Black Women In The Ivy League: “Everything’s Not Always So Pretty At The Top”

April 14, 2014  |  

This month, countless high school students across the country will be answering college acceptance letters making the difficult decision of what college to attend in the Fall.

If you asked my 17-year-old self the impact choosing to attend Princeton University would have on me, I probably wouldn’t have known how to answer. When I first got accepted into Princeton in the spring of 2009, I was both wildly excited yet undoubtedly naive. I thought I had all the “prep” I would need, having attended a well-regarded college preparatory school in Englewood, NJ for six years. I’d already experienced the doubts from my fellow high school classmates as the news spread that me and my best friend Amina (also a woman of color) had been the only people to be accepted into Princeton from our school. I’ll never forget how one girl made the inauspicious suggestion that we both got in only because we were black. In essence, I thought I had already experienced the “culture shock” and racism that occurs when you take a girl accustomed to a majority minority classroom and throw her into a world where she is the outlier, one of only a few people of color in her class.

I envisioned Princeton as being a place for self-discovery. A place to explore new interests. A place to meet lifelong friends. While all these turned out to be true, I didn’t expect how much pressure it would mean to be part of the country’s elite or one of the “future leaders of the world”(as I had been primed to think of myself during Princeton’s freshman orientations).

The common narrative regarding men and women of color getting into prestigious institutions such as Princeton and the other Ivy Leagues is often guided by words of congratulations, praise, and accomplishments. For the skeptics and naysayers, notions of affirmation action, discrimination against “better-suited” candidates, and non-worthiness often take premise. Take the recent media attention Kwasi Enin, the Ghanian-American New Yorker who got into all eight Ivy Leagues, garnered. I am proud of Kwasi but as an Ivy League alum, I know that whatever decision he makes, he is about to embark on a long journey which may be filled with  justifying his presence to both himself, his peers and outsiders. I can only imagine how this will inform his sense of self. Even more, he is still a black man to larger society (despite how he self-identifies)… and we all know being a black man in America is difficult enough.

As for me? I do not regret attending Princeton. I made some of my best friends there. I had the opportunity to take classes with the great Cornel West. I helped revamp, run and grow the Princeton Caribbean Connection, a major student organization within the Black community. I tutored inmates studying for their high school diplomas, studied Sociology with the greats, and wrote a 112 page senior thesis on a topic dear to my heart: policing in my hometown of Orange, NJ. But most of all, I rediscovered and lived out my passion for dance when I joined BAC Dance Company my freshman fall. I worked hard and graduated cum laude.

Through all of this,  I experienced some of the hardest moments of my life while a student at Princeton. I dealt with personal tragedies, sickness, and familial troubles. Though I always tried to carry a smile, I often had bouts of loneliness and crippling self-doubt, unbeknownst to even some of my closest friends. I had to learn how to navigate and often exclude myself from the dominant social scene that I had no desire to join. But should I blame Princeton, the institution, for this? That’s something I often find myself grappling with. I know that the social isolation and exclusion I faced here is not only inherent to Ivy League universities. Countless women of color across American institutions find themselves in situations like this.

One of the hardest things for me was having to face my dual realities. While at Princeton, I lived in the “Orange Bubble” shielded from life’s every day harsh realities. Yet, whenever I went home or saw my friends  who “hadn’t made it,” I had to come to grips with the realization that not everyone is given such opportunities in life. I often struggled with the feeling of not exactly knowing how to give back to my community (and those who had built the way for me), especially feeling like I had to live up to the fact that people saw me as an “inspiration.” At times, it felt like too much, like there was no room to fail. That I had to always perform to the best of my ability. Sometimes I found myself wondering what the purpose of this all was.

Attending an institution such as Princeton can bear a lot of weight on the soul with little opportunities to share experiences with those beyond one’s inner group. I side with I, Too, Am Harvard’s statement that black students’ “voices often go unheard.”

These are the stories several women shared with me  about what it feels like to be a woman of color at an Ivy League institution. I am not sharing these stories to say that these are the only important stories relevant to being a student at an Ivy League university. However, I do believe they highlight and share a common thread, which is similar to many college students nationwide: self-discovery. While we praise students of color for accomplishing such great academic feats, we must not forget about the personal journeys and experiences with academia, sexuality, mental health, class, race, gender, and self that will undoubtedly come next for them in their college journey. These women bring up issues that are important for all to consider when we think of what it means to be have a college education or be a college-educated woman. From the classroom, to the dorm room, to the inner-being, while not all negative, everything’s not always so pretty at the top.

