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OP-Ed: I’m a Living Argument for Affirmative Action

Image of Joseph Gallardo

Image of Joseph Gallardo
As a beneficiary of the exact affirmative action policy that was at issue in Fisher II, I am pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the constitutionality of The University of Texas at Austin’s limited use of race in its admissions decisions. This is certainly a huge win for proponents of affirmative action, but the litigation efforts to put an end to this practice will undoubtedly continue.

While I know that there are many criticisms of affirmative action, most of which I believe are flawed, I’d like to address just one of the misconceptions: the idea that affirmative action is counter-productive for minorities, or that we are better off at “slower-track schools.” I respectfully disagree, as my life is evidence to the contrary.

I entered college with no knowledge of the history of our great country, no understanding of math beyond basic addition and subtraction, and could not differentiate between “to,” “too” and “two.” But as much as I struggled to grasp what seemed like an endless avalanche of new information, I was able to graduate and transfer to The University of Texas at Austin.

I admit to feeling alone and intimidated when I first arrived at UT. I truly believed that everyone was a genius, and I just wanted to fit in. One evening I went back home to San Antonio—I rode the bus from San Antonio to Austin and back every day during my first semester in order to attend classes—and cried to my sister, saying, “I’m way out of my league here; I’m just not UT material.” Proponents of mismatch theory would have had a case to be made of me when I first arrived on the Forty Acres.

But then something happened. With the help of the Longhorn Center for Academic Excellence, caring professors such as Dave Junker, and mentors such as Dallawrence Dean, I excelled at the university. I was capitalizing on the many opportunities UT provides for students like me who needed additional guidance. In a matter of months, I belonged at UT—and I knew it.

Image of Supreme Court speakers
UT Austin senior Christle Nwora speaks on the steps of the Supreme Court in Dec. 2015 regarding the Fisher v. University of Texas lawsuit. With Nwora is UT Austin President Gregory L. Fenves, Vice President for Diversity and Community Engagement Gregory J. Vincent, and attorney Gregory G. Garre.

I blossomed at UT, and my journey to becoming the first person in my family to earn a degree culminated at the university-wide graduation ceremony, where I was honored as one of three Most Outstanding Graduates. I then spent my final semester as an Archer Fellow in Washington, D.C., where I interned at the Supreme Court of the United States in the Office of the Counselor to the Chief Justice.

While the trajectory of my life has been permanently altered, it’s the indirect impact of affirmative action which makes it so important. You see, affirmative action allows us to set precedents for our families which will ripple down generations to come and extend way beyond our lifetime.

I gave a speech at a UT graduation ceremony where I joked about being admitted to the university by mistake.“To this day I still believe that admissions must have made a mistake when they accepted me,” I said. “Maybe there was a strong gust of wind that blew my application from the denial pile to the acceptance one, or some act of God must
have happened.” I joked, and people laughed—but I meant what I said.

I concluded my speech by saying, “I really don’t know how I snuck into this amazing place, but I wish I could find the person who took a chance on me and give them the biggest hug, because The University of Texas has truly changed my life.”

Truth is, I know exactly how I “snuck into that amazing place.” Thank you, affirmative action.

This abridged editorial first appeared in USA Today, June 23, 2016. UT alumnus Joseph Gallardo (B.A., Public Relations, ’14) participated in several programs within the DDCE including Longhorn Link and the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Pre-Graduate Internship Program. He is currently a student at Harvard Law School, class of 2019.

Portrait by Brian Birzer Photography