How Diversity Liberated My Identity

by Cindy Leow | Jan 6, 2017

In high school, I felt limited by my school’s dominant cultural identity and lack of diverse student backgrounds. So when it came time to look at universities, I was determined to experience the world for myself, to soak it in, and to explore as many cultures as possible. I wanted to learn from peers who were different from me: who came from all over the world, and from all walks of life. I realized that would only be possible at a university that embodies true diversity, in every sense of the word — a place where anyone and everyone who meets the bar for admission is welcome, no matter where they come from.

Minerva is that place.

As I write this, I’m sitting in a quiet café in San Francisco — the first of seven cities I will live in over the next four years — finishing up an assignment (at least I’m supposed to be) about genetic algorithms. Here, I feel at home, amidst being immersed in a hot spring of cultures and perspectives, as I was while doing the IB Diploma Program.

But there was a time when I’d never given much thought to my skin color or nationality. I think back to my high school days…

2014: Majority at Home to Minority Abroad

Malaysia is under half the size of Texas. On top of that, I attended a private school my entire life, so was always surrounded by a homogeneous group: I had no prior concept of what “diversity” really was.

I was wondering where I’d end up after secondary school when it hit me, like a rapidly crystallizing wave: I was familiar with only a very, very little part of the world.

Though I will always love Malaysia, as well as that school, I was having an existential crisis. Within my little community, I felt I was built from the same mold as everyone around me, by the same producers, all with similar beliefs, practices, and traditions.

My opinions were rarely challenged because we all came from the same socioeconomic group, and had grown up listening to the same style of speech, adhering to the same living patterns. Up until that point, my identity had been defined by those around me, and I was frustrated that my “world,” my network, was really just a bubble. I was locked inside a humid box I ached to break free from. I wanted to exhale, to see the world, and to expand beyond those stifling limits.

So I made a conscious choice to attend an IB World School, hurling myself into the Diploma Program — desperate for the diversity and global perspective I was craving.

My friends there were from Australia, Germany, Pakistan, and Ireland — places I knew almost nothing about. At first, it was severely uncomfortable. There were so many social cues I didn’t understand, and, I responded awkwardly to cultural conventions I was not used to navigating. For the first time in my life, I was in the minority. There were no cultural or social rules set in stone.

It was international social anarchy, and I loved it.

I realized this is the best way to truly feel, taste, and breathe in the world. This person, me, “Cindy Leow Thung Thung,” was no longer shaped by a dominant societal narrative: I was defining my own identity by engaging with those around me in new ways, and taking away meaningful moments from every interaction, conversation, and celebration.

I was an active agent, not a passive wallflower.

Summer 2015: Racial Identity as an Admissions Strategy?

When choosing which universities to apply to, my post-IB revelation made me determined not to wind up on a path where my identity would be defined by a rigid sameness. So, as many Malaysians do, I scrambled to apply to American institutions, eager for a taste of liberation, diversity, and the elusive “American Dream.”

Still, I found it hard to get excited about going to school in the U.S. Something was off, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it — until I began applying.

I spent the summer of 2015 pushing, polishing, and perfecting who I was on paper. I excitedly filled in the first page of the newly released Common App and began to enter my “personal details.”

“Easy!” I thought, and chuckled. But then my eyes fell to a specific question on the list: “What is your ethnicity, nationality, and race?”

I hesitated, pondering my identity for a few minutes (as if that’s all it takes). Did I want to be labelled an “Asian Chinese” or “n/a”? Or, did I “prefer not to disclose” my ethnicity? Which would have increased my odds of getting in? Did it really matter?

I didn’t have an answer, only more questions: was I confidently defining my own racial identity, or merely filling some school’s nationality quota?

Many American universities tout themselves as “colorblind,” or “merit-based,” but are those claims actually valid? Many boast about admitting students from “over 80 countries.” What they conveniently neglect to mention is that a stagnant and disappointing average of 8–11% of international students ultimately enroll, despite a growing international pool of applicants, who are just as qualified as their American counterparts.

Why? Most schools have preset quotas for international students, making admissions more like a lottery than a fair game of Scrabble. Furthermore, financial aid is allocated disproportionately for international students, many of whom already come from a lower standard of living than American students, and thus are even more significantly impacted by meager aid packages, if they get any at all. “Merit-based” admissions lose importance when financial need is factored in and a student’s acceptance is moot when they can’t actually afford to attend.

The ironic result is that, in our increasingly globalized world, it’s actually becoming more difficult for international students to attend top-tier schools in the U.S.