Scroll through the pages, read and respect these women’s stories.

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  • Pamela Kennedy

    Yale is, in all fairness, recently, trying to ensure that “the face of Yale” in the world is not all White, putting pictures out of their Physics department which is multi-coloured this year, and on their article about “the 22 most successful Yale students of all time” the picture is of a black woman, probably African or Caribbean though. I think Yale is trying harder than, say, Princeton, to overcome its apparent “for Whites only” image lately. At the recent All Ivy Native (American) Council Conference (when I say All Ivy Native Council to people they look at me confused and say they don’t know what “Native” means, which is more in-my-face racism, because I’m dark so they think I’m “black” and as such can’t hear me talk about anything like my Math teaching license, my degree from Yale, or my degree from MIT for that matter, or my law degree….but I digress) as per the expected the Dartmouth group was the largest, followed by Yale’s. Princeton had a whopping THREE people show up, and they tell me that’s half of Princeton’s Native American population right there. And frankly, two of those looked like what we call “white people with a Status Card.”

    Anyway, for some reason, I don’t know why the world has assumed all this time that Yale, and Connecticut in general, is “all whites” looking around at NEW HAVEN. Even Bridgeport and Hartford are about 1/3 Black and another 1/3 Latino. So where was this “all white” image coming from, and why do people hold on to it, anyway? Yale awarded the first PhD in Mathematics to a BLACK man back in the 1800’s. And yet the world is hell-bent on thinking it’s “all whites.” Columbia and Brown, at least, are seen as less “all-white” than Yale. When you look around at Yale, these days, you see more minorities than you’d ever have expected, and no Yale does not get them by “lowering the standards.” What Yale apparently does is recruit heavily in certain parts of Africa and the Caribbean, but apparently that’s another issue of discrimination right there…..and I met quite a few, percentage-wise, at our All Ivy Native Council who were from the Southwest states’ reservations which would account for more of the “browning” of Yale.

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  • seoulsista18

    As a Columbia University WoC class of 2013, I can say that I too experienced all of these things and more during my four years of school–despite being in the true and dynamic cultural melting pot that is New York City. Most ethnic cliques (including black ones) were exclusive, unwelcoming, and oftentimes fraught with internal cattiness and strife. Black girls were divided further into black Caribbean girls, black African girls, black African-American girls, etc. all of whom appeared equally disinterested in letting “others” into their circles. In the end, my friend circle became the no-label black people; those from obscure partially ethnic tribes in developing countries, the mixed kids, and the black outliers. People who didn’t fit into other predetermined “black” boxes. And there were many of us.

    Anyway. One thing I’m surprised few of these women mentioned was the extreme lack of dating prospects in Ivy schools. I don’t know about other Ivy’s, but I managed to make it through four years at Columbia without a single campus date. And I’m sad to say that I knew quite a few women of color who had similar experiences. I don’t know exactly what to attribute this deficit to, but I do know that throughout these same four years, I found it difficult to watch black men (our precious few educated and driven young black men) consciously opting to date exclusively non-black women. I was appalled. It seemed like the higher up the ladder black men climbed in the Ivy league, the farther they seemed to want to distance themselves from the black female. I daresay it made me resentful.. Simply because I just grew tired year after year of seeing so many beautiful and amazing black women sitting out weekend nights in the library hanging back while our black men paraded around campus with a host of Latina or white girls on their arms. I could go on about this forever, but long story short, I may as well have gone to an all-girls school. Don’t think it would have made a difference.

    • Rana Campbell

      This is def. something I experienced too. I’m working on a black men’s piece now and this is something some of the guys I’ve talked to have brought up. Thank you for sharing your experience!

      • seoulsista18

        Awesome, I can’t wait to read it! And I’m happy to share.. I know I wasn’t alone in my experiences. I suppose it was just something I wanted to see voiced by more women. I think as black women, many of us are accustomed to taking a dive when it comes to dating, but maybe if we have an open dialogue about it things will change. Good luck and thanks for addressing such pertinent and compelling issues in your writing. Keep it up!

    • STEM

      SeoulSista18, I’m sorry but it just sounds like you were stalking these black men while they were on dates. You keep saying they were “your” black men. You don’t own those men, those men were strangers to you. I loved your comment…until you started you started whining about some black men you saw on campus, living their lives. I was proud of you and the other black women until you described all of you sitting around at Columbia and Princeton just stalking black men who were walking with their dates. I bet those men didn’t even look like anything, I bet they were just black and happened to be there.

