On being a student of color at Cal

In poor schools across the country, college admission is discussed as if it is a golden ticket into paradise. On my college visits as a high school senior, the promise of paradise was superficially confirmed by the overflowing food at the dining halls, the rows of brand new computers in the computer labs and the promise of financial aid dollars. I was also promised the opportunity of joining a prestigious intellectual community.

Coming from a “low-performing” urban high school, where most classes included worksheets and goofing off, I was excited to become a part of a community that valued critical thinking. But as soon as I started receiving acceptance material it became clear that paradise was more like a polishing school for suburban middle and upper class students in order for them to secure corporate jobs.

My dreams of becoming part of the greater campus community quickly dissipated as I was encouraged to limit my activities and course schedule to those organized by students and faculty of color, most of whom shared my feelings of rejection and disappointment. What I had not been prepared for was that leaving my home town and “movin’ on up” also meant entering into a world where what I said, what I wore, what music I liked to listen to and the color of my skin, made me strange.

Together the African American community on campus made our own parallel institution within the greater university, and this was somewhat satisfying. We had our own newspaper, theater group, acapella group, themed dorm and graduate ceremony. This was our way of challenging the isolation and alienation that we had found in paradise, but what I realize now is that it was never paradise to begin with. The modern college culture that rejected me and other students of color is universally alienating and dehumanizing. Those suburban men and women who I was so envious of are being manipulated into sacrificing their spiritual, psychological and physical health to become slaves to a way of life dominated by fear and aggression.

All they get for their sacrifice are trinkets bought on credit. At least I was welcomed into a community when I got to college which was nurturing, meaningful and did not require hazing to become a member.

Now I am in graduate school at Cal and I have seen students of color struggle with the same sense of bewilderment that I felt when I first got to college. What has helped me this time around has been an understanding that the dominant culture of the university is a disease that infects our ability to make connections.

Our ability to identify relationships between people, our environment, our hearts, our minds and our actions are destroyed by the modern diseases of isolation, otherization, manipulation and domination which flourish on our campus. The antidote that has worked for me in warding off these devastating diseases and their consequences (depression, apathy, drug and alcohol abuse), has been seeking out the interconnections within my life and the world around me. It has also included becoming active in creating a campus culture that is conscious and respectful of diversity and interdependence.

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