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A Constant Reminder

By Grace Z. Li
By Kathryn E. Kearney
Kathryn E. Kearney ’17 is a recipient of the Gardner Traveling Fellowship.

Nearly two years ago, Donald Trump was — to my utter disbelief — elected president. My boyfriend at the time and I cried in bed in Dunster House as we watched Florida go red. It was a horrific, earth-shattering, almost supernatural moment. We were blindsided. We were blind.

Stories like this one, from once-hopeful, college-aged liberals, read much the same. Echo chambers that shielded us from the truth, a realization that there are some out there who don’t think like “Us,” disappointment in particular demographics for not showing up or showing up in the wrong ways, and a burning desire for change. This is especially true of Harvard, where my peers, professors, and the surrounding academic community overwhelmingly espoused at least a certain degree of social progressivism. It hit me, a woman of color, like it hit so many others in different ways. America is not, and never was, for us. “Then maybe you should leave,” some said. What if there was some truth to the racist rhetoric we heard during the campaign?

On Inauguration Day, I was submitting the final letters of recommendation for one of Harvard’s postgraduate scholarships, the Gardner Traveling Fellowship. If awarded the accompanying grant, I would be moving to New Zealand shortly after graduation to study dance. Before the election, it had been one of several postgraduate options I had considered. After it, I only applied to opportunities on the condition that they were internationally based. In March 2017, I was offered the fellowship and eagerly began preparing for a summer departure.

I can and can’t explain what was so alluring about leaving the country. For obvious reasons, traveling abroad is thrilling and fulfilling. The excitement of going somewhere geographically and culturally foreign to your daily sensibilities never loses its luster. I wanted to be as far away from where I was, and New Zealand was as distant as I could fathom. I couldn’t escape the feeling that I was leaving from the U.S. more than going to New Zealand. The sitting president and the political crises he caused, in addition to my battles with mental health, contributed to a decision to get out and start over.

Auckland, where I would settle for a majority of my fellowship year, was everything I could’ve hoped for but little like I had imagined. Most notably, I’m enamored by its remarkable natural beauty. The city is enveloped by pristine beaches and peppered with sprawling patches of protected land. The birds sing different melodies here and the water glistens ceaselessly. The people are exceedingly friendly, curious, and approachable. They are so willing to connect with me, assist me, and befriend me. Granted, the big “-isms” still exist here. There is a current of rampant xenophobia in response to the influx of Asian migrants, and the discourse on Māori joblessness closely resembles the enduring anti-Black attitudes for which the U.S. is infamous. But comparatively, for whatever reason, I have felt there is more hope for social progress in Auckland than back home. With a renewed sense of hope, I found I had improving mental health. After a year, I decided to apply for a work visa to stay in Auckland indefinitely. Immigration, however, had other plans.

Last week, it all came to a head. For one, Immigration New Zealand rejected my initial application, forcing me to acknowledge that I may be asked to leave the country. What was supposed to be the destination of a gap year had become home. Aside from missing my family terribly, nothing about America called to me. After all, I had intentionally run away from a toxic political climate that had daily left me hopeless and hurt. Being able to virtually shut out the daily barrage of so-called fake news was intoxicating. Seeing Trump’s snarling face made me ill, and I had medicated my ailments with the move. To be reminded that the president and many of his supporters fundamentally disregard or even deny my humanity was deeply traumatic, and so I treated myself by leaving. But even a world away, I was unable to avoid news of the hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh. They became a bleak reminder of where I may be headed. Abruptly and acutely, my mental health plummeted, the illness returned.

Watching footage of Kavanaugh whine, sputter, and evade questions personally and deeply offended me in a way that was almost irrationally visceral. Much like the Trump effect, seeing, reading about, and discussing Kavanaugh had such tangibly negative effects on me. Their faces and names alone evoked such disgust. It occurred to me — I know these men.

The clips, articles, and soundbites relating to Kavanaugh that I incidentally consumed made me feel as if I were being confronted by my own attacker, reading of his hearing, and watching others defend him. Like Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, I did not report my assault. While feeling the same pangs of shame and hurt that I did after it happened, I figured that perhaps that’s the fate of all survivors — to be painfully reminded of your own assault whenever someone else’s is called into question, examined, and ultimately doubted and denied. Grappling with the fallout of an attack was hard enough to survive the first time, let alone with each and every accusation that goes in and out of media rotation.

I found out that Kavanaugh was confirmed four and a half years after attempting to take my own life after my assault and being admitted to University Health Services. Dozens of sexual assault allegations against prominent figures, the #MeToo movement, marches on Washington, and still, Kavanaugh was confirmed. I can only imagine what victims in the U.S. who will live with and under that reality daily must feel. A president who publicly mocks a victim of sexual assault for telling her story is now finally matched with a Supreme Court justice who enacted that very violence upon her. It will serve as a constant reminder of how our nation regards victims. They told me to leave, and even after doing so, I feel the shame from 9,000 miles away.

Kathryn E. Kearney ’17 is a recipient of the Gardner Traveling Fellowship.

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