Recruit me for my merit, not my name

Minority outreach programs toe a delicate line between being encouraging and tokenizing.

Alia Jeraj

Last April, I received an email from the National Name Exchange, a program that aims to inform minority students of graduate school opportunities. I had a brief flashback to my junior year of high school — after including my contact information in my PSAT test, I was flooded with emails and letters from what seemed to be every school in the country — except the ones I was interested in. 
Despite this foreboding memory and my lack of interest in grad school as an immediate post-college option, I decided to submit my name to the NNE. It’s a decision I don’t exactly regret, but it’s one that has raised some complicated emotions for me.
I feel very strongly that more needs to be done to recruit and encourage students of color to apply for and matriculate into graduate degree programs. A study by the California Alliance for Graduate Education and the Professoriate, a coalition of four universities working to boost their minority enrollment in science and engineering
doctorate programs, shows that underrepresented minority students constitute a mere 10 percent of new doctoral candidates in STEM fields. The NNE seems like a great way for universities to receive information about students to whom they can then reach out. This puts less pressure on the students as information about relevant programs becomes more easily accessible. 
However, there is something demoralizing about receiving an email from the office of diversity and minority affairs rather than from the graduate school of a university. 
Among the emails I received was one from an ex-dream school of mine, and I couldn’t resist reading through the email from the formerly coveted university.
The email contained links to a brochure of resources for minority applicants and how to request application fee waivers, as well as recommendations for contacting currently enrolled minority students — helpful and relevant for any prospective student. The email concluded with a request that I reach out with any questions and that, in the meantime, I “consult [the school’s] diversity website for more specific information on [its] various programs.”
Being directed to the diversity website, rather than the website for the graduate school of arts and sciences (for which there was not a direct link in the entire email) seemed somewhat tokenizing to me. It called to mind the dreaded question, “Do you want me to apply based on merit or to fill a diversity quota?” 
As I’ve written, I think it is extremely important to encourage students of color to apply for graduate programs and, in turn, to make the graduate programs aware of the resources that exist for us and the unique challenges we face. However, I think it’s important that colleges that participate in things like NNE are conscious of the ways they reach out to potential students. 
Receiving an email from my ex-dream school and learning about the opportunities and resources it has for minority students was amazing. The suspicion of receiving that email solely based on my ethnicity left me wondering what other methods might be more effective in recruiting students of color.