their lives, and if the parents are unwilling or unable to do the job, then we (you and me) have to step up and be those adults for them. It's part of the work I do as a nonprofit professional and part of the work I think we should all be doing. I am not going to forget this discussion. I may come back to Spar with a proposal for just such a program...stay tuned.

Sydnie said...

@Mexifro: I'm excited that you want to pursue this issue further. I myself in the immediate future want to volunteer as an alumnae mentor for Tonya or other students like her. It is not an empty request to the President. You and I are a part of the Barnard community and so it is our collective responsibility to select and support the Tonyas who apply.

Bettina Berch said...

Should you wish to look into it, here's the link to the article in the Spectator about Barnard shutting down the "Liberty" program:

Anisha said...

I think I'm the odd person out here. I agree with what everyone has to say about President Spar. But at the same time, I don't think pity should induce admission. I have Tonya's background times 10 and I didn't have the greatest SAT scores, but I did have a good GPA (though my school in nationally renowned for its AP and National Merit Scholars). I went to a public school and worked hard to get through my courses. I did not have tutors or SAT prep. While my background was pitiful, it pushed me to work hard to control my grades, the only things I could control in my life.

I think, as stated earlier in another post, Tonya's issues began well before Barnard. If Barnard wants to help women like Tonya, it should start w/ primary and secondary school students. But it is unfair, not only to other students, but also to Tonya to place her in a program that she in academically unprepared for just b/c she had a hard life. This is not me saying that every person like Tonya should not be admitted, only that all pity and/or empathy aside, that person should not be admitted unless there is truly a chance that she can succeed with help from the college. Otherwise it's a colossal waste of space, time and money that could have gone to a better equipped person. Not necessarily the one with all the opportunities, but the one who persevered through a lack of them.

Sydnie said...

Anisha, I don't think your comments are in opposition to the thoughts here at all. I think it would be absolutely irresponsible on Barnards part to bring someone to campus who is ill-prepared, BUT if she has potential and drive and there are resources to support her, then I think she should be.

Anisha said...

THAT, I totally agree with :-)


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