August 29, 2021

WISE-ROJAS | Queering the Ivy Student Experience: How to Make History at Cornell while Living Intersectionally

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Cornell is one of the most prestigious schools in the world. There’s no need to dive into the rankings. The point of going to an Ivy League is to make history while holding onto the reigns of Ivy privilege until the day you die. But how hard is it to do this when you don’t fit into the box made for those with many privileges?

Networking events and alumni associations are the bread and butter of remaining connected to the school post-graduation; Cornell’s admission site notes that there are “more than 250,000 alumni,” serving as “your lifetime connections around the world.” 

Cornell’s Human Resources site also emphasizes that “Cornell has a long tradition of supporting a diverse and inclusive educational environment.” Cornell is an elite institution that does take the time to house diversity and inclusion-related initiatives like the Prefreshman Summer Program and the Office of Academic and Diversity Initiatives. 

However, it’s a challenge when the Ivy with the most diverse student body is primarily white and heteronormative. According to Data USA, “the enrolled student population at Cornell University, both undergraduate and graduate, is 33.6 percent White, 15.4 percent Asian, 10.6 percent Hispanic or Latino, 5.3 percent Black or African American, 3.81 percent Two or More Races, 0.25 percent American Indian or Alaska Native, and 0.0916 percent Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islanders”.

By default, people in the demographic majority dominate the campus and have the means to make history. After all, they have history on their side. When you’re a minority, the only place where you can find community and common ground is by seeking it in the form of program houses, clubs and other means. Meanwhile, for others, the campus remains their community without trying. 

One may argue that places like program houses are exclusive at times. Nevertheless, they provide a sense of community that is desperately needed in many cases. For instance, I spent the past weekend moving and swapping dorms after classes had already started because someone in my living space turned out to hold homophobic values; it boggled my mind, and moving out was my only sane option. 

I eventually found a community in the Loving House, the LGBTQ+ program house. During PSP, I formed a friend group with other Latinas from various countries. I don’t know how I would have succeeded in this environment without finding a community, even if it was difficult.

The impact of community on student well-being isn’t a new concept. Inside Higher Ed notes that “Students who report a higher sense of belonging at the end of the first year seem to do better than their counterparts.” Furthermore, “when underrepresented student populations do not feel a strong sense of belonging on their campus, it impacts how they integrate, perform and persist.”

Why do these sentiments matter? Well, “especially low levels of sense of belonging early on are extremely predictive of student persistence later.” When institutions shift to focusing on students who aren’t as well off, the risk of poor academic and social outcomes lowers. It makes sense: give those who have the least amount of resources the help that they need. Providing resources to students who need it is the only way intersectional students can make history and break through the restrictive canon of academia. 

One of my professors told me, over the summer, that to break the canon of academia as a nonwhite queer human, you need to learn the ropes of societies and institutions to the best of your ability. Then, you break all misconceptions and stereotypes. People will have no choice but to follow you or pay attention to you at the very least. We’re living in a world where whiteness and heteronormativity dominate, no matter how left-leaning an area is. 

While breaking misconceptions and stereotypes, people assume just powering through without taking any breaks for yourself is effective. Nevertheless, this is where you can potentially run out of steam. You need to take care of yourself. You can’t sacrifice who you are for the sake of showing people that you’re a “normal” human. It’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling like an object at a place where you need to prove your humanity to fit in. People admire you for going to Cornell, your material possessions and your academic capabilities. 

People who don’t relate want to dispose of the things that are different from them and rely on microaggressions. Just take a look at people who, instead of respecting someone’s ability to express themselves, use Instagram’s new pronouns feature to say their pronouns are “ne/ver” or “nor/mal” rather than an actual set of pronouns. These are the people who won’t end up making history, or instead, won’t end up making history for all the right reasons. 

These are also the same people whom academia was built for. It begs the question: who told us that academia has to be white and heteronotmative in the first place? Emily Kinder articulates “how people have questioned, particularly in the last 60 years, the validity of the canon due to its lack of diversity.” 

The people who have primarily made history in the past, especially at an institution like Cornell, are people who grew up seeing themselves in canon academic readings. Thus, an endless cycle is created where people who aren’t in the majority have to struggle ten times more to get to the same place. 

However, there is one common thread. Neither group, those included in the canon of academia and those excluded from the canon of academia, can survive alone. The primary way to make history is to find your community. You can be an independent person while having people support you. When you’re with people who can relate to your experiences in one way or another, you don’t feel scared to exit your comfort zone. They give you the motivation to keep going when you have none left. 

I know it might be hard to read that the only way to go down in history is to rely on the people around you, especially when you prefer to rely on yourself, especially when you’re seen as a”diversity admit”. It’s a slap in the face when you learn that the status quo is easier to keep than to change. 

White, heteronormative or not, they have their community. What’s wrong with making your own for survival? The community you build, with a little persistence, is your key to making history; no one can tell you otherwise, especially those who don’t share your experiences.  

Daniela Wise-Rojas ’24 is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Anything But MunDANIties runs every other Monday this semester.