By: David Kong, Comm'14

2014 Medal in Commerce recipient and Founder of QBR recounts his experiences with race in first-year.

My experiences in first-year were similar to those discussed on @stolenbysmith, an Instagram page detailing stories of marginalization and discrimination by students at the Smith School of Business. Like many students, I interviewed for frosh representative positions on several committees, and was not accepted into any of them. This phenomenon was not entirely surprising, given the scarcity of frosh representative positions. I had a strong academic standing, but by then I had already learnt that grades were not everything. It was hard for me, as it was for other students, to rationalize what part of each failure is attributable to my own inadequacies compared to discrimination.

My racial awareness began prior to Queen’s, when applying to universities. I suspected, and recent events have confirmed, that being Asian contributed to lower chances of acceptance into Ivy League universities. This thinking, the idea that being Asian meant that success would be harder to obtain, lingered in my mind as I entered my first year of university.

The reality is that the truth lies somewhere in between.

A pivotal moment occurred after receiving results of the accounting midterm exam, on which I received the highest score. For one, it reduced my self-doubt and supported external factors as the reason for not receiving frosh rep positions. Second, by now, a certain amount of notoriety accrued to members of our class – our class president, the QUIC frosh representative, the QFAC frosh representative, among others. Some infamy had begun to surround my name because someone sitting behind me saw my score on my accounting midterm and proceeded to spread the news. But the popularity was hardly helpful.

Going through my Facebook message history during this period, I saw that I was only messaged by those who asked for help academically. To be clear, the people who asked me for help were not in the wrong. I very publicly offered my help to whoever needed it. This action seemed like the easiest path to earning friends that I desperately wanted.

The following is a fairly exhaustive list of first interactions on Facebook Messenger, one of which is written by one of my closest friends today:

Facebook Messenger messages from 5 different students.

That is not to say students were not kind, but it was certainly more likely to come from other Asians. My first girlfriend at the time, who was Korean, heard about me through the accounting midterm result (Kids, another reason to study for your exams!). I called her the “only good thing in this program” in a chat message. We had an Asian president, who reached out to me to talk, which I appreciated. It was clear that friend circles were predicated on race.

Racial division is subtle. In fact, on the surface, racial undertones are often not substantial enough for students to realize the effects of race. What really happens in Commerce is students must navigate an environment dominated by exclusive cliques. Anyone, of any race, can potentially be included into these cliques –there were certainly Asians in many of the desirable cliques. Membership into some cliques is highly desirable. At its core, the program is elitist, an elitism that can often lead to even worse forms of discrimination.

To prove to myself that racial divisions did exist, I noticed that it was predominantly white people messaging me to ask for help, and predominantly Asian people messaging me to chat.

In an old presentation to childhood friends at a birthday party, I called it some of the “hardest few months of my life." In this presentation, I described the school as very “white” and very “rich." It was a culture shock. I described the "bro" culture and how my vocabulary came to include words such as “kegger” and “iced” in my first year.

I distinctly remember telling my parents that I wish I were not Asian.

My response function was to attempt to break through the racial and cultural barrier. I redoubled efforts to help others with assignments, going so far as to join other group meetings.

Knowing the stereotypes that surrounded me, I took on a campaign of redefining myself. For my birthday party, in addition to my friends, I invited many I considered social influencers, and paid for the meal. A casual observer asked why I was inviting all the pretty girls to lunch.

I ran for Socials Coordinator, and put ads up that read “Beer Kong." It was a great irony because I abided by the 19+ alcohol laws, and had never drunk alcohol prior in my life. A ComSoc coordinator at the time is said to have laughed at my campaign, saying it was futile against opponents. I made a promotional presentation that looked like a presentation of a popular accounting professor so that he would mistake it for his own, and run through it. I hosted a Super Bowl party at my house with the help of a white male friend I met – my first friend in Commerce, an exception to the rule, with whom I am still very close. I latched onto him and he pulled me out of social obscurity. I won the election.

A poster created during the election for Socials Coordinator.

At the same time, I was having an academic meltdown, and not in the way you might expect. I was questioning the academic rigour of the program. I was enjoying my studies in my Mathematics electives – my first semester was fruitful enough that I published a paper called Skunk Redux in Mathematics Magazine. For the Commerce Statistics course, I had found a challenging past midterm problem and excitedly completed it, only to find the answer key to say that this question was too difficult and wouldn’t be marked.

It was at this point that I decided to apply to transfer to a different school. My admissions essay read largely like what I wrote above.

