The true affirmative action

We've all read about the young woman Jennifer Gratz who is part of that class-action suit filed against the University of Michigan because of its affirmative-action admissions policy.

What interests me about the story isn't so much a question of racial preferences, as the way she approached the whole process of college admissions.

Ms. Gratz's first mistake, apparently, was that she was so confident she'd get into the University of Michigan that she initially didn't even apply anywhere else.

That is what my mother would call "putting all your eggs in one basket," or relying on a single strategy with no backup plan. It sounds to me very much like the shortsightedness of youth, so we'll cut her a little slack.

But then we get to her second mistake. It turns out that Gratz was accepted at the University of Michigan, but to the Dearborn campus and not to her prefered Ann Arbor campus. She actually had a chance to transfer to Ann Arbor after her freshman year and chose not to because she says she would have lost too many college credits in the process. Excuse me - but so what?

Yes, she might have had to add a year or so to her schooling, along with the extra expense, but we're talking about a Michigan resident paying in-state tuition rates. The important thing is that she would have ended up where she wanted to be. She'd have achieved her goal of attending the University of Michigan. And isn't that the point: to get there, no matter what it takes?

When I was young, my father gave me one of the best pieces of advice I've ever heard. Never say "no" too quickly. Always keep a door open; think through all the possibilities that "yes" offers before you reject something. And while I doubt he intended me to apply that advice to the world of boys and dating, it has served me well in both my education and my work. He taught me to look for the "yes" in things.

My son Daniel, a high school senior, also applied to the University of Michigan. He, too, probably won't get in, even with super SATscores (close to 1400), plenty of AP classes, and a decent GPA. So far, he's been deferred. But he's not at all concerned because he also applied to several other schools and actually got into his top choice - the University of Wisconsin at Madison. That's where he'll probably go to school next year. And if Wisconsin had turned him down, a few other schools also said "yes."

What I learned by watching him go through the college-application process was that this country offers hundreds of wonderful choices in higher education.

Even a student at what U.S. News and World Report calls a fourth-tier regional university can get a fine education if she seeks out the best minds, young and old, at her university. That I learned firsthand. It's about being open to the possibilities.

If there is one lesson I'll try to pass on to Daniel before he heads off to college in the fall, it will be to keep an open mind and not to be a know-it-all who predicts outcomes and makes judgments before fully looking into a situation.

Things will go wrong, often through no fault of your own. Find a way around or through the obstacle. Say "yes."

If he remembers that advice, even some of the time, he'll be okay.

Debra Bruno teaches English at The George Washington University.

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