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.”