How The Son Of African Immigrants Won The Race To The Ivy League

Apr 5 2014, 9:44am CDT | by

By Julie Lythcott-Haims

My heart aches for Kwasi Enin, the Long Island child of Ghanaian immigrants who earned a spot at all eight Ivy League schools - a truly astonishing feat of college admission, and perhaps unprecedented. His qualifications are irrefutable: 2250 on the SAT (99th percentile), straight-A average, 11 advanced-placement courses, excellence in music, athletics, and leadership, and a beautiful common app essay using music as a motif.

In this era of hyper-competition over college admission some of us want a Kwasi-template to apply to our own kid, preferably starting at age two. What preschool did Kwasi attend, anyway? Which summer camp? Kwasi’s success both begs and answers the question, how did this happen?

Ask Kwasi how it happened, and he’ll credit his so-called “helicopter parents” with a fierce determination about education and achievement that characterizes not only West Africans but other immigrants to this country. I haven’t met the kid or his parents for that matter, but from what I’ve gleaned, Kwasi misunderstands the term.

Helicopter parents are those who do too much for their kids, which at a minimum results in a lack of basic life skills and can lead to crippling psychological harm. That’s clearly not Kwasi. Also included in the definition are parents who force their kids to study certain things and pursue a narrow set of activities, and there’s some indication that Kwasi’s parents may done that.

But here’s the nuance: Instilling a strong work ethic and setting high standards is good parenting. Pushing a kid to be the best at what the kid loves and has talent for: that’s good parenting too. But when a parent pushes a kid toward what the parent thinks is best or because it sates the parent’s ego – even when the kid has no inherent interest or talent – that’s helicopter parenting. From the interviews it’s clear Kwasi knows himself, likes himself, loves what he is doing, and enjoys pushing himself to excel. This, in the end, is what made the admissions difference .

Some people are asking not, how did this happen? But rather, how did this happen (to him?). Those who think this way may see black and brown people at best as undeserving recipients of handouts and setasides, at worst as thugs to be feared when walking down the street.

Some will say I’m “playing the race card” by raising this. Some are blind to their own race card – their access to legacy admission, as well as the very best schools, tutoring, college counselors, and test preparation assistance. Even in the face of objectively outstanding accomplishment like Kwasi’s, the American nightmare of race and status invades the  American Dream.

I’ve experienced that nightmare. I, too, was a black kid who got into some top schools, and I attended one of them – Stanford – and went on to achieve a good measure of success in my professional life. But knowing that some people believed I was only where I was because of my race, I felt the need to constantly prove myself, to be better in order to be seen simply as good enough. It felt like a footpressing down on my neck; it affected how I spoke and responded to many a question. At times it was so oppressive I couldn’t breathe. It took me the better part of my 46 years to get over it.

This is partly why my heart aches for Kwasi. The remainder of my ache comes from having a black son. When I heard about Kwasi I raised my fists in triumph over what it took for Kwasi and the Enins to get to this point, for how wonderful it is within our uniquely American context to see a young black man in the news for his astonishing intellectual achievement instead of for being on the wrong side of a gun.

And how unusual. There are plenty more highly accomplished black and brown boys in our nation, and we should absolutely celebrate them and offer opportunity to those who have the potential.

I replayed Kwasi’s CNN interview more than a dozen times, enjoying his earnest voice, his humble words, his unassuming demeanor. In it he tells the reporter, “Knowing that I’m going to have a happy day because of the things I’m doing in this day, because I love doing all of them… that’s what really pushes me.” I sit back, satisfied, with a smile. For Kwasi, for America, and for me.

Julie Lythcott-Haims is the former dean of freshmen and undergraduate advising at Stanford University, is currently pursuing a MFA degree in creative writing, and is the author of a forthcoming book on the perils of helicopter parenting (Holt, 2015). For more go to


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