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Ruben: You’re a senior in high school and your hands are shaking because you’ve just opened the admissions portal to see that you’ve been admitted to Harvard—or, as all your relatives pronounce it, Járvar. You jump on a plane from Los Angeles, Texas, or Florida, and land in Boston. It’s way colder than you’d imagined, but your shining smile and the glow from your brown skin make it bearable. This place is the place for you: You’re sure of it.
Zoe: I had a big dream. It was a dream that my family had never dreamed before: I wanted to go to college and, better yet, I wanted to leave the state that had been my home my entire life. I wanted to be all of the dreams my single mother could never realize. I wanted to be those classes she didn’t get the chance to take and the success she could have had if she had been zoned to a better school in a zip code whose residents didn’t have an 8% college graduation rate. I was the hope for a future that was going to be different. I didn’t cry when I opened that admissions packet, but I have cried since I got here.
R: Your freshman roommate is white. Back home, you didn’t have that many white friends—segregated, underfunded high schools tend to be missing them—but it’s a welcome change. You tell him about the country your parents grew up in and he tells you about his life. You’re playing out the admissions office’s wet dream by connecting with a peer across backgrounds and cultures. If you listen really closely, you’ll hear the sounds of the people who organized your housing high-fiving each other. Dean Khurana is crying tears of joy somewhere.
Z: I struggled to lug my entire life up the four flights of stairs in my freshman dorm, and the next day, I struggled to hold back tears when my roommate’s entire family moved her in and would go on to frequently visit. It’s not as if I don’t also have a big family that can fill the room with its laughter and love, but my family just can’t afford to fly to Boston. I thought I was ready: I had gone to an early-college high school, I had received my associate’s degree, and I had taken the couple of AP classes that were offered. I was supposed to be college-ready; they told me I’d be college-ready.
R: The University doesn’t support you. When you experience the worst mental health problems you’ve ever faced, you’re unable to find a clinician who understands what it means to exist in the world without white skin. You turn to the peer counseling group meant to deal with issues of race and you find that they’ve taken a semester off because they’re understaffed. You can’t turn to a professor because faculty of color are rare and those that are present are overworked. You don’t know how to navigate an institution that was not built for you, and there’s nobody to teach you. There is no bridge program. There is no multicultural center. An administrator gives you excuses and sends you on your way.
Z: My first classes found me quickly realizing I wasn’t ready to be surrounded by students who had gone to mini-Harvards in the form of prep schools and boarding academies. I wasn’t ready to question my intelligence and wonder if I was the only one who wasn’t fit to flourish at this institution. I wasn’t ready to grapple with feeling like a disappointment and with there being no one for me to turn to who would understand what it was like to be dropped in a place completely different from anything I had ever known. I wasn’t ready to constantly be aware of how different I was: a first-gen, low-income Latina raised by a single mother, constantly hit with the “maybe Zoe can speak to that?” in a room filled with people who couldn’t come close to understanding even one of those experiences, let alone all of them at once.
R: By the end of your sophomore year, you’re exhausted. You’re tired of having to explain how brown and poor you are. In a Crimson meeting, you have to explain to a room full of near-strangers about how the financial aid program works if your family makes less than $65,000 per year. Administrators ask you to serve on yet another committee. But a shift has occurred—you’re beginning to learn how to navigate the white space that surrounds you. It’s unfair that your rich white classmates knew how to navigate this University as soon as they stepped on campus, but you’re finally learning.
Z: I have tried not to come across as ungrateful for the privilege that I have been afforded at this university while demanding the changes I wish had been realized before I came here. But I’m tired—I’m tired of having to explain how my identities impact the way I navigate this institution, only to have it fall on deaf ears. I am tired of being overcome with emotion when, yet again, the administration refuses to acknowledge that my experiences are different because I come from an intersectionally marginalized background, and that no, we are not all homogenous privileged Harvard students. The hard transition I had here, the effects of which I still experience, isn’t the same transition felt by those students who just have to learn how to do their own laundry for the first time. If I am never able to forget the disadvantaged background I come from and how my experiences come together to inform everything I do, the University should also be unable to forget I am being lost in the cracks. My differences deserve resources.
R: As we close out another year and prepare to send another graduating class out into the real world, it’s critical that the University acknowledge that not all Harvard experiences are created equal. Latinx students should not have to learn to navigate this university blindfolded. A bridge program that would facilitate the transition for students of color—many of whom are first-generation, low-income, or come from under-resourced high schools—should be fully rolled out. Faculty, mental health services, and advising teams must be as diverse the student body is. The Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion should never again go more than seven months without a dean. Navigating Harvard as a Latinx student should not be a painful process.
It’s your senior year. Some hotshot celebrity is your commencement speaker. You grab your diploma and, alongside the joy and pride you feel, you hope that the brown boys and girls who are going to walk through the Yard in years to come will have it easier. You know they’ll never have it easy, but you hope Harvard will acknowledge the struggles of being brown at a white institution and will help them along the way.
Ruben E. Reyes Jr. ’19, a Crimson Editorial Chair, is a History & Literature concentrator in Leverett House. Zoe D. Ortiz ’19, a Crimson Associate Editorial Editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Mather House. Their column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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