Opinion: With campus visits canceled, prospective minority freshmen struggle to imagine their place at Stanford

Opinion by Malavika Kannan
April 14, 2020, 8:55 p.m.

Stanford can be an isolating place for Black students, who make up only 7% of the student population. That’s why every April during Admit Weekend, the Black Recruitment and Orientation Committee (BROC) brings the Stanford Black community together, both current and prospective, hosting meet-ups in Ujaama and a dance party at Tresidder Union. The events are an opportunity for Black high school seniors to meet current students, build community and get honest answers about Black student life. 

Kayla Williams ‘21, now a member of BROC, told me that Admit Weekend was the main reason she committed to Stanford.

“Coming to Stanford, the reason I was able to commit was because I felt I’d be supported there,” Williams said. “I lived on the East Coast. I thought if I’m going to be coming so far from home, I’d need to have people here. I got to see that community and joy on the campus, and to see our physical space, which is very unique to Stanford.”

However, since Admit Weekend was canceled due to COVID-19 and replaced by virtual programming, Williams is worried that prospective Black freshmen will have a harder time finding community at Stanford, and that Black student enrollment might drop for the class of 2024. Currently, BROC is coordinating Instagram takeovers by current students, but Williams fears it won’t be the same.

For college-bound high school seniors, few decisions are as consequential — or as stressful — as choosing which school they’ll attend. Even after the acceptances arrive, there’s lots to be done: comparing financial aid, researching majors and, most importantly, touring schools to decide which campus culture best fits them. For minority students, including students of color, first-generation/low-income (FLI) students and queer students, the decision is even harder. Minority students often have fewer resources to navigate college admissions and cannot picture themselves as easily on elite campuses. Unsurprisingly, several admits told me they’re struggling to commit to Stanford based solely on websites or brochures. 

Stanford enrolls an incredibly high percentage of its admits — about 80% in recent years — and Admit Weekend certainly plays a role. It’s a beloved Stanford tradition, and the University pulls out all the stops — class visits! Food trucks! A marching band in the fountain! — to inspire prospective freshmen (ProFros) to bang the gong and commit. Visiting campus permits students to experience Stanford who might not otherwise feel entitled to an elite education. Without meeting fellow admits, speaking with students and visiting community centers, it can be difficult to cultivate a sense of belonging at a historically exclusive institution.

Mia Cano, a prospective engineering student from Texas, is currently choosing between Stanford, Rice and UT Austin. When scrolling through the social media profiles of her fellow admits, Mia told me she felt intimidated by how many more resources her peers had enjoyed. Some admits, she said, had already traveled the world and researched with university professors, whereas she’s spent her whole life in a primarily low-income, Hispanic town. As a result, she said she feels “anxious” about committing.

“A commitment would be a big financial decision to make,” she said. “I’m worried about a bit of culture shock or just feeling out of place. I know I was chosen for Stanford for a reason, but it feels like I’m leagues behind.” 

Despite the 4% acceptance rate, it can be hard for minority students to feel like they belong at Stanford. Many are looking for a multiracial campus, but they can’t always trust the smiling “diversity” brochures to reflect reality. First-generation students also cannot rely on their family’s college expertise, and online research doesn’t give the full picture.

Kyla Figueroa, a prospective first-generation freshman from California, said she looked up the racial demographics of the student population and found there were fewer fellow Latino students than she’d expected. 

“I don’t know how diverse the population feels in person, or the overall ‘vibe’ of Stanford,” she told me. “It could feel totally different in person [than] the data. Seeing people like me to help with the transition to campus life is very crucial.” 

For LGBTQ+ students, assessing a campus’s cultural environment is critical to knowing whether they’ll be supported and accepted. Andrew Hong, a prospective freshman, told me he’s never been to a school with a large LGBTQ+ population, and that visiting Stanford’s Queer Community Center was his “priority going in.”

“I could appreciate a physical room or community space to find a home for LGBTQ+ people,” he said. “I wanted to talk to people and get the vibe from students. I could email 20 queer people, but that’s not the same.”

Compared to his other potential school, Yale, Stanford’s outreach to ProFros has been less robust. Yale’s virtual admit event is 30 days long — spanning the entire month of April, whereas Stanford’s lasts for a weekend. But Hong appreciates the organic, independent efforts of Stanford students to welcome admitted students. A crowdsourced spreadsheet containing names and emails of current students who have volunteered to answer questions for admits currently has 56 names. Hong said he reached out to a queer freshman on the spreadsheet, who answered his questions comprehensively over email despite not being hired by the University to do so.

Still, less-than-robust outreach from Stanford could have disheartening consequences for minority enrollment in the class of 2024. Personally, I wouldn’t have committed to Stanford if it wasn’t for my Admit Weekend experience, where I met countless fellow students activists of color who affirmed to me that I, too, had a home at Stanford. And certainly, in the absence of Admit Weekend, many of us have stepped up to fill in the gaps for prospective freshmen. Numerous virtual chats are in the works; I even gathered the courage to host a Q&A on Instagram Live last week. Stanford’s students, particularly its minority students, have a strong culture of communally organizing and looking out for their own — that culture is exactly why I committed to Stanford last year. But that message could be missed by students who need it the most.

Contact Malavika Kannan at mkannan ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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