Diversity Leadership Project Student Blog

The overarching goal of the Diversity Leadership Project is to help high school students across the country become stronger leaders among their peers – now and in college.

The program empowers high school students to create a more accepting, diverse community, and prepares them to face social justice issues head-on in an effective, collaborative manner.

The project gives students the opportunity to work in small peer groups to research, gain understanding, and develop real-world solutions to issues they identify in their community.
This process increases the participants’ awareness of other cultures, as well as gives them a chance to contemplate and explore their own culture. This type of experiential learning encourages teens to befriend peers whose beliefs differ from their own worldview.

Because of this, they develop a greater empathy for social justice issues and an understanding of how bias affects our communities every day.

Some Things Never Change

Some Things Never Change

Bailee Mason
Ensworth School
Class of 2017

​I am a young African American woman who lives in a big house and attends an elite private school where wealthy white kids mingle and marry, in an endless cycle of white wealth and power begetting another generation. So just exactly how do I see the world? Growing up as an affluent black girl is a blessing, but my 17 years have shaped me to understand the meaning of implicit racial bias and to rise above it and become racially-tolerant and diverse person I am.

When I was five I didn’t comprehend my blessings. It was routine to wake up on Sundays, go up to a family suite and watch my father, a rather famous Tennessee Titan, play football. Or maybe the family would take a quick flight over to support the team on a Monday night or holiday. I saw my normal as normal; there wasn’t a question of the different because it was all I knew. However, we moved to Baltimore when my father was traded (an occupational hazard I guess), and I began to understand and appreciate my life. I attended a private all girls’ boarding school, Garrison Forest, where kids from every conceivable background appreciated the chance to attend this school.

My classmates could speak in languages I had never heard and told stories of their heritage that was so different than my own. A typical weekend might have included a bat mitzvah and attending a Spanish dinner or having latkes brought in by a mother at school. Another NFL trade later, we moved back to Nashville. But my experience at Garrison Forest prepared me well for Ensworth, a private prep school where I am one of five other African-American women in my grade.

I have always felt like I was under a microscope; whether a teacher mentioned my famous father or some ever so slight by the other girls my because of my race. A mental obstacle everyday my goal was to never lose myself in hate and jealously. Because I have discovered that my heart longs to foster diversity, value dignity, and accept in others the differences that I may not understand now but want to understand and respect. I am who I am because I have an identity that is unique to me and only me and I am proud to be who I am.

My friends who listened to my logic and cared about me as a person began to see things differently. Because I spoke a mantra of diversity and acceptance, my friends and I express ourselves in our own way, we all grow to become less judgmental of ourselves and more accepting of each other.

Regardless of the mantra of tolerance, I continue to learn the lesson that everyone isn’t your friend no matter how nice you are just because of who you are. Some don’t bother to understand me. Most make some sort of judgment about me. Enter my boyfriend, a white Southern boy from an exclusive boys’ school and sides continued to be drawn, just like it was thirty or forty years ago.

Perhaps provincial Nashville never changes. But I have always kept a level head and will always lead with a smile and an open heart, free of bias or judgment. I am always there when a friend needs me and I desire to make new friends whose stories thrill me and teach me a new lesson about the world. I aspire to be a global citizen who can communicate a message of acceptance and a mantra of human rights and dignity that can be distinct and precise.

​I’m not trying to be something that I’m not—I’m just trying to get better at who I am.

Why I Joined Diversity Leadership Project

by Maggie Herndon
Centennial High School
Class of 2018

I am an upper-middle-class white girl who has lived in Franklin, Tennessee her entire life. I will be the first to concede that I, like the majority of my peers, have never been directly subjected to racism or discrimination at any point, nor am I ever likely to be.

I have had the fortune to live my life under the influence of my family’s affluence and my inherent white privilege and, should I wish to ignore the situations of those who are less fortunate than me, whether through birth or through the discrimination given to minorities in our country, I could. I could distance myself from the racial violence. I could disregard the uneven poverty trends. I could dismiss the racist slurs and rampant stereotyping as nothing more than harmless brands of humor that create unwarranted backlash.

So why would I instead choose to dedicate my time to bringing attention to these issues which seem to have no impact on my own life? In what way is diversity important for a privileged, sheltered white girl such as myself?

