Depending on a person’s background, coming to a predominantly white institution (PWI) like Cornell can be really difficult to cope with as a freshman. I know that for me, it wasn’t just dealing with the fact that I had moved from the large city of Chicago to Ithaca, but also being surrounded by people completely different from whom I was accustomed to interacting with back home. It took me more than a year of attending Cornell to finally figure out how to function in a place that was so drastically different for me. As I’m starting my third year here, I can’t help but think about where I started from and how current first-years of color might be feeling.
Generally, I know that during my first year I felt like I did not belong here at all. I was meeting all of these people from the East Coast who had gone to private schools and boarding schools. To me, it seemed like they were made to be here. They had been on this Ivy League track their whole lives while I had never even considered applying, let alone being admitted, to an Ivy League college until my senior year of high school. I thought that they must have admitted me by mistake because there was no way that my educational background could contend with these students who had been doing college level work since they were 14.
I will never forget the first college class I ever attended because it made me feel even more out of place for the entirety of my first semester here. It was a literature-based class, but heavily incorporated theory and philosophy. Until that point, I had never been exposed to much theory, especially in relation to literature. I remember struggling to understand what I was reading for homework and going to class the next day where everyone else seemed to fully understand what they had read. People would have these profound statements on the reading as I struggled to keep up at times. Even when not everyone understood what we read and the professor had to explain it to us, I still felt like I was delayed in my comprehension on the topic because I had difficulty understanding the way things were being explained to me. I felt incompetent and I thought that asking a question was a way to draw more attention to myself and make the entire room aware of my incompetence.
I struggled with that class the entirety of my first semester and had countless conversations with my advisor about how I just didn’t seem to understand theory especially in comparison to everyone else. He thankfully always tried to encourage me and made my situation slightly more bearable.
I’m completely over that feeling now despite being only slightly better at reading theory and philosophy. I had to constantly remind myself that I’m here because someone thought I deserved to be here. Someone thought that I could handle this, so they have to at least be kind of right. It’s so easy to think poorly of yourself when you don’t seem to be able to relate to everyone else. The reality is that these institutions of higher education were not meant for those of marginalized identities. They were created for those with “power,” those who had had access to educational resources and money that most kids in the Chicago public school system can only dream of.
Personally, my high school was predominantly white, and the educational program I was in within the school was also predominantly white. Therefore, coming to here to a PWI wasn’t an entirely new concept for me, but at this point I was tired of it. It’s difficult to learn more about yourself and feel more comfortable with your identity when there are so few spaces that allow for that kind of growth. I know that this transition is even more drastically different to those that have never attended a predominantly white school and are accustomed by being surrounded by those with really similar backgrounds. Despite that, it isn’t just whiteness that new students have to overcome. There’s also differences in class, gender, sexuality, etc. Anything that makes you different from the majority makes you feel like you’re not meant to be here.
The way I learned to handle everything was by finding a community that I could easily relate to, and I definitely didn’t find them in my first literature class. I had to go looking for people who also struggled with feeling out of place because they just didn’t seem to fit. It’s easier to cope with this institution when you talk to people who understand what you’re going through because they’ve been there or they’re right alongside with you.
Sarah Zumba is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Zumba Works it Out appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.