      So you matriculated at Columbia for 4 years without a date because you couldn’t get one of these “black men” you saw walking. Sigh. Your username on here is SeoulSister18, which makes me think you’ve been (or will be going) to Seoul, Korea, too). You’re not going to date when you get over there either, are you? If black men are so important to you, get your masters degree at Howard or Morris Brown, or Clarke Atlanta, so you can be around these black males. Or maybe you should’ve just gone to Spelman so you could have Morehouse College right across the street. Good luck.

  • Paulyetta

    One of the best posts I’ve read on this site. Thank you for sharing these experiences.

    • Rana Campbell

      Thank you.

  • Sandra

    As a WoC at Brown, I thank you for this because this hits so close to home for me. Particularly about feeling like you had to be the inspiration for your town, despite facing your own academic/social/personal struggles. It’s rare to find WoC like us at Ivies, but nonetheless we exist and we share common struggles. However, it’s great that there are others to share with this and support each other

    • Rana Campbell

      Very much agreed, Sandra!

    • Pamela Kennedy

      You may or may not have known that Brown’s “Center for Students of Color” is on Waterman street near the Waterman street entrance to the campus. For supposedly being for “all” students of “color” meaning nonwhite it seems to be mostly Blacks.

  • JK

    I think these experiences mirror Black women at most predominately white institutions. I was a Computer Science Engineering major at a predominately white University, and I can relate to many of the experiences posted here.

    • Pamela Kennedy

      Only if you were raised around black people and to want to see people who look the same as you, in your classes and in your life in general. Not all of us were, you know. In math and physics classes, I barely even noticed (or cared) that most of my peers were BOYS let alone White and Asian/Southeast Asian. Math people aren’t really supposed to care about the “culture” or perceived “culture” of the people around us as Math and Physics are supposedly universal “cultures,” if you will, of their own.

      • Sam

        Ok but that’s not actually the case at all; if it were STEM wouldn’t be predominantly white and male. You should absolutely care that there aren’t more women and black and latino people in STEM. You should care that women and black and latino people are less likely to get research funding or as much funding as white and asian men are. That matters.

  • Overseas Teacher

    Very well written. The feelings I got from reading the different anecdotes is a mirror of how I feel in America period! One of the lines that stood out to me by one of the ladies was, “I don’t belong here.” Exactly! Good luck to you Black Butterfly and all of the other ladies.

  • NinaSoAwesome

    As well written as this piece is, please remember to write as an editor and not a personal blogger. I felt as though I was reading an end of year assignment by an honorary high school student. Focus on the people and not your personal journey.

    • Nadifa Foulds

      Bye Felicia…. Honestly, you could have found a more constructive way to frame your criticism of this piece, especially given its content. Also, I have seen cruder, more childish pieces posted on sites like Allure and Cosmo in the name of being fun and witty.

      • Rana Campbell

        Thank you.

      • Guest

        I agree with her… The entireeee first page of the article was about her personal story. THEN you turn the page and find the stories of others lol. Like, regardless of the way it was phrased, the point is to “ALLURE” the reader. Besides, I had no idea MadameNoire was a personal expression blog. I thought it was about the general people. She could’ve been more engaging in there writing. I felt like I was reading a journal.

    • Rana Campbell

      Thank you for reading the piece. This story was meant to tell both my personal journey and the experiences of other. Nevertheless, I appreciate the feedback.

      • Green’14

        As a black woman at Dartmouth College, I really appreciated this piece and the truth in it that I myself experience here in Hanover. Thank you for posting this.

        • Rana Campbell

          No problem! I’m glad you enjoyed.

    • Guest

      Why does that matter ? Because writing like a journalist will really make the message more meaningful? I honestly think that people like yourself who always have to find a point of criticism in something while missing (or ignoring) the main message need to get counseling on why you find this behavior acceptable. It’s not.

      • mmmdot

        Thank you! My god, what was the point of that comment?

      • Ninasoawesome

        No… the point of my comment was to stay true to the essence of the website. This is something you’ll more find on a blog. This is a website on popular topics and although this is a great topic, she could have written it differently- not have the entire first page focused on herself.

    • jharrison

      BS – the piece transcends your close-focus.