As a young member of a constantly growing and modernizing world, my own life is, in actuality, endlessly intertwined with the lives of others. We are all immensely dependent on one another and feed off of one another’s contributions to our society, often in ways we do not even consider. We therefore each have a responsibility to contribute to this society if we wish to depend on other members of it, and we must do so while understanding that we cannot function alone, that we need the input of other individuals.

Cooperation with one another is not simply a convenience in today’s society, but a must, a necessary part of our existence if we wish to continue innovating and working towards a more prosperous future. One of the greatest truths that we have learned throughout the history of mankind is that ultimately, people need people; this is why diversity is important. Diversity, whether it be in the workplace, in an educational context, or simply in everyday life, represents the unification of inherently different people in an effort to improve the life of one common society.

Diversity is not about looking past these differences and deeming them unimportant, but rather, it is about embracing them and using them to our advantage, understanding that everyone has grown up with different experiences and different hardships and different values, all of which can be contributed in different ways to the same goal, to the same society.

Diversity allows us to look at problems from various perspectives and address them in a way that will be beneficial for all people, not just the heterosexual, white, Christian male. Diversity should not be considered a quota to be filled, but should be sought after for what it truly is: an opportunity to open oneself up to new ideas and to gain new insights into existing ones.

Unfortunately, whether I wish to acknowledge it or not, the reality is that I am and always will be surrounded by individuals who face discrimination, and I am and always will be surrounded by those who perpetrate it. It may not be affecting me directly and, as a result, may not seem worthy of my attention.

However, just as I am dependent on members of the minority populations and the so-called “different” individuals that face such discrimination, they are also dependent on me. This is why I joined the Diversity Leadership Program.

As a white, well-off member of society, it is my responsibility to use my privilege to fight for those who do not have the opportunities that I do, who are consistently left out of the history books and treated as second-class citizens by other privileged individuals. This is my contribution.  ​

Which Box Do I Check?

Which Box Do I Check

by Ocean Goins
Independence High School
Class of 2016

The math and science questions on my college entrance exams aren’t nearly as difficult as the decision I have to make before the test even starts– the demographic profile section.

Should I check “Asian American” or “Native American?”

What if I can only check one?

Most of my friends never stop and reflect on such a simple question, yet I find myself pondering the “most correct” answer. You see, I am the offspring of a Native American and an Okinawan, a union that wasn’t even allowed by law until after World War II. My ancestry, to say the least, is unique.

My heritage isn’t easily explained by merely checking a box any more than understanding a book by simply reading the cover. My story is deeper and one that shapes my hopes and dreams, and aspirations. I had lived and gone to school in Japan early in my life but now live in Spring Hill, Tennessee, where my friends at my predominantly WASP high school often refer to me as “their Japanese friend” when introducing me to new people.

Yet, when I went back to Japan a few years ago as a one of eight students nationally as a part of an exchange program sponsored by the Japanese government, my classmates called me “American” despite the fact that the blood flowing through my veins was probably just as “Asian” as theirs was. To top it all off, when I visit my father’s Mohawk Indian relatives in Michigan, they have no idea of how to define me in terms of my cultural makeup.

So, how do I answer that thorny question on my college application about my ethnicity and, maybe more importantly, how do view myself in light of my heritage? I have learned that we all try to stand out in our own unique way using many different methods, branding ourselves with gender, race, and sexuality to personalize the long, complicated stories of our lives.

I have an identity that is unique to me and only me and I’m proud to be who I am. As a result, I want to speak a mantra of acceptance toward everyone’s differences and, as I and others express ourselves in our own way, I want us all to grow to become less ashamed of who we are and more accepting of one another.

Because of my country’s less than stellar actions toward both Native Americans and Okinawans, I aspire to be someone who can communicate a distinct and precise message of human rights and acceptance, not just for four years on my college campus but for the rest of my life.

The onus of determining my background for the sake of my college admissions has given rise to an introspection that caused me to understand myself more deeply and fully. I wouldn’t say that I’m trying to become something that I’m not—I’m just trying to get better at being the person that I know I’m capable of growing into.

I am more than just my grades and my test scores and the boxes I check. I refuse to shun my community and culture in favor of seeming too “un-American” and proudly embrace the confluence of nationalities that I am, and I’m eager to make my mark on the world.

