When Catherine H. Ho ’21 turned 14, she started volunteering at the Vietnamese community center based in Louisville, Ky., where her mother learned English. It was the first place Ho’s mother came after fleeing war in her native Vietnam.
Both Ho’s mother and father immigrated to the United States as refugees in the 1990s - an experience Ho said shaped her decision to testify in the admissions trial Monday.
Now a Harvard sophomore, Ho serves as co-president of the Asian American Women’s Association. Over the summer, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund approached AAWA and asked the group to sign an amicus brief arguing for the benefits of diversity on Harvard’s campus.
Though the brief was meant to represent the views of several student groups, one person from AAWA had to physically sign the affidavit. Ho said she was thinking about her parents when she grabbed the pen. She thought about them again when she stepped behind the witness stand in court.
“The lawyers picked up a lot of what I said and my experience as an Asian-American,” she said in an interview after her testimony. “A lot of people don’t really understand who Vietnamese Americans are, and why certain people are here for certain reasons. The Asian-American community isn’t a monolith.”
Ho spent months preparing before she and seven other current and former Harvard undergraduates trekked to the federal courthouse in downtown Boston early Monday morning.
When she took the stand around 11:30 a.m., Ho said she “locked in” on two things to calm her nerves: the face of the lawyer questioning her and her desire to tell her family’s story.
Over the course of her roughly 30-minute remarks, Ho - like the other seven Harvard witnesses - drew on personal experience to make the case for affirmative action. She spoke about her parents, her childhood, her Vietnamese heritage, and her time leading AAWA.
“It’s weird to be in a courtroom and testifying, but at the end of the day it’s my story to tell,” Ho said. “Who can tell my life better than I can? That took away a lot of the pressure.”
Some experts have predicted that, if the Harvard case reaches the majority-conservative Supreme Court, it could spell the end of race-conscious admissions in the United States. Reflecting on what such a change would mean, Ho pointed to the fact that she wrote about the community center in her college application.
“If I had talked about volunteering in the center, but I couldn’t talk about why - that it was because my mother had gone there decades before - that takes away so much of the story,” she said. “To say that I couldn’t talk about it, it would make other parts of my life story less personal.”
- Staff writer Shera S. Avi-Yonah reported this story.
When Harvard senior Sally Chen ’19 took the witness stand Monday, she had a clear message: her ethnicity is a fundamental part of who she is.
She said her college application would have been incomplete had she left out the fact she is the child of a Chinese mother and father who immigrated to the United States.
“It was really fundamental in explaining who I am... being Chinese-American, being the daughter of Chinese immigrants,” Chen said in an interview after she testified. “I don’t think I could have left it out.”
During her testimony Monday, Chen spoke at length about how her ethnicity shaped the way she experiences the world. She noted the “detrimental” racial homogeneity of her high school in San Francisco, Calif., which she said boasted “very few black and Latinx students.”
She said she has sometimes confronted bias and felt alienated on Harvard’s campus, too.
She told the court she has never forgotten one incident that took place in Ticknor Lounge in Harvard Yard. Chen was studying quietly when a staff member approached her and said, “Tourists aren’t allowed here.”
Chen said the encounter made her feel “foreign.”
But she also noted that her studies at Harvard have allowed her to feel more connected to her background. Chen, who is pursuing a joint degree in History and Literature and Women, Gender, and Sexuality, said she has particularly enjoyed taking classes related to Asian-American issues.
“That context was really hard for me to put in conversation with what I was experiencing on campus with my peers who had very different experiences,” Chen said. “That was really only explained when I took my first Asian-American studies class and I think that was the part I was most passionate about talking about, which was Ethnic Studies.”
Chen, who was the last student to testify, said in a Wednesday interview that she was not allowed to watch any of the other witnesses’ remarks before she herself stepped to the stand. The setup heightened her nervousness, Chen said.
“I think there was a lot of build-up to the moment when I walked in,” Chen said in the interview. “I was sitting outside on the bench eating my dry turkey sandwich, just trying to stay calm. Waves of anxiety just washing over.”
She added she was satisfied with her performance in court.
“There was this feeling and knowing that I’m a person of conviction and what I had to say was really important and they were my words and it was my story,” she said. “I was really happy with what came out in the story that I managed to get across, because I think it was really complete in way that media sound bites aren’t.”
- Staff writer Delano R. Franklin reported this story.
Thang Q. Diep ’19 had already shared much of his life story - and part of his Harvard admissions file - with lawyers and the public in an effort to show how his ethnic identity shaped his worldview and his life.
But he still had more to say. When he took the witness stand Monday, Diep, who was born in Vietnam but grew up in Los Angeles, Calif., recounted tales of childhood bullying centered around his race. Diep remembered how elementary school classmates mocked his accent and recalled the burning shame he felt at the time.
He told the court he grew up thinking about college as a place where he could reclaim his Vietnamese identity. When it came time to apply to Harvard, he took the first step by writing about his ethnicity in his personal essay.
“I was tired of erasing my identity for so long... so I brought the power back in my college essay,” Diep said.
Diep first got involved with the admissions trial several months ago. After conferring with his lawyers, he chose to submit unredacted portions of his Harvard application in court. He said he believes his application materials prove the College valued his ethnic identity in the admissions process.
“As an Asian American, I do not believe that Harvard’s race conscious admissions policy hurt me,” Diep wrote in a court declaration over the summer. “I disclosed my race and I did not have stellar grades, but I was accepted to Harvard most likely based on my personal statement, which reflected the diversity that I brought to campus.”
