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Legacy students explore campus life through historic lens

Families with multi-generational ties share connections to the University’s ‘unique environment’

For some students, initial interactions with the University aren’t when they receive the fat letter in the mail, but through the photos in their parents’ old yearbooks or college anecdotes passed down through the generations.

Legacy students are those with at least one close relative — a parent, sibling or grandparent — who attended Brown. Though legacy admissions have become controversial in recent years, students at Brown with alum relatives face the same challenges of finding a place within Brown’s community. What distinguishes them is a family history tied to the University and a unique connection with its past.


Keeping it in the family

Bryn Coughlan ’14, daughter of James Coughlan ’84, always had her heart set on Brown, she said.

“Brown was everything I wanted, and I idolized it since I was a kid,” Coughlan said.

Growing up, she was well-acquainted with the Brown campus and attended summer lacrosse clinics offered annually by the women’s lacrosse team. She followed in the footsteps of her father, a member of the men’s lacrosse team, by joining the women’s squad her freshman year. Coughlan’s younger brother, Jimmy, will be a member of Brown’s class of 2017 and will also play varsity lacrosse.

But Coughlan said she and her brother were not pressured to apply. On the contrary, “my father didn’t want me to come here, not because he didn’t like Brown, but he didn’t want me to base my decision around the fact he went here,” Coughlan said.

Coughlan called herself “narrow-minded” during the application process, an attitude that her father dissuaded. She conducted a varied college search, considering both New England Small College Athletics Conference schools and some larger universities. Once Coughlan’s father understood his daughter had seriously considered her options, he supported her decision to apply to Brown, she said. At the end of the day, “nothing compared to the unique environment at Brown,” she added.

Michael Kader ’14 had a very different experience. “I mostly thought that I wouldn’t get in, and so I didn’t want to apply,” Kader said. His mother, Kim Kader ’84, strongly urged him to apply to Brown and Duke, where she attended medical school. Kader was accepted to multiple selective schools, but ultimately decided on Brown. “I came to ADOCH and fell in love with the people and the atmosphere,” he said.

Kader said he has followed in his mother’s footsteps more than he anticipated, deciding to concentrate in neuroscience just as she did. Though he originally planned to concentrate in bioengineering, he fell in love with neuroscience after taking a class during his first semester. While his mother played women’s volleyball her freshman year, Kader also has become involved in athletics, devoting most of his extracurricular time to the club tennis team.

Kader’s younger brother, Jonathan, is a member of Princeton’s class of 2014, breaking with family tradition. Jonathan said he hoped to be recruited to play tennis and centered his college search around athletics, though he ultimately changed his mind about participating.

“If I was sure then that I didn’t want to play tennis, I probably would’ve applied early to Brown,” he said. “I thought it would help me to apply because of my legacy there,” he added.

Jonathan was admitted to Brown among other universities, and he decided on Princeton. He said his decision was difficult. “I think both my mother and my brother wanted me to go to Brown,” he said.

William Van Deren ’15 said his father, John Van Deren ’80 MD ’83, influenced his decision to apply to Brown.

“My father would tell me stories about Brown, and I was definitely influenced by it because from a young age I heard what a wonderful school it was,” Van Deren said.

But Van Deren’s decision to apply to Brown was ultimately his own.

“My father never tried to divert me away from other schools,” he said.

Attending Brown has done more than strengthen the family’s ties with the University. “I think coming here has created a new bond with my father,” Van Deren added. He said he is able to tell his father stories about Brown, knowing that he had similar experiences and could relate.


A controversial practice

Given admissions are becoming more selective by the year, legacy status has become a controversial issue.

The University admitted only 9.6 percent of overall applicants to the class of 2016, and other Ivy League institutions were equally, if not more, selective that year, The Herald reported. Harvard admitted only 5.9 percent of applicants, followed by Yale at 6.8 percent and Columbia at 7.4 percent.

According to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, about 10 to 25 percent of students at selective colleges and universities are legacies. Statistics from the New York Times reveal that 33 percent of applicants offered admission to Princeton’s class of 2015 were legacies. According to the article, “Harvard generally admits 30 percent, and Yale says it admits 20 percent to 25 percent.”

Opponents to legacy admission say the concept perpetuates the traditional white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant Ivy League demographic. The Chronicle  cited polls in 2010 that revealed 75 percent of Americans that responded reject legacy preference in admissions. Instead, opponents advocate inclusive programs like affirmative action initiatives and the expansion of need-blind financial aid.

But most admissions officers say legacy status is only enacted as a tie-breaker. In situations where two applicants are equally qualified, legacy status only provides a slight edge.

Many institutions prefer to maintain family ties. Though opponents to legacy admissions say an attending family member may encourage alums to donate, proponents argue college admissions are decided on individual characteristics rather than familial coffers.


Passing it on

Despite her legacy status, Coughlan said she has never doubted she belongs at Brown.

“I understand that legacy puts me in a different pile in the admissions process,” she said. “But I deserve to be here, and I think that the majority of other students recognize that too,” she said.

Kader said he does not usually bring up the fact his mother attended Brown unless asked. “I don’t think there is that much of a stigma that if your parents went here you don’t deserve to be here,” he said.

“I openly tell people that my dad went here,” Van Deren said, noting that the community has always been accepting. “I always felt qualified to get in on my own.”

Coughlan said though Brown “fits exactly what I want,” she wants her children to decide the college they attend on their own.

“I want my kids to be able to get in here on their own so they have the option of getting in anywhere they want,” she said.



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