Cornell file photo of the university's new president, Elizabeth Garrett

Editor’s Note: This is an editorial written by Jolene Almendarez, reporter at the Ithaca Voice.

We encourage those with alternative or dissenting views to submit their own columns. To do so, email me at jstein@ithacavoice.com.

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ITHACA, N.Y. — If I were being interviewed for a job I’d discuss my genuine enthusiasm for journalism and natural curiosity.

If I were trying to impress a date, I’d talk about how I’ve learned to love wholeheartedly and without regret.

But if I were trying to get into Cornell, I couldn’t say something that might make a difference: That my parents are graduates of the Ivy League school.

I don’t have the kind of pedigree that Cornell’s new president Elizabeth Garrett was referring to during an interview last month when she said, “Certainly one of the factors that’s considered (during the admission process) is the connection of the student and the family to this great institution, which is sometimes expressed as ‘legacy.’”

Legacy admission means that if your parents went to Cornell, your chances of getting into Cornell increase, reports show.

According to a New York Times column, admission data from 30 top colleges showed that children of alumni have a 45 percent chance of admission while non-legacy student chances hover in the single digits.

A Princeton team of researchers the column references found that legacy applicants have an advantage in admission that is the equivalent to 160 extra points on one’s SAT.

And all these legacy applicants had to do was be born.

The practice means students with parents who attended Cornell are given preference over students whose parents were more like mine:

— My mother is a Mexican immigrant who didn’t graduate high school but later earned her GED. My father — a career military man — has two master’s degrees, but he didn’t step foot in a college classroom until he was in his latter 30s.

— Both of them grew up in abject poverty and I grew up my whole life hearing about it — how my dad ate “sandwiches” for lunch that consisted of two pieces of bread, bologna and mustard; and how my mom, with money from her first job in high school, bought her three siblings new winter coats. The money she earned was rarely for herself. 

Their hard work ensured that my sibling and I grew up modestly — we got our sneakers from Payless ShoeSource but at least we got new sneakers. My parents once had to pawn their wedding rings so we’d have enough to eat, but they were able to get those rings back.

Their hardships and my own lesser hardships define me. Everything I see and experience is through the lens of a person straddling the line between starting my adult life as a middle class person and living a childhood defined by poverty.

I still blush at words I mispronounce and idioms I say incorrectly because I’ve never heard them said any other way — a result of growing up in a city where, in 2014, statistics showed that one in six adults don’t have a high school diploma and, in 2012, only 26 percent of adults over 25-years-old had a bachelor’s degree.

In an interview last month, though, Garret said legacy admission brings diversity to Cornell in a similar way being a first generation college student does.

Her assertion misses the point of diversity on campus — I can’t imagine that proudly touting the word “diversity” was ever meant to provide people of privilege with a shoo-in to Ivy League schools.

How many other ways can rich people tell poor people their experiences don’t matter as much?

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Jolene Almendarez

Jolene Almendarez is Managing Editor at The Ithaca Voice. She can be reached at jalmendarez@ithacavoice.com; you can learn more about her at the links in the top right of this box.