Updated at 3:36 p.m. Oct. 31
The leafy suburb of Wayland, 20 miles west of Boston, is home to affluent families and top-notch public schools.
It's also the scene of fierce competition among mostly Asian American and white students for coveted spots at colleges like Harvard.
“The kids are really obsessed with [elite admissions] in a way that I don't remember people being obsessed with it when I was younger,” said longtime Wayland High School English teacher Brian Keaney.
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments today in a case charging Harvard with discrimination against Asian American applicants. A group called Students for Fair Admissions, created by conservative activist Edward Blum, accused the university of holding Asian American students to higher academic and personal standards for acceptance than applicants from other racial and ethnic backgrounds.
The case could upend more than four decades of Supreme Court precedent allowing colleges to consider race as one factor among those they consider in admission. A ruling against Harvard could effectively end affirmative action in admissions for all students, potentially allowing privileged white and Asian American students to win more admissions seats at the expense of Black and Latino applicants or low-income students.
So what do teachers, parents and students think about the Harvard case in Boston’s affluent and politically liberal suburbs, especially as the population of Asian and Asian American students in these towns climbs? As a white graduate of Wayland High School who has covered higher education for the past decade, I went back to my hometown to ask.
I sat in Keaney's journalism class and talked to students like Reva Datar, who is following the Harvard case closely. She's also running hard and fast to get accepted to a top college, following in the footsteps of her highly educated parents.
To gain an advantage, she enrolled in all the highest-level classes, sought coveted internships and attended pre-college summer programs. She's been involved in student government and writes for her school newspaper.
But all that work takes an emotional and physical toll on the 15-year-old Indian American, who still loses sleep thinking she may not be doing enough to get into her chosen school. She thinks Harvard and other top colleges she hopes to attend someday require higher levels of academic and personal achievement from Asian American students like her than students of other races.
“I think that I'm being lumped into this group of high-achieving students where I just need to make myself stand out," Datar said.
Keaney, who is white, said he's not surprised students are watching the case closely. Students' college admissions competitiveness here is like "The Hunger Games," he said, referencing the sci-fi series featuring young people who fight to the death in a dystopian world.
Asked whether he supports race considerations in selective college admissions, Keaney said, "Yes, absolutely. Historically, especially at elite universities, who attended them? White, privileged males.”
Senior Genevieve Morrison, who is white, said she supports race considerations in admissions because she knows Black and Hispanic students have been underrepresented at selective colleges. But she also said some students are too focused on getting into the "right" college and are taking application season to the extreme.
“I was hanging out with my friends one night and they're like, ‘Oh, so what do you think about this college?’ It's a Friday, and I'm like, ‘Why are you talking about college right now?’” she recalled.
Given the intense environment surrounding college applications, Wayland Principal Allyson Mizoguchi, who is Japanese American, said she makes it a priority to help students relax and maintain a healthy perspective.
That's, in part, why the high school has long featured a so-called “Wall of Shame” or “Wall of Rejection” in a common area where students publicly post their college rejection letters, something to which I was a frequent contributor.
One major change from my high school days is a focus on student mental health. To help ease anxiety about college admissions, administrators have added staff and offered professional development to support overall wellness. And they've even brought in a therapy dog.
"Students need to learn how to fail,” Mizoguchi told me. “They need to learn how to listen to other students who have differing viewpoints. They need to do so many other things besides do whatever they can to get a particular grade."
When I was an anxious, scrawny teenager walking the halls at Wayland High, Mizoguchi was a rock star rookie English teacher who baked the Asian American experience into the curriculum. Teaching "Farewell to Manzanar," she'd tell us how during World War II her Japanese American father was born inside an internment camp — a fact she first learned when she was a teenager.
"I think a part of me back then, as a new teacher, was thinking, 'OK, I'm a high school teacher, let's impart this lesson, this knowledge to my students," she said.
Sitting in her office, Mizoguchi said Asian Americans still face discrimination in American society, but she's not sure whether selective colleges show bias against them.
"I don't know,” she said. “But if the outcome [of the holistic admissions process] is a diverse community where folks are able to interact in really healthy and strong ways with one another — with people that they would not have ever interacted with before — that's good."
And that is one of the central issues that the case raises: suburbs like Wayland are not overwhelmingly diverse to start. Much has been made of the competition between white and Asian and Asian American students in suburbs like Acton, Lexington or Newton. But the majority of students at Wayland High School are white. Over the past 20 years, the Asian and Asian American population has climbed from 6% to 15%. And the number of Black students has not budged beyond 4% for years.
Tufts sociology professor Natasha Warikoo, the daughter of Indian immigrants, raised questions about the economic advantages that students of any race in wealthy New England suburban towns have and may take for granted.
In her book "Race At The Top: Asian Americans and Whites in Pursuit of the American Dream in Suburban Schools," Warikoo describes a town on the East Coast that she calls Woodcrest, which has an uncanny resemblance to Wayland.
"There are many towns in Massachusetts, outside of Massachusetts as well, that are similar to Woodcrest,” Warikoo said. "This is a suburb like many suburbs around the country that has concentrated levels of education among parents, high level of incomes, in part, because it’s expensive to live there. Many people move there because of the reputations of the schools.”
Warikoo said parents as well as students are “sort of competing for gold and silver and bronze” — and many are willing to do almost anything to receive gold.
The Harvard case has the potential to draw those suburban students and their families out of their comfort zones, she said, and into a discussion of the relative advantages of wealth that allow them to compete in the first place.
“There is a sort of overt kind of commitment to racial justice on the one hand,” she said of families in upper-income East Coast towns. “On the other hand, I sometimes felt like there was less awareness of how being this kind of somewhat socioeconomically isolated town has led to all of these privileges.”
Some might call it a bubble. But not Datar, who says she talks with her Indian immigrant parents about the Harvard case and its implications frequently. It raises some hard questions, she said, pitting her awareness of the need for a fair and just admissions process with the desire to succeed personally.
"It's impossible to have an acceptance process that does not consider race because our society is so built on race,” she said of the Harvard case. “I also think that you should also get in based on your hard work."
That means even as Datar tries to relax and keep a healthy outlook about her college prospects, she’s still working to gain every academic advantage possible.
Correction: This story was updated to correct the spelling of Reva Datar's last name.