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Writing Past Wrongs

Headline Photo

Illustration by Josh Hagler

By Shane Dale

Friday September 7, 2001

There's a student-oriented program here at the University of Arizona that most are either unaware of or unfamiliar with. It's a state-funded organization known as the Writing Skills Improvement Program (WSIP). This program, in an effort to offset what it sees as past discrimination against minorities, practices discrimination itself.

The WSIP defines itself as "an academic support program for minority and economically disadvantaged students."

More specifically, the program works as described on its Web site: "Students are eligible to receive free tutoring on a regular basis from the Writing Skills Improvement Program if they are of an ethnic minority (American Indian, Asian or Pacific Islander, African American, or Hispanic), or if they are receiving any of the following categories of financial assistance: Federal Perkins Loans, Pell Grants, Supplemental Opportunity Grants, Stafford Loans and Work Study Assistance as well as State Student Incentive Grants."

The WSIP is certainly an effective tool for which to assist students. On its Web site,, it claims to have made significant progress in aiding students with their writing skills. It's reported, "the average WSIP participant's semester English course before and after tutoring evidenced a difference of 1.37 grade points" - impressive, to say the least.

However, the effectiveness of the program is not in question here - the integrity of the program is. I don't doubt the good character of the tutors who work for the WSIP who give a generous amount of time and patience to help students with their studies, but I do doubt the integrity of the program as a whole.

If this program were simply offered free to all students with an economic disadvantage, there would be no problem. Likewise, if it were designed for all students whose primary language is not English in addition to those who are economically disadvantaged, that would be fair. But this is obviously far from the case.

For instance, a white student from somewhere in Western Europe who is not receiving financial aid - someone who could undoubtedly benefit from a personal tutor for writing English papers - is ineligible for this program. At the same time, an American-born student of any non-Caucasian descent who speaks fluent English would be eligible.

Here's another one: a white couple has one biological child and adopts a child of an ethnic minority at roughly the same time. They both go to the same schools growing up, get similar grades, and both decide to attend the UA. One of them can receive free tutoring for papers in any class he or she takes. The other cannot.

Of course, these are just hypothetical scenarios, so consider this real life example.

I live in an apartment with two guys I've known since high school. One is white and one is Hispanic. The three of us took several classes together throughout high school, including an English class and several other classes where writing essays and term papers were involved. My Hispanic roommate was a co-valedictorian; my white roommate and I were both solid students, but weren't quite on his level.

Two questions. First, which of the three of us would likely benefit the least from the WSIP? Second, which of the three of us is the only one eligible?

There are several other programs on campus designed to help guide students through the rigors of a tough writing course, but that isn't the point. The point is that a discriminatory program such as this has existed here at the UA for 16 years. Moreover, state tax dollars are funding it. If the WSIP were a privately funded organization, there would be no argument to make, but that's not the situation here. If your parents live in Arizona, they help pay for this program.

The WSIP effectively says it knows that only poor white students need free tutoring, but all minority students need its help. That mindset is racist, misguided and flat-out wrong.

Beyond that, the apparent necessity for the program is further explained on its Web site: "In past years, it has become clear that problems with English usage and writing skills are the greatest common obstacles faced by these students." This is an insult and a proverbial slap in the face not only to minorities, but to more financially dependent students of all races as well. My definition of a worthwhile state program is not one that, in effect, calls poor and minority students dumb.

The Writing Skills Improvement Program, and any program on campus with similar criteria, may be an effective learning tool, but its criteria for providing that tool is immoral and closed-minded. In an effort to promote equality here at the UA, this program needs to be reformed; otherwise, it should cease to be funded.


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