“I had no desire to shy away from my roots, or to deny who I am just to get into globally revered schools.”

Despite this contradiction, I decided to be upfront about my ethnicity, aware that doing so might hurt my odds. I had no desire to shy away from my roots, or to deny who I am just to get into globally revered schools. I am proud of my heritage, of being Malaysian-Chinese. There is a distinction between being proud of who you are, and wanting to explore other cultures. No. I refused to deny who I am simply for external validation.

But even in that moment, doubts still arose. I feared that (if I got into these schools) I’d be labelled as the “token Malaysian,” the minority foreigner, rather than a student like everyone else. I worried I would feel compelled to shed some of my favorite Malaysian quirks in order to fit in, like the “Manglish” accent, or my brash laughter, or my penchant for durian breath (durians are the smelliest fruit in the world).

I thought of all the movies that fictionalize the extravagant thrills of the American university experience. How many Malaysians — or any “international” students for that matter — did I see?

What I did see was a surprising parallel with my previous school in Malaysia: both communities are homogenous, the concept of “diversity” a footnote at best. I didn’t want to go from one uniform society to another — especially not when I’d be far from home and feel like an outsider.

December 2015: Finding an Alternative

With my Common App applications sent out, I was talking with a friend-of-a-friend who had just been admitted to the Founding Class of some new university program, with the ambitious goal of “revolutionizing higher education.” I was immediately enthralled, and decided to look into this school called “Minerva.” Minerva? What?

The more I read, the more I started to feel something I hadn’t felt yet during the admissions process: hope. My disillusionment with the hypocrisy of “diverse” colleges started to lift.

Suddenly, I found myself applying to Minerva. I was not asked to designate my ethnicity. The crux of Minerva’s admissions philosophy is its merit-based approach. Not racial or nationality-based quotas. No preference for legacies, or athletes, like at other schools.

What was this school? Why weren’t the others on my list approaching admissions this way?

I was not required to force myself into a box. There was an inherent belief hidden between the lines, that as a student — not as a Malaysian, or a minority, or any other irrelevant label — being admitted meant I was capable and worthy.

Fall 2016: Choosing to Experience Diversity

After graduating from IB, I started my next journey at Minerva. How did I end up here? After two years at IB, I realized I couldn’t — no, wouldn’t go back to one narrative.

On my first day, as I stepped into the residence hall in San Francisco, my home for the next year, I met other students from Montreal, Israel, and Japan.

“Without quotas or weight given to ethnicity or nationality, my class is somehow, organically, a flourishing representation of the world we live in.”

As I met the rest of my classmates, Minerva’s merit-based admissions process was both readily apparent and astounding. Without quotas or weight given to ethnicity or nationality, my class is somehow, organically, a flourishing representation of the world we live in.

Intelligence and curiosity clearly don’t reside within borders.

November 2016: Reconciling Paradoxes

Today marks three months since I arrived in San Francisco, and I’ve just gotten back to the residence hall after a spontaneous road trip to Lake Tahoe during “Friendsgiving” break. While driving in a car full of new friends from Russia, Holland, Belarus, Ukraine, the U.S., Malaysia, Latvia, and Kenya, we jammed to songs from all of our countries and spent the majority of our conversations talking about our grandparents. Yes. That’s right. We, boisterous, crazy college kids talked about our grandparents. Some Omas and Opas were rebels on the medic team during the Second World War, a Bibi came to America in search of fortune, and a Ye-ye and a Nai-nai dropped out of school to join a travelling circus. It was fascinating to hear how different, yet surprisingly similar, each of our grandparents’ stories were.

A day after that and we’re all celebrating Friendsgiving with a home-cooked feast and heart-wrenching student performances. Stories permeated the air around me, scented with our joyful tears — and no Minerva tradition is complete without a dance party.

Over the last few months, every time I’ve felt homesick, all I’ve needed to do is look around at the beautiful, global family I have here. We’ve made our own accidental traditions, like spending hours in the hallway talking about our experiences, or recounting various thoughts from a class discussion. I’m learning infinitely more about the world through these intimate conversations with friends than I would poring over books all alone. Social learning is amplified amidst so many nationalities and personalities.

This is what I wanted from my college experience, and from life. This sense of being part of a global community, something bigger than myself, yet still comfortable being who I am, on my own, whatever that means. This feeling makes my blood rush, and keeps me ticking, ready for whatever the next day brings.

I smile, thinking about how far I’ve come. I’m not only Malaysian; I’m not only a student at Minerva; I’m never just one thing at any given moment.

My identity is fluid, ever-changing, liberated by the diversity around me.