To my delight, I was admitted to Brown University in the U.S. But by this time, my strategy to change my image seemed to have worked. Around that same time, I joined QUIC and CREO. This news was quite the surprise – we had a joke that only a single Asian student could be hired onto QUIC each year, and so I bet another Asian $500 against myself getting it. (To be clear, in that year, four Asians were hired at once, and the current executive team includes two Asian students as leaders. QUIC has also been successful at hiring more females onto the committee). With admittance to QUIC came social acceptance. The remaining three years were fairly happy. I have cultivated many friendships at Queen’s from diverse backgrounds.

The fact that I was one rejection away from leaving Queen’s shows me the situation that many people are in, a path that I narrowly avoided.

We must acknowledge that academic institutions like Smith have an exceedingly difficult task of navigating students though the transition to adulthood. A successful matriculating student, who might have only been admitted by chance, is forced into contests of academics and popularity reminiscent of the real world, which they are as likely to lose as they are to win. Many of the hardships students have are simply the result of this unhappy reality.

Where Smith differs from other programs is its requirement for assimilation. It is a highly social tendency to ask members to assimilate, but Smith exemplifies this problem. The program mimics and is beholden to the business world from which students draw the benefits of their labour. The alignment with the provider of the student’s first job intensifies as the Smith brand scarcely carries value beyond the first job. The business world in turn is more likely to be uniform than a profession that requires more creativity.

Popularity is immensely important. For many, Smith will be the first time that success is not just dependent on academic achievements, but also on ill-defined measures that can result in decisions being made based on 'isms,' intentionally or otherwise. 'Fit' and 'culture' are often cited as reasons certain candidates are chosen over other candidates, and it often defaults to how much you would want to be in the same room as the candidate for an extended period of time. One can see how this culture can be easily engender a full range of discrimination.

Students need to assimilate at Smith to succeed. They are forced to assimilate with the predominant corporate culture, which in the fields we enter, is often white, and elitist.

Assimilation is more challenging for certain people in the program, and therein lies the problem. For example, students with accents find it much harder to assimilate. Students from poorer backgrounds, or visible minorities will also find it harder to assimilate. This is the crux. Overt racism is limited to the fringes. There are plenty of examples of people of no visible disadvantage doing poorly in this contest as there are plenty of examples of the disadvantaged doing well. However, the average result demonstrates advantages for the privileged.

This fact pattern is perhaps even more dangerous, as no specific person is at fault, and no specific action can be remedied. There were plenty of Asian people in desirable positions – in our year as class president, a QFAC frosh representative, a QCIB frosh representative, and so on. There were Asians that were particularly flamboyant and well received during frosh week. The most beloved professor, and one of the highest paid, is Asian. The elected valedictorian was Asian. This fact pattern echoes many of the dissent against @stolenbysmith. Many Asian people are indeed surprised by the movement because they did well.

I might have been surprised myself. My memories of my final years eroded memories of my first year. I mostly remember how fun Commerce Prom and Commencement were. I genuinely felt accepted. I remember working on QGM and QBR, committees I founded or reinvented. I remember having a breakout year for Examblitz, which at the time was the leading tutorial business in Smith. I needed to research my old writings to remember my feelings from first-year. I had forgotten the hurtful edge of my negative experiences, perhaps because these events occurred 10 years ago, or perhaps unconsciously for self-protection.

Acknowledging the difficulty of tackling this problem, I have the following suggestions to improve the program.

  • First, I believe that admissions should be changed. Alumni should not be used to read Personal Statement of Experience to choose students, unless they are specifically chosen for some specific reason. Using alumni engenders like-mindedness, carrying forward and multiplying any biases. Using professors would be better.
  • Second, I believe the program should focus more on academics, as an academic institution should. That means more engaging and more useful course content, fairer methods of evaluation and allowing students more choice in choosing courses. If academics were more of a focus, then the importance of popularity is lowered. Things would tend fairer. Professors should not be allowed to reuse exam questions, as this habit rewards students who are more connected. In recent years, the trend has been to the opposite with the removal of rankings and reduction in electives.
  • Finally, ComSoc should (and it seems they already intend to) produce reports that measure the success rate of applicants by race, gender, etc.

After spending 5 years in the corporate world, mostly in New York City, I wish I could say that things are different. I look through my Facebook messages today, and see how, ironically, all the diversity I experienced was from my time at Queen’s. It is exceedingly difficult to make meaningful connections with people outside of your own race. Most gatherings I have attended in New York City are monolithic. What a shame in our global economy.

Perhaps, I need to run another assimilation campaign for myself in the real world?

David Kong is now the Founder of Somm, a virtual sommelier company, after leaving his job at a New York City-based hedge fund.