Native Americans Question Admissions

Some fear that because Harvard does not require applicants to confirm their Native American heritages, students are exploiting tenuous connections in hopes of improving their admissions chances.

When Erica A. Scott ’06, president of Native Americans at Harvard College (NAHC), applied to Dartmouth College and Stanford University, they required her to complete an additional heritage form, validating her tribal affiliation. When she sent her résume to Cornell University, they asked her to send a photocopy of a tribal I.D. card or tribe enrollment letter.

But Harvard University, she recalled, did not request any confirmation of her heritage.

Director of Undergraduate Admissions Marlyn McGrath Lewis ’70-’73 said that requiring a heritage form would send the false signal that Native American roots determine admissions decisions.

“It’s not the case that some might imagine where we automatically give advantage to someone who checks the [Native American] box,” she said. “Being Native American won’t make up for any shortfalls in the [candidate’s] folder anyway.”

Lewis said that the option to indicate one’s race is included to help admissions officers “learn more about a candidate.”

But Scott, a member of the Lenape tribe and one of two Native American recruiters for the Undergraduate Minority Recruitment Program, said she has seen students manipulate their Native American connections.

She recalled being asked whether a Native American great-grandmother could help the chances of an applicant who was “raised white.” Scott described another “ridiculous” case where a father encouraged his son to write about being Native American in his application essay, though the son was first told of his background during the application process.

“Why should he assume a new identity now that he’s applying to college?” Scott said.

She added that while there are currently 18 freshmen who identified themselves as Native American on their applications, only four have joined NAHC.

“We’ve actually had two freshmen email us saying they’re not Native American, even though they were self-identified on their applications,” she said.

In addition, Scott said that other freshmen have requested to be removed from the NAHC mailing list, saying they are “basically white.”

But Lewis said that no student should feel imprisoned by how they identified themselves before college.

“College is a liberating institution, and people should explore different interests, even different identities,” she said. “[The admissions office is] always mindful of the possibility that people may change their mind.”

Lewis said that if an applicant applies as a mathematician, there is no expectation that after arriving at Harvard, she must be a mathematician. “We wouldn’t feel a sense of betrayal if she went into history or Japanese,” she said.

But while Lewis said Native Americans are not expected to behave in a certain way once they arrive on campus, the admissions office does make a concerted effort to recruit the strongest Native American candidates.

“We’re very serious about increasing our enrollment of Native American students,” she said. “We work with tribal associations to let our interest in Native American students, which at Harvard is a very old interest, be known.”

—Staff writer Lulu Zhou can be reached at luluzhou@fas.harvard.edu.