ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Georgetown University is taking steps to address an ugly part of its history. In 1838, the sale of 272 people - slaves - helped the struggling college pay off its debt. Georgetown is now offering preferential admissions to descendants of those slaves. The college says these descendants will get a boost when applying. And Noel King from our Planet Money podcast met one family with two applicants.
NOEL KING, BYLINE: Shepard Thomas is 19. And for now, he's a freshman at Louisiana State University. He recently called Georgetown's admissions office from his dorm room to find out when he'll find out.
SHEPARD THOMAS: Hi. My name is Shepard Thomas. And I was just curious as to when I'll get - know if I got accepted or not into the school. I'm a transfer applicant, ma'am. June 1. Thank you so much.
KING: Shepard is a little reserved and a little quiet. His side of his shared dorm room is spotless. Talking to him, you realize that rule number one in the Thomas family is you want it, you work for it. He really wants a car but...
SHEPARD THOMAS: My dad, when he grew up, he, like, he bought his own cars, so my mom believes I should do the same thing in my life - buy my own car. And I think - at times I'm like, man, I wish I had a car because, like, all my friends have cars. But at the same time, I feel like when I get a car after the time I'll, like, I'll really cherish it because, like, I paid for it. I worked hard for it.
KING: He chose to go to LSU because there are five kids in his family. And LSU offers great financial aid for top high school students like him. He says transferring to Georgetown would be a practical choice, not an emotional one.
SHEPARD THOMAS: You know, it's a very prestigious school. And it's good to have on a resume that you graduated from Georgetown, you know?
KING: The one thing that makes Shepard lose his cool a little? He knows some people don't think Georgetown owes anything to the descendants.
SHEPARD THOMAS: They were like, oh, they don't deserve this. What did he do? He wasn't working out there. And they believe, like, oh, black people want a handout, black people want this and that.
KING: But he says when he applied to Georgetown, he didn't really talk about being a descendant. He wanted his essay and his 3.2 GPA to do the talking for him. Shepard's sister, Elizabeth Thomas, is 23. She graduated from LSU. She works on political campaigns in New Orleans. She wants to go to Georgetown for her masters in journalism.
ELIZABETH THOMAS: I sent my application actually two days ago.
KING: Elizabeth is less reserved than her brother and she approached her application differently. So when she sent in her essay...
E. THOMAS: In the beginning, I kind of talked about, you know, my connection to Georgetown, how it'd be an amazing opportunity not only to go to a, you know, excellent top-tier university but to go to the place where my ancestors help build.
KING: Did you, like, slip it in, or were you - I mean, like, were you applying as a descendant and you sort of were like and by the way?
E. THOMAS: Well, I mean, I thought it was interesting that there is nowhere on the application to put that you are descendant. So the fact that they're saying they're giving us, you know, preferential admittance, how do you know that I even am a descendant if it's nowhere on the application to put that?
KING: Like her brother, she believes the descendants deserve this.
E. THOMAS: Having this opportunity would be amazing but I also feel as if it's owed to me and to my family and to others that want that opportunity.
KING: I - owed is a big word.
E. THOMAS: Yeah and I stick with it.
KING: I also had a chance to meet Elizabeth and Shepard's mom, Sandra Thomas. Sandra says getting into Georgetown would be great for her kids just as long as they're not graduating with a bunch of debt. But she's concerned that this attempt to atone for the slave sale just doesn't go far enough.
SANDRA THOMAS: What about me? I don't want to go to school. I'm an old lady. What if you don't have the capacity? You have one student lucky enough to have decent family support system, got the foundation. He can go to Georgetown and he can thrive. He has that ambition.
You've got this kid over here. He'll never go to Georgetown or any other school on this planet beyond a certain level. Now, what you going to do for him? Did his ancestors suffer any less? No.
KING: But Georgetown has said it is an educational institution and atoning through education makes the most sense. Noel King, NPR News.
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