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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