In almost every way imaginable, it is a privilege to attend Northwestern University, a top-ten ranked school academically, which also happens to boast an $11 billion endowment. There are opportunities available to essentially every student here, no matter their socioeconomic background, many of which wouldn’t be available to students anywhere else in the country.
However, one thing that I’ve realized during my time here is that with every privilege comes sacrifice, especially for students from marginalized and vulnerable communities, like myself.
My true Northwestern experience, an oxymoron in itself, has been a period of life-altering growth, yet just as damaging discomfort.
During my one and a half years here, I’ve learned so many new things that have allowed me to transform as a person, scholar and thinker. However, as of late, I have become more cognizant of the fact that when one changes and transforms, they - often unknowingly - give up pieces of their identity. For students of color, this often means giving up portions of their culture or masking important aspects of their salient identities in order to assimilate into different white-dominated spaces on campus.
This manifests in a lot of different ways, but almost always ends up in students of color having to carry their emotional trauma throughout different spaces on campus, until they are able to unpack it with their peers who look more like them and have experienced many of the same plights. That generally means a lot of the time students of color spend together is focused on unpacking trauma and stress, which comes at the hand of systemic oppression that is perpetuated through things like microaggressions and social closure on campus.
In a very distinct and separate way, this emotional and mental strain plays a huge role in the relationships that students of color have back home with their family members, friends and peers.
For me personally, it has changed the way I am able to navigate different situations that I used to be comfortable with, which has been both a plus and minus. I’m now more comfortable in differentiating between right and wrong, but this also means distancing myself from certain behaviors that were normalized growing up in my community.
In almost all aspects, I cannot look at many situations in the same light as I did before. I can no longer engage in certain family discussions because of their problematic implications. I cannot laugh at the same jokes that I used to with my childhood friends, because I now know there is no humor in alienation, struggle or ignorance.
This can be painful for marginalized students when they return home, and also for their loved ones. It leaves a feeling of not being enough in spaces on campus, and being too much for spaces back home.
In my case, I’m often told how much I’ve changed or how I think I’ve moved up the social ladder because of my connection to Northwestern and my difference in behavior, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
At the same time, I understand that this growth is necessary. It’s important for me to understand how systems of oppression perpetuate every single aspect of my life, in hopes of one day being able to combat them. I realize that no one from my community back home or myself is to blame for this separation, because it is a result of the alienation and burdens that all students of color carry while at predominantly white institutions. This burden is ultimately necessary for the building of a more equitable and inclusive world, but it is admittedly uncomfortable for many young people, like myself, to grapple with.
James Baldwin, the influential writer and social critic, said it best over 50 years ago: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”
This remains true half a century later for Black Americans and every other member of different marginalized communities across America - and the globe, for that matter.
For me, this fire of rage is both internal and external, as I battle with the privileges I have been afforded by attending this school and how to use them to my advantage for myself and the various communities I am apart of.