Freshman orientation at Harvard is a long process. Days of workshops bleed into each other as new students adjust to their first weeks on campus. One of these, called Community Conversations, focuses on identity. What could be better than getting 20 Harvard students together to discuss race and identity? Literally anything.
At my freshman orientation, the stilted, constrained conversation was full of long silences and aimless ranting. I stole looks of solidarity with the only other black student in my group. But realistically, what could I expect? The college wanted this to be a learning experience for students; for different reasons, most of us were simply waiting for the meeting to be over. There’s only so much a one- to two-hour prescribed conversation can do.
Harvard is not alone in its push to let people know they value a diverse campus. When I toured various colleges during my senior year of high school, “diversity” was every admissions officer’s favorite word. They would invariably spout statistics about the many different countries, states, and backgrounds from which members of their student body hailed. Princeton’s website states that “Living and learning in a rich cultural environment will transform your life, as well as the lives of everyone you meet.” Columbia assures you that it creates “a community of scholars who embody this commitment to diversity and who encourage discussion and debate.” For many of these elite institutions, diversity is meant to create rich communities of culture, learning, and life-changing experiences. And in some cases, the numbers back this up. Last year, Harvard was praised for admitting a majority nonwhite class. From fall 2015 to fall 2016, Cornell saw an increase of 1.1 percent in students of color overall. Princeton had its most diverse freshman class last year, with 43 percent students of color.
And still, in September, a black student at Cornell was beaten by other students in an attack the student claimed to be racially motivated. Earlier last year, a white student was said to be chanting “Build a Wall” near the Cornell University Latino Living Center. In 2012, The Harvard Crimson published a piece where the author compared students admitted through affirmative action to blind pilots. Even though overt racism and discrimination is not felt on all campuses, students of color still feel unwelcome, uncomfortable, and sometimes physically unsafe at the place they are told should be their home away from home. “Students of color are dissatisfied because the college isn’t acknowledging the bigger issue,” said Najya Williams, a sophomore at Harvard. “They are trying to build a 2017 college campus on/in a space that wasn’t built for us in the first place.”
Education is supposed to serve as the great equalizer to help solve entrenched issues like poverty and the wealth gap. However, diversity alone cannot fix these problems. Diversity for diversity’s sake becomes useless when active steps are not being made towards inclusion, or if the diversity initiatives do not address the fact that marginalized groups are not afforded the same access to resources and privileges based on their race, gender, socioeconomic status, sexuality, and/or gender identity: The median net worth of white families is nearly ten times that of black families. According to the US Department of Education, in 2012 69 percent of white people between the age of 25 and 29 had bachelor’s degrees, while only 9 of black people did, yet 14 percent of blacks were said to be enrolled in college in 2012. In 2015, the poverty rate for black people was 24.1 percent and 21.4 percent for Hispanic people in comparison to 9.1 percent for white people.
Diversity is meaningless without a matching, active effort by institutions to ensure that these students feel welcome and supported on campus. Yes, a diverse campus can be educational and life-changing—but for whom?
When I first arrived at Harvard, I was ready to conquer the world. I was excited to experience freedom and independence. However, I was forced to adjust to Harvard in ways I had not expected. I was no longer the highly motivated student I was in high school. I struggled to maintain my grades, pursue extracurriculars, and adjust socially to a new environment. This adjustment period is not uncommon for most students. But for some students of color, adjusting is more than just learning to live away from home and shoulder a tough workload—adjusting means learning how to navigate all this while constantly being made aware of your difference. And students are rarely offered help with this hurdle: Despite the fact that these institutions were originally created exclusively for white men, students of color often have to do more adjusting than the institutions themselves. “There have been one too many times on this campus in which I have been asked for my Harvard ID before entering or reentering a space,” said Harvard senior Nuha Saho. “While this may seem innocent to ask to other students, as a black student on this campus I am very aware of the racial undertones inherent in these questions, and I cannot read them as anything except a clear distrust that I belong here.”
As a black woman in STEM, Harvard senior Kelcee Everette said she finds that students of color assert themselves differently from their white peers during office hours. While other students who are better represented in the STEM fields advocate for themselves and project confidence, as a black woman, she did not always see the same from others like her in her field. “If you already feel like the college you’re at isn’t for you and isn’t catering to you, and to already be in that type of academic environment, it can be very intimidating,” Everette told me. “I think it’s the reason why a lot of black students leave STEM majors at Harvard.”
Ike Okonkwo, a recent Harvard graduate, said he remembered thinking, “Why does no one look like me?” when he first arrived on campus. This is something that I have also personally dealt with since preschool, always being one of the few black students in a class. Not seeing yourself represented can be isolating and demotivating. You start to question your worth and whether or not you deserve to be at these institutions. Not only that, but while student diversity is rising, faculty diversity certainly isn’t. According to a study by the US Department of Education in 2014, 74 percent of faculty in institutions of higher education across the country are white. Nine percent are Asian, 5 percent black, and 4 percent Hispanic. According to Harvard freshman Che Applewaite, “Often, it is hard to become what you can’t see.”
And this disparity does more than implicitly discourage students of color. Sometimes the discouragement is right out in the open. “Students of color, myself included, have constantly had to be in classrooms where professors spew microaggressions and do not recognize that the classroom is a politicized space,” Nikkie Ubinas, a senior at Brown, told me. “Students of color feel like they must constantly challenge racism, whether the aggressors are their peers or their own professors.” Dealing with this racism forces students to determine whether or not they can take a class or seek out help from faculty. Alexis Wyatt, a senior at Dartmouth, said she had to leave a seminar and ask the college to form an alternate section because of her professor’s racial biases. All this takes a major toll on students’ mental health.
In her senior research project at Dartmouth, graduate Tailour Garbutt explored black women’s experience at the Ivy League School through interviews with current and graduated students. She called the project a source of healing. “As a black woman from a low income background, I know this place was not created for me…. I wanted this project to be an act of resistance, an acknowledgement that these women’s narratives and the narratives of those like them matter,” she wrote. “There is more to be recorded, more to be remembered, and more healing to be done.”
This story was produced for Student Nation, a section devoted to highlighting campus activism and student movements from students in their own words. For more Student Nation, check out our archive. Are you a student with a campus activism story? Send questions and pitches to Samantha Schuyler at [email protected].