USC Tommy Trojan

The University of Social Capital

This USC admission scandal is more than just a chance to sneer at the nouveau riche

The day I found out I would be attending the University of Southern California, I had stayed home sick and was on the couch watching Static Shock reruns when the FedEx delivery arrived. I already knew what it was—elite schools don't overnight rejection letters. I carefully opened the cardinal and gold packaging to find a letter of admission as well as several merit-based scholarships that completely covered the cost of attendance. It was one of the best days of my life, and I just remember thinking I couldn't wait to tell my mom when her shift ended that night.

I had taken practice SATs in the library 12 times that summer and had enrolled in afterschool prep courses to get my math score as high as my verbal. I had written and rewritten essays and personal statements, trotting out my personal history with all its triumphs and traumas over and over again to make myself look like the perfect minority candidate. I literally made myself sick from lack of sleep while attempting to ace advanced classes, some of which were way out of my depth—like when I tried to make it through AP Computer Science homework when my family didn't even own a computer. (You try writing out code by hand and then waking up early to enter it on a school computer the minute the building opened.)

All this so that when I arrived in Los Angeles that August from Texas—slightly chubby, always winded and not at all graceful—people could somehow assume I had to be there on an athletic scholarship. No, I’m not on the track team, no, I don’t play volleyball was the refrain I heard myself stating to the ignorant in lectures and at parties.

Out of the schools most derided in the college admissions scandal that broke this week, USC, often known as the University of Spoiled Children, was likely dragged the hardest. Though the administration has worked to rid itself of this reputation by recruiting more first-generation college students, the image of privileged and perfectly tanned Southern California scions descending upon the South L.A. campus with fistfuls of new money every fall proves impossible to scrub from public memory.

From watching the confidence with which they moved through the campus and later, the world, I already knew that social capital if not outright cash had landed a lot of these people in the desks next to me.

This image isn’t without merit. Being patently working class, I was astounded my freshman year when I heard about students taking private jets to away games or hiring professional housekeepers to spruce up their dorms or boasting about countless other meaningless displays of wealth. From watching the confidence with which they moved through the campus and later, the world, I already knew that social capital if not outright cash had landed a lot of these people in the desks next to me. Navigating those four years at a school that's frequently a playground for the rich quickly became a masterclass of how I would have to navigate life. I would need to quietly score higher, work harder and be smarter—all while resisting the assumption that I was undeserving.

So, I couldn’t help but devour each and every meme as Lori Loughlin, Felicity Huffman and the many other parents involved in the bribery scheme were raked across the coals for all to see. I don't think I’ve seen such an outpouring of schadenfreude since the implosion of Fyre Fest, and it felt cathartic. For each time a classmate had looked me in the eye and said “of course, you got admitted to all these schools” or “of course, you were getting full rides everywhere,” I finally felt some validation instead of shame. I had to army crawl to a place in life that many of my peers were able to simply walk to. Years later, I still struggle with imposter syndrome and combat the feelings of inadequacy that tell me I don’t deserve the dream job that I have or any of the opportunities that I’ve earned. That’s what has always been most pernicious and punishing about this: the clouds of inferiority and doubt placed on the accomplishments of marginalized students.

Olivia Jade, an Instagram influencer and now a USC dropout, had to disable comments on her social media posts after the implication of her family in the scandal invited a deluge of harassment. While it might be fun to direct all ire at such a perfect target, elite campuses across this supposed meritocracy are full of Olivia Jades. Get furious at the policies and politicians that normalize the shortcuts the mega-rich often take on their path to being “self-made.” Support affirmative action in schools and in workplaces, which levels the playing field against this type of cheating. And finally, if you’re a person of color traversing a college experience that feels completely foreign and alienating to you, know that you fought for that spot, that you’re brilliant and that you belong there.

Fight on?