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Doubt About Gender Admissions

Erica Pfister

Being sent an invitation to enroll in one of the highest rated institutions in the world is a wonderful affirmation of one's intelligence and potential. Yet when Ireceived mine, Iwas unfortunately reminded that Imight have gotten in as part of an effort by MIT to improve its image by bringing in more and more women. Seeing all the female and minority prefrosh around campus this weekend, I couldn't help but be reminded of my own thoughts while entering MIT, and wonder how many of these prefrosh were doubting their own offers.

Iattended an all-girl Catholic high school and was hard-pressed to orient my curriculum towards science and math rather than towards liberal arts. Itook all the honors and higher level courses Icould, but very few were offered. Most students preferred humanistic studies like the arts or literature; whenever Ipressed for a better science course, the vice principal insisted Iwas driving myself too hard and questioned why I wouldn't opt "to take an easy elective" instead of honors physics?

Iwanted very much to be able to go to a college that would actually teach me something without saying "it's a little hard for you, dear." My desire to go to MITrather surprised the guidance office, whose counselors were used to sending graduates to institutions like Ohio State or the University of Cincinnati. Half of the staff didn't even know what the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was; one even asked me why I didn't go to a branch closer to Ohio (she was thinking of ITTTech).

So when Idid get my acceptance letter, Iwas ecstatic. Itold everyone Iknew, and it was impossible to depress me for about the next week. One response to my e-mailed gloatings, however, quickly put a damper on my rejoicing. It consisted of a rather grudging congratulation, "Good job, but they probably just did it for affirmative action."

Iwon't go into the source or the reasons, but Iknew it was quite probably only jealousy speaking, and everyone Imentioned it to agreed that Ishouldn't let it bother me. Inever took it seriously, but it managed to plant a small seed of doubt in my mind as to whether Ireally should be considering MIT: was Ilet in out of mercy to end up flunking out because it really was too hard, or were they ignoring my talent and intelligence to concentrate on the section of the application where Ihad checked "F"?

When Iarrived on campus for the preview weekend two years ago, the fact that there were mostly women and minorities for me to talk to didn't help address my concerns. Imentioned it in a casual conversation with another visiting prefrosh and we ended up talking for nearly seven hours about it, moving from the talk-to-professors meeting we had been at to Lobdell. She too had felt a little perturbed by the possibility that her admission was based solely on her gender, and the length of our conversation revealed that it was bothering us a lot more than we had cared to admit before.

Eventually, we both came to the conclusion that if people were blind enough to believe that admitting us simply to fill a quota was a good idea, we might as well take them for all they're worth. We both ended up accepting our offers of admission and have so far led happy, normal lives, thus defying the suggestion that our admission was to boost MIT's female population statistics.

It is highly improbable that the admissions office would work under such an obviously biased system; Ido not wish to malign the fairness of its methods since Ireally do not know enough to comment. Yet the existence of even the smallest doubt in new students' minds of why they were really admitted does not help when trying to decide on a college or evaluate their goals in life. And when someone accuses that a person was admitted or hired based on his or her gender or race, all it leads to are misconceptions, doubts, and negative feelings on all sides.

The issue of affirmative action is rife with pitfalls, and is not very easy to discuss because of the strong feelings on all sides. But personally I would rathernot have any sort of preferential treatment at all, and the possibility, however narrow, that I was admitted because Ihave two X chromosomes is very disturbing to me.