I’m in my second semester as an undergraduate student. It’s not my first second semester. It’s been almost 17 years since I first attended college as a fresh eager young adult and I can remember my second semester of my first year at a New England liberal arts school as a scholarship student also working three jobs on campus. A lot of the stressors are the same. I didn’t find the work particularly difficult, there was just a lot of it back then. I had to balance papers, readings, class discussions with work back then. Now, I’m juggling a full course load while with a few freelance gigs here and there, while balancing taking care of a family and a home. There’s a reason why I think it’s good to go to school when you’re younger. You generally have more energy. The physical drain of going to classes is felt so much more in my 36 year old body.
But there is something else. The first second semester of my undergraduate education felt hard because I felt isolated as a student of color from the city in a mostly white suburban environment. I was dorming with roommates who felt threatened by my involvement in political causes like the working against police brutality and speaking out about the Puerto Rican political prisoners. My dorm room altar to the ancestors and Orishas scared them. My music annoyed them. It didn’t feel safe for me the way they felt unsafe around me and my ethnic markers.
Privileged white students bothered me then, when I was 18 and 19 years old I wrapped myself in the comfort of my community in New York City that I could always return to and who would send me care packages of news clippings of rallies and other events I was physically missing but was connected to.
Here, I am far from my home of New York City again but by choice. My community here is my little blended family in our house in the hood, my small circle of mostly women of color friends, and my years of experience as an activist and writer which I always draw strength and inspiration from.
It’s funny though, how in higher ed, even if its a community college setting while I wait for my old credits to transfer over so I can finish my Bachelor’s degree at a four year college, things haven’t changed that much when it comes to the low expectations set for students of color and the blatant display of privileged temper tantrums coming from certain students when confronted with the ugly reality that has always lived outside their sheltered doors.
In my journalism class, where few know of my extensive work as an independent media maker, I was told, in front of my class of mostly young Chicano students how ambitious I was for daring to say I intended to transfer to a private university. In that same class, I was given a backhanded compliment, told my writing was so good they had to check and make sure it wasn’t plagiarized because of my extensive vocabulary. When I’ve gone out to do interviews for the student newspaper, I am complimented on my professionalism and on doing my homework when asking questions. These compliments have come from professors and students alike.
Is so little expected of certain college students that good work is praised in a coded way that repeats stereotypes of what students of color are capable of?
In English class, where we are having discussions on privilege, today there was a small backlash from some white women who resented having to read texts that critiqued the growing gap between classes and how that was connected to race, gender, and sexuality.
They actually defended the idea that not every child could have clean, safe playgrounds and protested what they felt was an attack, by a woman of color author whom they met only as ink in the class textbook.
“It’s not my fault I have a $500 bag.”
“It’s not my fault my parents gave me a car,”
“There are so many opportunities for single mothers like food stamps and financial aid.”
“What do you mean every parent can’t buy their child a microscope to play with?”
I thought that as a 36 year old woman these things would be easier to hear coming from the mouths of young students. Part of me just wanted to shake my head and dismiss the above actual comments as a result of youthful privileged innocence. But as a 36 year old woman, I also know better. I know the adults some of these students will become. They will become the politicians, the pundits, the doctors I take my kids to with my their Medi-Cal card who speak down to me assuming I won’t understand their jargon.
I want to do a better job at documenting these experiences. There is so much talk about ensuring that young students of color succeed in higher education without real consideration about how lowered expectations and stereotypes do so much damage that cannot be fully measured in dropout and retention rates. I want to document these experiences not just as a therapeutic exercise for myself, as my writing always has been, but also as a call for reflection and discussion among students, academics and would be higher ed students.
My teenage daughter and stepson are both looking at colleges with excitement and I’m sure a little bit of apprehension. I want good, challenging experiences for them that will raise them up, not make them further doubt themselves.
People don’t say poor students of color can’t do well outright. It’s much more coded now in the language of common core standards and long standing practices of underfunding now hidden under the guise of school choice and new tracking that asks students to deny their languages and cultures.
I’m privileged to be experiencing higher ed again but as an adult woman of color with a rich arsenal of experiences under her belt, I can see things that so many can’t or won’t. Out of this privilege comes a sense of responsibility to speak up and shine a light on this system. I don’t know what will come out of it but here I go.