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Belonging at Harvard: Moving Beyond Acceptance

By Addison Y. Liu
By Kris King, Contributing Opinion Writer
Kris King ’24 (they/he) is a joint concentrator in History of Science and Women and Gender Studies in Kirkland House.

When I set foot on Harvard’s campus in 2019, I identified as cisgender lesbian and never would have claimed disability. Today, I graduate as a transmasculine, Autistic, physically disabled athlete and activist: a truer version of myself than I could have dreamed of my freshman year.

In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action, Harvard has come under scrutiny for its admissions model, which reduces diverse students to numbers and checked boxes — x percent this and y percent that.

If Harvard hopes to develop us into leaders though, they must account for us as whole, changing people. We must be made to feel like we belong throughout our time on campus.

Throughout my time at Harvard, the most challenging barrier to belonging here were the endless meetings, emails, and advocacy required to communicate my needs. As a chronically ill and trans person, I constantly needed to remind the University that my needs are not static. I have had more conversations than I can count with administrators, faculty, staff, and students, trying to convince them that I — and all neurodivergent people — are entirely capable of learning.

In my five years at Harvard, I was constantly reminded that my disabled, queer, and trans communities were not known about — and thus, not properly cared for.

I was asked to sit on councils, committees, and advisory groups — contributing feedback not with, but for my communities. It is, perhaps, the strongest throughline in my undergraduate experience: watching our University, which touts its diverse student body, struggle to truly understand and create a space where those very students feel they belong.

Though some might point to cultural centers as evidence of Harvard’s efforts to create inclusive space, these efforts have been insufficient. Those centers that do exist are largely underfunded. Some only serve the college and some rely on only one overworked full-fledged staff member

Harvard is neither recognizing nor acting on the best practices for building places where students can actually be themselves.

While I have tried my best to advocate for my communities throughout my time here, Harvard cannot continue to tokenize and exploit the singular perspectives and efforts of multiply-marginalized students — or students who identify with multiple marginalized groups — as they have done with me. It must seek out accurate and detailed data about queer, trans, and disabled people at Harvard to truly understand our needs and experiences.

Right now we have a dearth of data on acceptance and belonging at Harvard.

In a recent meeting of the Inclusion and Belonging Student Leadership Council, President Alan M. Garber ’76 touted a small white book from 2018 outlining the University’s diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging initiatives. That very book comedically touted data referencing “female,” “internationals,” and “minorities” as the only three markers for diversity.

The most recent data on belonging we have stems from a 2019 University survey. It showed that the two groups with the lowest reported percentage of belonging, at less than 50 percent, were a “genderqueer or nonbinary” group and an “aggregated gender identity” category — a label that includes intersex, agender, and genderqueer people, among others who may or may not identify as transgender. Even worse, some relevant groups, like disabled people, were not reported on at all.

Despite finding a low belonging percentage for transgender students, there have been no meaningful University-wide efforts to support transgender students since this data was collected. This survey and the lack of response it elicited highlights the lack of multi-marginal approaches to diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging work at Harvard.

As a trans and disabled person, being excluded from data is an all-too-familiar experience that perpetuates a cycle of exclusion: Marginalized groups are excluded from data, and therefore receive fewer funding opportunities and attention, making them feel less at home at Harvard.

Students from these marginalized groups are not admitted in critical mass, and so they will not benefit from community-driven support or alumni pressure for inclusion and funding. Prioritization of legacy students will continue to disproportionately exclude students of color and disabled students, making community support for marginalized groups even weaker. Thus, their exclusion will continue.

Without internal efforts driven by data on acceptance and belonging, our community’s needs will never be seen nor respected.

As I leave Harvard behind, I want to offer advice for creating a more inclusive future to University leaders, my fellow alumni, and current students.

The University must continue gathering data on the student experience and investing in initiatives that marginalized student communities are demanding, like a multicultural center, representation in faculty and staff, and expansion of academic commitments.

I have never felt more seen as a disabled person at Harvard than in the transgender spaces my peers and I have built. Many of my friends have similarly expressed comfort in spaces designed to affirm their womanhood, transness, disability, race, and ethnicity.

Similarly, alumni should recognize when their words, advocacy, and donations can be used to increase student belonging, and should not hesitate to hold Harvard to account.

If those efforts fail, we are left with one option: marginalized and multi-marginalized students have to support each other and themselves.

According to forthcoming results from a survey and publication I led, transgender people at Harvard are disproportionately low-income, and often from states facing substantial anti-trans legislation, creating additional barriers to success.

Two of the largest transgender focused projects in Harvard history are the Trans Task Force and TransHarvard, which has been operational for the past three years.

Both are staffed by students who are largely not paid for their labor, overworked as they develop often-unsustainable systems to support their basic community needs, and who may not be able to access staff support given the political stigma around simply being transgender.

Still, conferences like those that TransHarvard hosts bring Harvard a good name. Harvard benefits immensely from student initiatives, exploiting the free labor of students on various councils, leadership committees, and feedback forms.

While I am proud of the work done by students, Harvard must pick up the slack, critically re-examining its treatment of marginalized people as a box to check during the admissions process. Just because we got in, doesn’t mean we are treated as though we belong.

Kris King ’24 (they/he) is a joint concentrator in History of Science and Women and Gender Studies in Kirkland House.

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