Students of Color In Elite Institutions
Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodriguez, Contributing Writer
When you enter spaces meant for the elites, when you enter spaces meant for that small percentage of the population, when you enter spaces spaces that have almost exclusively been dominated and ran by white people YOU begin to change. When you enter institutions meant to serve white people, they only know how to indoctrinate you into their systems in ONE WAY: changing everything about who you are by invalidating everything you’ve ever experienced.
It starts out small, and general. First year, each professor began assigning a book or half a book to read a day, to where I began to spend ALL my time reading. I was reading heavy theory and dense material that was so difficult that I had no time to question it because I was just trying to make sure I was understanding it all. I was just trying to make sure I was keeping up and passing my exams.
When I first moved away from where I had grown up, Miami, every time I came back to visit I would call my friends from high school and college. I would want to see all those people whom I loved and felt so connected to because being in a new city and in a graduate program initially just felt isolating. I longed to take trips to Miami to see my friends and be around all the people I loved
Second year there are significantly less exams, the majority of my core classes have been fulfilled and this year meant that I wrote more than I studied for exams. The professors began to assign weekly response papers, where I got to explain what I understood about the assigned text and we discussed them in these small groups. And times when a book felt off and a writer felt oppressive, I would voice it and it would be received with confusion because white serving institutions are meant to service white students and when someone like me enters a space a HUGE question mark arises. So I would fester, and wait for my midterm paper or my final big paper to tackle that subject based on my own experiences as a person of color, immigrant, female, etc. And then I began to get the critiques on my papers, that I was not citing my experiences with a scholar who backed up what I felt. As if my experiences were not enough nor valid nor important enough to challenge and engage an author. I was told I was not in the field enough, did not grasp the author’s neutrality, did not position the historian in their timeframe, YOU NAME IT. But I was constantly told: your experiences are not valid because RIGHT NOW you lack credentials.
The longer I was in the academy, the longer I submerged myself into my field, the less frequent my trips became and when I did visit I began to not tell people that I was visiting. They had not changed, in fact they were exactly the same people I knew and loved, I had changed. I had gotten harder, I had become combative and sharp because they gave me the tools to name my oppression but not the permission/power/institutional support to combat it SO I FESTERED some more.
“When you enter spaces meant for the elites, when you enter spaces meant for that small percentage of the population, when you enter spaces spaces that have almost exclusively been dominated and ran by white people YOU begin to change. ” ~ Prisca
By third year and fourth year, I knew how to play the game and I was mad that I had to play it to “get that degree.” By third year I was angry and distinctly not someone you attempted to challenge, as a peer, because I was fed up with being silenced. I had few friends, and had made some amazing allies in some faculty but they were few and they also resented that their hands were institutionally tied. I kept my outings to a minimal, with peers, because I distrusted the academy and I distrusted anyone who praised the academy. I was alone and I knew it. I wanted to finish but I doubted that I would survive. These feelings of isolation, invalidation, and frustration was one that was distinctly felt by the students of color, and we knew it we talked about it we held space within ourselves for it but we also knew that we just needed to leave and/or graduate.
By this time, I had managed to have zero friends to come “home” to. By this time, I had severe social anxiety that institutional abuse had inherited to me, I graduate on May 2015 with a Masters of Divinity and severe social anxiety that only got worst once I got to sit with this new me and had the time to get to know her. The academy changed me, it made me hard and it made me mad. The academy made me disconnected from my friends and my grassroots upbringing, that it has taken me a year to find myself again and even then I am still digging me out of that pit of theory without praxis. I am slowly rebuilding friendships while working through my social anxiety, because the trauma of higher education is hard to shed. I am staying hopeful.