What Grows Best in this Heat is Poverty

What Grows Best in this Heat is Poverty

Pranay Boyapati
Centennial High School
​Class of 2016

“What grows best in this heat is poverty” were my grandfather’s words to me as we passed the fields of rice and wheat as we travelled down a bumpy narrow stretch of highway from Rajiv Gandhi International Airport to my ancestral home of Erragadda, India. Within a few minutes, I realized this wasn’t going to be the typical summer vacation.

Although I was born in India and much of my family remains there today, most of my youth has been spent in suburban Franklin, Tennessee, where mostly white families drive their Polo-clad children around in large SUVs to their next lacrosse match or golf lesson. Nothing—absolutely nothing—could have prepared me for the poverty that dotted the landscape of my home country or the massive clouds of pollution that filled the skies and caused my eyes to burn.

I was in Erragadda to work with my grandfather’s company and train the locals, mostly Hindu, on technologies that we take for granted every day, namely computers and cell phones. Perhaps the distribution of technology, more than any other visible factor, underscores the chasm between wealth and poverty in India. Distribution of technology is therefore almost a moral and humanitarian issue.

One of the students that I met was roughly my age and the only similarity we shared was our skin color. She was Hindu and I’m Catholic. She had never held a smartphone or even surfed the Internet. When looking for common ground in conversation, I turned my attention to music, the universal language of teenagers. Much to my surprise, she had never even heard of Taylor Swift. She taught me the happiness that comes with a life without technology and I taught her the happiness that comes with using technology.

I understand that technology can be the greatest vehicle for innovation, education, and change in any country and that we all have a shared responsibility to disseminate technology that will address the basic needs of our youth.

Over the course of a short summer, I was able to help my peers transcend their circumstances and empower them with the mere touch of a smart phone to reach a broader world, opening up access to education, healthcare, and their relatives who may only live a few miles away in a very cost-effective and meaningful way. I never realized that the mobile phone that I use to take selfies of my friends and myself is potentially the most powerful tool for increasing literacy across our planet.

I have learned that technology brings empowerment. As a result, students my age and even younger can become a part of a larger dialogue and contribute to and engage in a broad range of social, political, and economic spheres that were impossible only a few years ago.

It has been said that talent is universal but opportunity is not. In India, as in the ghettos of Chicago or the Bronx, where you live can determine the rest of your life. It occurred to me that summer just how much one’s circumstances can also dictate their opportunities in life. Having been raised in suburban America, the world has been my oyster.

​I take cell phones for granted and upgrade to the newest iPhone every chance I get. But the tragedy is that I can’t say the same for my friends in India who work in the wheat fields and rice patties to make ends meet. It is undeniably a tragedy, but it’s a tragedy that I can help to reverse and that technology can have the power to overcome.

College Planning Advice From Your School Guidance Counselor?

Not so fast. Parents need to understand what guidance counselors can and cannot provide.

While I have great respect for any fellow educator, depending on your high school guidance counselor for college admissions strategies is tantamount to taking legal advice about an important court case from a paralegal. While paralegals understand the mechanics of how the legal system works, they do not have the depth, training, or experience to represent you in a court of law.

Such is the case with many (but not all) but not all Guidance Counselors.

Last week, I suffered through a high school “College Night” led by a high school’s senior guidance counselor. Parents attempted to follow a poorly reproduced Powerpoint handout about college admissions while hurriedly penning copious notes about deadlines, scholarships, and financial aid.

This counselors ignorance about critical college issues (which, for many families, a bachelor’s degree is the second biggest expense they will ever face, after their home) was simply scandalous.

Public high school guidance counselors (by and large) are not authorities on college planning and should not be considered experts in the field. Relying on critical information, particularly about the financial aspects of college, is ill-advised and downright foolish.

I caught three glaring errors in the presentation… errors that could cost families thousands of dollars and set promising students on the wrong college path.

First, scholarships do not change the EFC (Estimated Family Contribution) on your FAFSA. The amount of aid is adjusted by the college and has no impact on the family contribution. Google “College Frontloading” (a term we use for many “bait and switch” schemes colleges use around financial aid) and see how colleges really behave.

