MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We heard a lot last week about the wealthy parents who allegedly committed bribery and fraud to get their kids into elite universities. The Justice Department said that dozens of people participated in the scheme. They helped kids cheat on standardized tests or even took the tests for them, or they created athletic profiles that kids didn't have all for a hefty price - bribes paid to coaches and proctors that, to add insult to injury, were then funneled through a nonprofit so they could be taken as charitable deductions.
It's a scandal that's launched a thousand funny memes, but it isn't funny at all to the students who actually got in by talent and hard work. So we decided to speak to a group of them about what this whole thing brings up for them.
We went to Georgetown University for this. It's one of the schools targeted by the alleged fraud. And it's now the subject of a class-action lawsuit, alleging that it failed to keep its admissions process secure. Christian Paz, Margaret Gach and Ramon Lyons are all seniors at Georgetown University. They're in our studios in Washington, D.C., today. Thank you all so much for joining us.
RAMON LYONS: Thank you.
CHRISTIAN PAZ: Thank you.
MARTIN: And let me just say, in the spirit of full disclosure, I actually reported a story about college admissions at Georgetown years ago. I spent hours reading folders in the admissions office, so nobody's more surprised than I am. And, more recently, I've conducted interviews there with some high-profile guests at the invitation of the university, so I may have seen some of you at these interviews.
So, Margaret, I'm going to start with you. You're editor-in-chief of the student newsmagazine The Georgetown Voice, and you and your staff have been closely following this. Just briefly, can you just tell us how specifically is Georgetown involved?
MARGARET GACH: Sure. So in the indictment that was unsealed by the Department of Justice on Tuesday, there were five Georgetown parents that were indicted for using our former tennis coach from 2006 to 2018, Gordon Ernst, to label their kids as tennis recruits, even though they had never played tennis or were actually quite bad at tennis, as shown in the indictments.
MARTIN: So it's my understanding that he had actually been fired by the university some time ago. Had you heard about this? Was there any rumor of something like this at the university before this?
GACH: So there was no rumor that that was why he was asked to resign. So the university said that they had started an internal investigation into allegations that he had misused the admissions process. So the university placed him on leave in December 2017 and then asked him to resign on June 30, 2018. They sent out a press release just on the website, which gave no indication that it was because of this internal investigation, and wished him well for his future endeavors.
MARTIN: Christian, actually, you wrote a piece in the Washingtonian, saying that...
GACH: ...The details may be surprising or shocking, but the actual sort of understory isn't. So talk a little bit more about that.
PAZ: Right, yeah.
MARTIN: And speaking as a first-generation student yourself.
PAZ: Yeah. So the fact that I'm a first generation-student was actually the motivating reason for why I wanted to write about my experience and my frustrations with this whole situation, especially the fact that a lot of people were taking this as a joke or were laughing about it. But when you actually think about people who are affected and the people who may have been harmed by being locked out of the college - higher education system, that doesn't make it funny. The details about, you know, hiring private counselors, hiring private SAT proctors that were found in the affidavit reminded me that, you know, I didn't have that kind of privilege, that kind of access when I was in high school.
My parents are immigrants from Mexico. They did not understand the way the college admissions process worked. The only reason that I knew the SATs were important was because I heard about it on the Internet. So I really remembered a lot of the frustrations that I had, where my mother would look at me and say, you know, I'm sorry I can't speak English, I'm sorry that I didn't go to college, I'm sorry that, you know, we don't have the means to be able to help you succeed like some of your classmates do. And that all became really fresh as I was reading these details.
MARTIN: Ramon, let me go to you because you are, actually, a college athlete.
MARTIN: You actually did play football at Georgetown all four years. So when you read that they were creating athletic profiles for kids who didn't even actually play the sport in some cases, I just wondered - what did that bring up for you?
LYONS: For me, it just spoke how equity and access gets you where merit can't and how they were able to use the social norms and connotations of what that person should look like to their advantage, meaning that me, as a black man - there are things or stereotypes on me that I have to overcome every day.
MARTIN: Did you feel that people questioned your right to be at Georgetown?
LYONS: Yeah. I always felt myself having to show my ID more often in a place where people who weren't looking like me had that benefit of doubt, of belonging there or - so things like, oh, can I see your ID? Like, who are you with? Like, what are you doing here? Or do you play a sport? Just assuming things about me to make it seem like I can't get here on my own.
MARTIN: The fact is these are criminal charges, and they will be processed, accordingly, through the courts. But, Margaret, I'm interested in whether anybody has spoken up about an attitude which surely exists, which is that - you know what? - rich people support people who are not rich at the university. So maybe this particular vehicle is wrong, but that - you know, donating big sums of money, putting your name on a building, you know, that kind of thing is how it is.
GACH: I think people are using this instance with the criminal charges as a platform to talk about those larger issues. In a lot of the same discussions I've had with students who are feeling really frustrated by this, they keep bringing up that there are all these legal ways and this was just one way that these richer students were able to get into Georgetown.
MARTIN: So, Christian, let me ask you this. And, Ramon, I'm going to ask you the same thing. If you have kids and they apply to Georgetown, they'll be legacies. And I'm just wondering how you feel that should - how should that be thought about.
PAZ: I still believe I'm very much in the opposed-to-legacy-status camp on this issue. I think, you know, legacy is something that, in most cases, helps people who already have access to wealth, already have access to education to begin with. Whether or not I end up having children and want them to go to Georgetown, I would hope that they would be able to get in based on the work that they do. And I would know that I have the privilege of having gone to Georgetown and having the ability to help my child if they do go through the process.
MARTIN: Ramon, what about you? You - if you have children, they'll be legacies. So what do you think?
LYONS: Yeah. For me, specifically, I just don't - I don't always want to put my kid at a position to where he got to a place and disregarded the work that was put in before that, meaning that if he is - I'm going to put my son or daughter in the best position possible being that I just feel education is key. Put him in the right schools. But if he doesn't apply it from there, I feel like I'm being - I'm doing a disservice to them by putting him in a position to where they might not be able to handle how it is, independently.
MARTIN: Christian, where would you like to see this conversation go from here now that this has been alleged?
PAZ: I think three things that can definitely be done are - I think Georgetown should eliminate the status of legacy in its admissions process. I think that first-generation students are operating at a deficit. I don't understand why we would give a head start or an advantage to students who are already doing well.
I also think that Georgetown should really limit the role that AP classes and AP test credits should play when you are matriculating students to Georgetown. And then, limiting the number of schools that high school students can apply to when they're applying to colleges. I think there are huge disparities in being able to apply to a ton of schools and having the financial means to be able to do that, whereas somebody like me had to apply for financial waivers to be able to apply to different schools.
MARTIN: Interesting. Margaret, final thought from you. I mean, you're the editor-in-chief, so I'm not going to ask you to editorialize. But I can ask you where you would like the story to go next. What kinds of other questions do you want to see answered?
GACH: Right now, we're really focusing on figuring out with that first internal investigation into Gordon Ernst revealed to the university. So we want to know what they found in that investigation and who they told. And then, the other thing is I really want to see more discussion about resources on campus to support students who, as Christian said, are working at a deficit so that, eventually, Georgetown can become a more inclusive place for everybody to be able to learn at the same pace and with the same advantages.
MARTIN: Well, it was great talking with all of you. And, obviously, somebody got in for the right reasons.
MARTIN: These are Georgetown seniors Margaret Gach, Christian Paz and Ramon Lyons. Thank you all so much for talking to us.
LYONS: Thank you.
GACH: Thank you.
PAZ: Thank you.
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