As a college applicant of color, what Downers Grove North senior Izzy Cervantes is facing in a post-affirmative action world

As universities adjust to a ban on race-conscious admissions, Chicago-area high school students try to sort out what the ruling means for them.

SHARE As a college applicant of color, what Downers Grove North senior Izzy Cervantes is facing in a post-affirmative action world
Izzy Cervantes, de 17 años.

Izzy Cervantes, 17, who’s applying to colleges this fall: “Are they gonna put a sticky note over your race when they’re reading applications so they don’t see it?”

Lisa Philip/WBEZ

Izzy Cervantes thinks her parents have just about the cutest how-we-met story.

It starts with her mom working the late shift at a Burger King.

“My dad’s always been like a weird night owl,” said the 17-year-old from Woodridge. “So he would go to Burger King at like 10 o’clock at night, and he wanted french toast sticks. And my mom was the only person that would make him the french toast sticks. So that’s their love story.”

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But their love story — and the birth of Izzy’s older sister — put her mom’s dreams of higher education on the back burner.

Now, Izzy wants to pick up where her mom left off. Just starting her senior year at Downers Grove North High School, she’s planning to apply to more than 10 universities.

But she faces challenges that many white applicants do not. Her parents grew up in Puerto Rico and Mexico and aren’t familiar with the college applications and financial aid process. At Ohio State, her top pick, just one in 20 students is Hispanic. More than seven of 10 are white.

Izzy also is confronting a new source of anxiety: a Supreme Court ruling in late June with potentially huge implications for students of color. The decision restricts colleges from considering a student’s race in their efforts to diversify their campuses.

As universities adjust to this new reality, teenagers of color across the Chicago area are trying to figure out what the ruling means for them.

Izzy wonders: “Are they gonna put a sticky note over your race when they’re reading applications so they don’t see it?”

Colleges still plan to collect racial demographic information, but it’s not clear what admissions officers will do with that. And the Supreme Court left the door open for students to write about their race in their personal statements.

That raises another question: Are essays a loophole for application readers to give racially underrepresented students a leg up?

“I definitely thought about writing … the essay that a lot of kids write, especially when their parents come from [an] immigrant background,” Izzy said. “My cousin … wrote a really good essay about her father having to immigrate here and about growing up with that looming over her.”

Instead, Izzy decided to write about her favorite musicians and what their concerts have meant to her. She wants to go into music management.

“I wanted to lean more into my joys and what I enjoy doing in life and what I want these colleges to know about me,” she said. “But I definitely feel the same pressure … Do I want the college to know how much I love this one thing?”

Or, she said, does she want colleges to know she’s the child of Latino immigrants?

Before the affirmative action ruling, Izzy said she thought her Hispanic heritage would help her chances of getting into college. Now, she’s not so sure.

“The Harvards of the world always want to have the stories of bringing the low-income girl to Harvard and getting her through schooling from the immigrant background,” she said. “But now, with the Supreme Court’s ruling, they don’t have to have that anymore if they don’t want to.”

Lots of universities, including Harvard, put out statements affirming their commitment to equity and inclusion after the court ruling.

Izzy said she hopes they back all of that up with efforts to recruit and support racially marginalized students. Otherwise, students of color will be discouraged from applying, she said.

“If these colleges were looking more for those students and less for the legacy students or for the kid who got a super high SAT score because he had six tutors, maybe … it would give a better representation to these schools,” she said. “But we’ll see if they actually do.”

She said all she can do is make her applications stellar and hope for the best.

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