I have been asked a million times, “What is something you wish you knew before attending Northwestern?” And up until a few weeks ago, I had no clue. However, the answer became imminent to me after my first college spring break. While my peers traveled literally all around the world, I went home to Wilmington, California, where I spent time with my family and friends.
Although my break was definitely not as Instagram-worthy as others, it was just as worthwhile. It was during that time that I realized that, in order to get the most out of my experience as a Black man at an institution that was not built for me or established with the idea that there would be students like me in attendance, I must stop looking for myself and my home in everyone I encounter. As foreign as it may seem, there is a sense of solidarity that comes from low-income minority communities. This solidarity was exuberated in every interaction I had at home, and it's a solidarity that I realized I have truly missed while being on Northwestern’s campus due to both its socioeconomic and geographical breakdown. This is not an attempt to fault or shame my peers for the circumstances they are fortunate enough to live through, or even Northwestern for the way its campus impacts students like me. Instead, it is an acknowledgment of my daily struggles as I try to adjust to life away from home.
This break was different for me. As I went back to my hometown – a 93 percent non-white/minority community – I realized my outlook had changed. My relationships with my friends, my family and the city itself had changed too. And, surprisingly, this change was definitely not there after I went back home as a college student for winter break. As I was surrounded by my lower-income, minority community, I felt a new sense of urgency and purpose to make sure my experiences and outlooks that resonated with theirs were represented and heard on Northwestern’s campus.
Northwestern is a bubble that is very hard to pop. There is a culture to embed yourself fully into the “true Northwestern experience” and detach yourself from the outside world. A lot of my peers are able to do this effortlessly as they are afforded privileges in their socioeconomic class and social identities that I will never have, even with my elite education – privileges that allow them the ability to travel the world and ease them of worry for the places they leave behind.
Nonetheless, I work hard to pop the elitism bubble. During my week-and-a-half spring break, I spent time highlighting youth in my community through an internet-based interview series and speaking at my high school – initiatives that led me to refocus my own purpose and life goals. As I spoke to a classroom of current seniors at my former high school about my experience at Northwestern, I had the opportunity to truly reflect on my experiences during my first two quarters at this institution. As I stared into the classroom full of Black and Brown kids, I realized that although the idea of “cultural competency” may seem vital to the agenda of many universities, it truly is not enough. No matter how “culturally competent” or “politically correct” these universities supposedly are, there will still be a disconnect in experiences between these students of color and their future peers.
I urged the students, many seniors who have already committed to elite, predominantly white institutions – NU included – to attempt to detach their hometown perspectives and what they are used to culturally from their experience and outlooks at these institutions. I told them that a lot of their new peers will not be able to relate to their experiences, like coming from a historically low-income neighborhood and attending a school that literally has had mice crawl through the classroom during class sessions. I let them know it has been a completely different world for me and many others at Northwestern, a world that we must adapt to by accepting our inevitable circumstances and using them as fuel until we are each able to make it our own. This process of adaptation does not mean forgetting where you are from, but merely understanding that your personal experiences may make it harder for you to relate and associate with your peers from more elite socioeconomic backgrounds. Still, you have to fight make this a place you belong to.
This is not to bash elite institutions, which truly do an amazing job in educating future generations and ultimately shaping our reality. Instead, it's to recognize the problems that arise at these institutions for people of color, low-income and first-generation students who are thrown headfirst into a world where they do not have a map filled with the afforded privileges and entitlements, like some of their peers, to help guide them.
Now that I have been able to genuinely acknowledge the issues I have with my experience here, I am confident that I better know how to improve it for myself and for my peers. My spring break gave me an outlet to begin redefining my experience at Northwestern through repurposing my hometown energy into a mindset that will not only change my experience here, but hopefully allow me to improve the experiences of some of my peers who can relate. I may not be able to find my old home here at Northwestern, but I can still make it my home through moving past the acknowledgment of this campus faults and igniting a coalition of change.