Equal Opportunity, Fisher, and the Supreme Court
A Conversation with UT-Austin Graduate Sergio Lopez
Interview conducted by Tara Yarlagadda, Field Associate
- Tell us a little bit about where you grew up, your hobbies and pursuits, and what brought you to UT-Austin. During what years were you at UT-Austin, and what did you study?
I’m originally from the westside of San Antonio. I graduated from Memorial High School, which is part of the Edgewood Independent School District (EISD), one of the poorest areas in the city. In high school, I was involved in extracurricular activities such as Academic Decathlon and University Interscholastic League. It mostly involved my friends and me traveling around the city to compete in different academic meets. I loved it!
In the spring of 1998, I graduated in the top 10% of my high school class. Texas had recently enacted legislation that gave any student who graduated in the top 10% of their high school class automatic admission to any public university in the state. So, I chose to go the University of Texas at Austin, the flagship university in the state I was accepted in 1998 and graduated from UT-Austin in 2002.
- While you were at UT-Austin, how did you feel treated by the student body, faculty and wider campus community as a student of color and as a Latino student? Were your opinions and the perspectives of other diverse and underrepresented students welcomed at the university, and if so, what role did equal opportunity polices play in creating that atmosphere?
Well, the university has one of the biggest student populations in the country. When I was first there, I believe enrollment was near 50,000 students and it might be an even bigger enrollment now.
I was the first person in my family to attend college and while I was excited to be on my own, I also wanted to make sure I fit in. I wanted to belong. College is such a strange time, you’re figuring out who you want to be and who you are. I never experienced any hostility towards me but it took me time to adjust to college life.
The University did a great job in creating a welcoming atmosphere for all students. There were many student groups that catered to a number of different activities/interests. I went to a few meetings for the Mexican students, the LGBT campus group, and ultimately I joined a group that focused on volunteering throughout the city of Austin.
- On December 9, 2015, The Supreme Court heard oral arguments for Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, a case that challenged the constitutionality of the university’s equal opportunity admissions policy. Why is it essential that the Supreme Court rule to uphold the Fifth Circuit decision that reaffirmed that diversity is a compelling state interest and that universities may consider racial diversity as one factor among many in admissions policy?
It wasn’t until I went to UT–Austin that I realized how diverse Texas really is. Growing up in San Antonio, most of friends were Mexicans and most of the people I interacted with were Mexican. When I went to UT-Austin, I met a number of folks from all walks of life – White, Black, Indian, Asian, etc. I learned a lot by attending college with classmates from different races and backgrounds, learning our differences and gradually accepting and embracing them. I graduated much better prepared to be part of a modern workplace and the real world around me than I might have had I gone to a school more racially homogenous.
I think the university tries to do the best that it can to promote diversity and reflect the current population of the state. The university has a duty to educate anyone who enters its facilities as these will be the future leaders of the state.
Also, it’s shocking that the Supreme Court is even hearing this case to me. It is surprising to me that the plaintiff even brought forward the case given the fact that her academic performance compared to other students accepted to the school that year was not high enough to gain admission. All she had to do was graduate in the top 10 percent of her high school class to get into UT – like everybody else in the state – and she didn’t. That is a racially neutral benefit to every high school graduate in the state and there can be no argument with that fact. In fact, the university offered her the opportunity to attend a satellite campus and then transfer to UT a year later. She refused.
- In a post-Ferguson environment, many would argue that policies that foster diversity, inclusion and understanding are more important than ever. What is your take on this, and how does this apply to affirmative action and Fisher?
It’s never been more important for people of different backgrounds to interact and better understand each other. Colleges and universities should serve as a safe, diverse space that helps all students appreciate the power in our nation’s diversity. We still have a long way to go toward building meaningful diverse student bodies that benefit all students. Admission policies like UT-Austin’s are essential to helping our colleges and universities do this vital work.
- Why are equal opportunity policies necessary to foster diversity and ensure that students of all backgrounds get a fair shot at overcoming obstacles to attain educational opportunity?
Without these policies in place we may see even fewer students of color in colleges and universities. Folks had to fight tooth and nail to ensure that Latinos and African Americans had the opportunity to further their education. Texas has a very terrible racist history, but the state legislature tried to rectify this by enacting the Top 10 Percent rule – a huge departure from what any other state was doing at the time. While it may not be perfect, it is a step in the right direction as minority enrollment has increased under the Top 10 Percent rule. However, the current student population at the University of Texas doesn’t reflect the population of the state, so there’s much more work to be done.
- What does the phrase “expanding opportunity” mean to you, and how do you see UT-Austin’s diversity polices as expanding opportunity for others who walked down a similar path?
Expanding opportunity to me means that it’s in the state interest and in the interest of colleges and universities to offer talented students from different backgrounds equal access to opportunities in higher education.
- In what ways does a diverse, well-educated generation of Americans – starting at the college level and going beyond – lay the groundwork for building success as a nation? How do equal opportunities policies like those currently in place at UT-Austin help to address this?
If you look at the current makeup of the Texas Congressional delegation or even at the Texas state legislature – a significant number of them attended the University of Texas or Texas A&M. It’s vitally important that all colleges and universities have a diverse student body. If these students become future leaders of the states, they’re in charge of drafting policies that should benefit their state or the entire country. The more interaction one has with people of different backgrounds, the likelier it is that you will become a more well-rounded person too.
College can be one of the first times that students meet someone that doesn’t look like them. Diversity is good thing – it only makes you a better person and I encourage everyone to make a friend(s) that doesn’t look like them.