My first love is the person college allowed me to be. In elementary school in Spain, evening meant trading Castilian for Farsi, tossing around my mom’s saffron rice and stews over dinner as I ruminated over how coming from a technically Muslim household meant that the three kings would bring gifts every Christmas but didn’t qualify me for attending religion class with my Catholic peers. While other kids absorbed stories and sat around a table learning once a week, I stayed in homeroom and organized my teacher’s filing cabinets. In the U.S., I tore at my Spanish self for making an English language I had no acquaintance with sound less American. In the evenings, I hid from my family to pore over library books I didn’t understand to cease being the ESL girl who quietly enunciated the words of her picture book about families of bears while others delved into the fantasy worlds of their chapter books. But somehow before even making it to Harry Potter, I learned that there is a special place for an American youth from non-American beginnings, and it is on the illustrious college campus.
Sun down in college signaled the start of a new beginning to an ending day. For many in the diaspora, college is the first time we don’t hear ourselves in two voices that never fully sounded at home in the air they emerged as we transition between academic and social spaces where childhood meets not adulthood but something entirely sweeter. Evening didn’t denote hearing myself morph from one tongue to another, from one jagged personality to the next. When the sound of evening became chimes concerts and muffled laughter in quiet libraries, my own beautiful expression was born. Now nearing two months of an unanticipated return home, I fear I left that language and the girl who spoke it on The Hill. I fear that the higher education model assured her emergence but not her continued existence upon departure.
The college system that prides itself for being a great equalizer is now waking up to how the vision it offered for us to find harmony in our multiplicitous selves suffocates beyond its gates. Before granting any acceptance letter, this model demands that students frame our identities as attractive tragedies in 500-word essays. We cut open our wounds before entering a landscape of scholarship and conversation that could heal, celebrate and give purpose to them. And I, like many peers, obliged, because even though the college model places our pains on a scale to judge whether our parts render us viable for a seat at the table, it’s certainly not the first time that the potential of our dreams is a transaction for bettering an institution. Whether it’s an immigration officer or an admissions officer who fetishizes our passion to shape its own image, neither provided the framework for our academic knowledge to ferment into action.
College aggrandizes filling the canvas of our dreams and showcasing them through pretty resumes and pretty elevator speeches. As one four year opportunity melts away, we stud personal statements with convictions about how the next four will be the ones to make us useful to the nation that educates us. Under this model, college outsources the actual practical skill building it takes to fulfill the mythos of helping people to prestigious internships perhaps even more selective than the degree we had to earn to maybe land one. In every day of this pandemic, I revisit the canvas of my dreams searching for the one that can become my immediate pursuit as summer and the countdown to nothing approaches. My canvas is blank, and I am afraid.
It’s not that as college students we don’t have the potential or drive to be useful, but that the undergraduate promise incubated us and relied on the next steps in our education to make us useful one day. When one day finally came in the shape of pandemic, it didn’t care for passion. “One day” is here, and we make up an expensive, high-maintenance, viable but muted sector of the U.S. population, stuck because we want to do more, effacing our uselessness beneath a parade of memes and conversations on everything we’ll jump start “when this is all over.”
Evening arrives and I fidget in a home that feels misshapen, in a self I didn’t know I’d come back to. Her space feels shrunken and she speaks a language entirely unfamiliar to me — a language that is trying so hard to say the right words for a daughter, a student who adores learning as much as she did when she didn’t even speak the language she now studies, a friend to others and a friend to herself. But evening arrives, and this voice is muffled in the shadow of a more daunting time – 11:59 p.m. – and all the tasks that must be checked off by then, none of which will help dying neighbors, mourning friends or serve as gratitude for the people helping others hold on to life. When morning arrives and many approach the frontlines in a call to action, youthful, brilliant professionals to-be hover at the threshold of futility and usefulness. We watch the world rage on without us, knowing that this evening, nothing will change from our doing and there’s not much we can do about it — at least not till after 11:59 p.m.
Paris Ghazi is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. La Vie en Prose ran alternate Thursdays this semester.