Secondly, private colleges may not be as expensive as the “sticker price” suggests. This particular counselor essentially discouraged applying to any private college, suggesting that Pell Grants and other aid would not cover college costs. So wrong. Private colleges almost always provide scholarships, grants, and other incentives to cover the difference between public universities with whom they compete for promising students.

Thirdly, (here in Tennessee) while Tennessee Promise boasts “free tuition” (it is a “last dollar” scholarship that averages only around $1.200), community college should not be the starting point for smart and aspiring students. Just because community college was good enough for this counselor, studies indicate (see my website for research on “undermatching”) that, statistically speaking, bright students are likely to not finish or graduate when they attend non-selective colleges.

According to Steven Antonoff, author of College Match: A Blueprint for Choosing the Best School for You….“It’s a very difficult situation that has created a gap between the needs of a student looking at schools today and the level of expertise available to them.”

Bright students can have even brighter academic futures when they receive professional advice from professional college planners. We help families and students find the right college that meets their academic, social, and financial needs and reduce the stress and worry around the college admission process.

Call or email me today if you would like to know more.

Rising senior summer is time for college preparation

The summer before your student’s senior year of high school needs to be a productive few months, a time for pursuing academic and extracurricular interests that build strong college applications. It’s the last part of your child’s high school career that admissions officers see before they make admissions decisions, so you don’t want them to waste it without doing something meaningful. Why?

Admissions officers tell me this over and over: students who undertake meaningful summer experiences are much more likely to continue pursuing meaningful experiences in college. Those students—the self-starters who “create memories” during the summer –are likely to enrich their college freshman class and add to the depth of the applicant pool. And the answer to the question, “How did you spend your summer vacation?” could make a big difference in being admitted to the right college for your child.

Do What You Love

For the rising senior, summer is a time for growth. Having fun is allowed…and even encouraged! So how can your son or daughter have a summer that’s meaningful and leads the kind of character development that colleges want?

Encourage them to do something that challenges them to stretch their thinking. This summer is about exploring what sparks their passions and may lead to declaring a major that reflects that passion, not just a passing interest. Inspire them to make the summer experience an extension of who they are and who they may want to be in the future.

College Essay

Maybe your student’s summer experience will make for a great essay on the Common Application.  Take the advice of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “It’s the journey that matters, not the destination.”  Creating that meaningful journey over the summer that aligns with your student’s interests allows them to grow in ways that will reflect in their maturity, life experiences, and “voice,” particularly as it pertains to the essay on the Common Application.

Community Service

In addition to developing a strong list of interests and extracurricular activities, the Tennessee Promise program requires eight hours of volunteer service. Why not encourage your student to pursue something that really gets them excited?  Colleges discern a student’s level of commitment based on depth and longevity of a chosen activity and, while any amount of community service is admirable, admissions counselors want to see that passion and commitment over a sustained period of time.

Visit Colleges and Make Application

Early action/Early decision deadlines are decided just a few weeks after school starts in the fall. Vanderbilt for example, recently admitted 40% of incoming freshmen early. The most enthusiastic and qualified applicants generally apply to colleges early, signaling their true desire to attend that school. So, visiting colleges and making application before the early deadlines is critical. Most colleges will expect you to schedule an official campus tour.  If you skip this essential process of building relationships, don’t be surprised if your student gets rejected or wait-listed, even with your “safety” schools.

The Common Application

Starting your application is also important.  Go to and begin filling out information.  Have your student begin to assemble their resume of extracurricular activities and service work. Make sure you and your children understand deadlines for each school. Review the new essay questions for 2015-2016 and use this summer as a springboard for a meaningful and enriching experiences that can lead to a winning essay.

Making Contact

Inspire your student to become their own self-advocate and develop new relationships with their target schools.  Ongoing communication with admissions advisors, attending admissions events, and campus visits are definite advantages when your student’s application comes before the Admissions Committee. Admissions counselors then know your child and the contributions they can make to that college. In short, the more substantive contact your child has with the school, the better their chances for admission.

Summer can be a time of relaxation for both parent and student but should also include taking the necessary steps to avoid the stresses with college planning that comes with the senior year. A few hours each week during the summer spent on college admissions tasks will reduce stress and avoid missed opportunities in the fall.  A little work this summer on visiting colleges, writing your essay and building your Common Application will ensure that this fall semester is not hectic and the path to college is stress free and meaningful.