In court Monday, Diep took that argument one step further - arguing that Harvard’s race-conscious admissions not only did not hurt him, they helped him.
“I personally benefited from affirmative action,” Diep testified. “It allows my immigration history to be taken into account, my own experiences taken into account.”
Regardless of how and why he got here, Diep has sought to take full advantage of campus extracurriculars. He serves in a leadership role at the Phillips Brooks House Association, a public service group, and volunteers with the Boston Refugee Youth Enrichment program, an initiative that partly serves Vietnamese immigrants living in Dorchester.
Diep said in an interview after his testimony that he shared his story Monday to demonstrate the diversity within Harvard’s Asian-American population. He said he hopes others see the complexity of his life story.
“I hope that when people read articles about the testimony that I’m not just reduced to that,” Diep said. “I think that there are so many other things that I could have said.”
- Staff writer Delano R. Franklin reported this story.
For Cecilia A. J. Nuñez ’20, the decision to testify in the admissions trial was deeply personal.
Nuñez - who is African-American and Mexican-American - serves as vice president of Fuerza Latina, a pan-Latinx student group, and also sits on the board of the Phillips Brooks House Association, an umbrella public service organization for which she coordinates a program that works to support teenage refugees. She said she chose to speak in court because the lawsuit feels like a “threat” to members of the groups she leads.
“Supporting communities of color on campus has always been something very important to me,” Nuñez said in an interview after her testimony. “What the plaintiff is asking for in this case in terms of race-blind admissions can feel like a threat to that diversity and a threat to different routes used to allow students of color to thrive on these campuses.”
Like the other student witnesses, Nuñez said she opposes the introduction of race-blind admissions practices at Harvard because she believes this system is unfair to applicants of color.
“I think that there are a lot of institutional barriers to resources and to a lot of traditional kind of Harvard attributes that are created by race,” she said. “I think that it's important that Harvard is able to consider these students, see that they are worthy applicants.”
Nuñez noted that, though the Harvard application process felt “straightforward” to her, the same is not true for all people of color who apply to the College.
“My family does come from an upper-class background,” Nuñez said. “It's important to recognize that in many ways I had more access to Harvard than I think a lot of other students of color find that they have.”
On Monday, Nuñez testified for roughly half an hour, speaking about her time attending a small and academically rigorous Catholic high school where she was one of two black students. Nuñez, who grew up in San Gabriel, Calif., also discussed her work for Fuerza Latina and PBHA.
Though the case is high-stakes, Nuñez said testifying with her classmates Monday was ultimately “a good experience.”
“I think I'm - I don't think excited is the right word, but I think I will be closely following the case as it most likely continues through the circuits, and I hope that more communities on campus and especially communities of color continue to do so as well,” Nuñez said.
“It's going to be an important issue for a long time, even after this case,” she added.
- Staff writer Molly C. McCafferty reported this story.
Madison A. Trice ’21 said in court Monday that her “love” for the people she has met at Harvard convinced her to step behind the witness stand in the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse.
Trice, a sophomore in Kirkland House, spoke during her testimony about her involvement in the Black Students Association and the Association of Black Harvard Women, for which she serves as political chair.
She noted the “critical mass of minority students” at Harvard heavily influenced her decision to matriculate at the school. She observed that, at other universities, students mainly socialize with people of similar backgrounds.
That’s not the case at Harvard, she said. Trice said that, during Visitas - Harvard’s visiting weekend for prospective freshmen - last year, she saw that College students truly value diversity. Trice could not be reached for an interview.
“Black students are not always taken into account about being a part of Harvard by outsiders,” Trice said in court. “But they are.”
Trice testified that, when touring the yearly Harvard activities fair as a prospective student, she saw a black upperclassman break into tears of happiness after spotting a crowd of black incoming freshmen sign up to join affinity groups on campus.
“I wanted to be on a campus that was excited by diversity,” Trice said.
Trice said Monday that she finds the diversity of Harvard’s campus a welcome change from the private, wealthy, and overwhelmingly white high school she attended in Houston, Texas.
Trice said that, in high school, she was more often than not “one of the only black students in the room.” And, though she had good grades and test scores, she felt out of place in her high school’s social scene.
“It was always about being different and black,” Trice said.
When she sat down to craft her application to Harvard, Trice felt she had to write about the racism she confronted in high school. Trice said the race-related bullying she faced negatively affected how she saw herself, making it harder to cultivate self-love.
Trice said it would have been “very difficult to articulate herself” without writing about her race.
Now a year and a half into college, Trice said she finds it “so wonderful” to watch incoming black freshman discover a home at Harvard. She said that, without the College’s race-conscious admissions process, “the richness of Harvard” will diminish.
“I think that my love to Harvard is entirely or mostly rooted in the people I encounter,” Trice said. “It would be a shame if that diversity is lost because it means the world to me.”
Correction: Nov. 4, 2018
A previous version of this article misstated the name of the Black Students Association. It has been updated.
- Staff writer Alexandra A. Chaidez reported this story.
Catherine H. Ho '21
Hometown: Louisville, Ky.
Name: Sally Chen '19
Hometown: San Francisco, Calif.
Concentration: History and Literature & Women, Gender and Sexuality
Name: Thang Q. Diep '19
Hometown: Los Angeles, Calif.
Madison A. Trice '21
Hometown: Houston, Texas
Cecilia A. J. Nuñez '20
Hometown: San Gabriel, Calif.
Concentration: History and Literature