First-Generation Students of Color: You Belong in College

It was my freshman year in college. I had just gotten to one of my first James Madison classes early; I sat in the corner with my half-used notebook from high school and a pen I got from one of the MSU welcoming events. As other students started piling into the 25 person classroom, I became more and more nervous. I was experiencing something that I never had before: everyone around me was white. Frankly, everyone looked about ten times more put together than I did. I remember thinking, wow these people look like they are out of some GAP commercial. I suddenly felt insecure.  

I grew up just down the street in Lansing, Michigan but this classroom and Lansing Eastern High School felt light years away from each other. Back home, I was the President of the French Club, Chair of Environmental Affairs in the student government, Color Guard Captain, National Honor Society Officer and an International Baccalaureate student. Yet, as I sat in that room and heard students list their names and their experiences, I felt the most out of place in my life. All the emails from the university about diversity, the friendly ole “you will be immersed in diversity in college!” suddenly made me aware that I was not the population they were targeting. All those diversity ads were for white students. If a singular Latina in a class is diversity, this university and my peers had a storm coming.

I remember hoping that someone would come through the door that looked like me or was, at least, another person of color. The professor introduced the class focus: dominant narratives, essentially about racism in the United States. I thought, how can we discuss racism in the United States with no racial diversity in this class?

I became more aware of my positionality in college. Back home, I was the most gringa latina. Suddenly I was the focal point for all topics revolving around Latinx struggles? It felt so uncomfortable for me, and oftentimes I would stay silent when white people dominated conversation around Latinx issues. Back home there were so many people of color ― literally there were Latinx representations from probably a majority of Latin American countries. Whenever I spoke in college I felt like I wasn’t saying the right things or my words wouldn’t come out as eloquently as other students in the room. I felt as though my experiences and thoughts were subpar compared to my white peers.

The first group project I was a part of was with two white men focusing on Arab-American struggles post 9/11. We agreed to meet in one of their dorm rooms to discuss our project, and that should have been the first red flag for me. I was sitting on the floor, the only woman in the room, as men talked about how many women they’d had sex with. One of them joked that we should call the trans woman in our class an “it” because she was not who she said she was. If I was back in Lansing, I would have lit a fire under him for spewing that type of hate. I would have told him how it feels to almost lose one of your best friends to transphobic and homophobic bullsh*t. I felt powerless and I had lost my purpose as to why I was in college. Telling those people that would have given so much of me away and I was in a space where I frankly didn’t know if I was even safe. I stayed quiet for the rest of the semester, and only really talked in my MC 100 class that was for first generation students, where I wasn’t such a complete outcast.

I was the only Latina in white spaces in college and I was reminded of how dangerous that is. White people had the power to dissect my existence and to disenfranchise my perspective and my community’s existence if they wanted to. In fact, some people did. My opinions were supposed to enlighten the white heterosexual majority and I wasn’t comfortable with that. I didn’t want to unpack my trauma for the white majority in college. Every time I tried, I felt like I exposed too much about myself. Gave too much of myself away. Every white person in the classes I had wouldn’t speak against the racist slights that other peers were saying. They stayed silent and just accepted the remarks. In many ways I was hyper-aware of how my peers would look to me for guidance on Latinx issues as if I was some token Latinx here to educate them on issues they will never experience and they will probably only read about for class readings in academic spaces. We weren’t even friends, yet I was somehow obligated to express hundreds of years of imperialist, racist, and homophobic practices targeted towards my community. Freshman year, I was terrified of most white people from the experiences I had in college spaces. I came to college because I was ready to attack racist, homophobic, imperialist structures in politics. I saw politics and law as some of the ways that I could change these institutions. My dreams felt far away, and my opinions felt as if they were miniscule in a room filled with white children of judges and doctors.

It was my second semester, and it wasn’t until Professor Amanda Flaim came into my life when I realized that somebody like me matters in academic spaces. White men would dominate classroom discussion, but whenever I piped up my professor took note. I was going through a lot my freshman year ―I already had a history of suicidal thoughts prior to coming to college and pairing it with being the only Latinx I knew in James Madison, I was ready to quit college. I was considering going to the local community college like everyone from my hometown. I was thinking that at least there I knew I wouldn’t be the only person of color. At least there I would be in a more diverse space. I went to Professor Flaim’s office hours, and I remember telling her about my depression and how I felt that my thoughts about the material didn’t mean anything compared to all these well-spoken individuals in class. I stumbled over my words and often times I couldn’t get my thoughts out as well as others. Even if I did get my thoughts out, there would be this awkward silence afterwards. As if people couldn’t really grasp what I was saying or felt uncomfortable due to my experiences. Flaim told me to not let the men in class intimidate me ― half of them have no idea what they are talking about anyways. She told me that my voice mattered, a Latina voice mattered in these discussions. That may seem like such an insignificant revelation, but coming from an educated professor who was a woman, that worked with stateless people, who had seen the world ― she was everything I wanted to be, and her thoughts and opinions mattered to me. That was one of the first times in college I felt as if somebody besides my immediate family believed I belonged in academic spaces.

I didn’t have many friends in college my freshman year. I mostly just talked to my friends from high school. I started to gain this mistrust for students in college as all the same: the people who voiced transphobia, but were saying they were liberal, and felt the most uncomfortable and unwilling to address racism. I was in a void: stuck, alone, and frankly terrified of the predominantly white spaces I was obligated to occupy in college.

It wasn’t until I had a class with another Latina that I felt okay occupying that classroom space. After I went to Amsterdam and met about a dozen diverse people from MSU on a study abroad who were not only outspoken, but fearless in their pursuit of justice and unafraid to voice their opinions on racism, homophobia and transphobia, I realized I wasn’t the only person in college who had these ideas. My existence was worth something to faculty and some of my peers.

As surprising as it sounds, I found my confidence again just last summer in Amsterdam. That summer revived the girl who initially came to college. Frankly, I wish I would have found that confidence sooner. I wish I had the gut to shut down people who were not only misinformed, but bigots. Not have been so terrified to exist in white academic spaces. I remember when my friends from home were so proud of my opinions and who I was and the fact I was going into a political college. They told me that these rich kids didn’t know what’s coming for them. In many ways, I feel like I have let down everyone who rooted for me when I was younger, who thought I was going to be this fire in college that was going to tell the privileged what’s up. Given, this year I have been a nuisance to the PTCD men in my classes. I’m pretty sure I’ve annoyed my fair share of rich kids in James Madison this year. It has taken me a long time to know where I belong in white spaces, or how not belonging in them and challenging them is a form of resistance in itself.

I’m telling you all my crazy college journey (the very first time I have ever sat down and written about my experiences) because I wish someone would have told me all of this when I was younger. So finally, here’s my advice to all the first-generation students of color at MSU: you belong in college. You are right to believe that these institutions were built for white men, but that doesn’t mean that these institutions belong to them until the end of time. In a sea of white people, you deserve to be here. My abuela didn’t grow up in the United States not knowing a lick of English, raising 16 children with relatively no resources, just for me to give up when I enter a space I am uncomfortable in. I am in college because of the sacrifices of all the family members who had the capacity to do what I am doing in higher education, but didn’t have the support or resources I do. I am in college because I worked my butt off and defied a lot of the odds stacked against me. Don’t lose your confidence like I did ― use your voice in moments you feel safe to do so. You do not need to prove that you belong in college to your peers because you belong regardless of their views. You are never obligated to divulge your identities for the education of the dominant class, ever. Especially when you feel you are in a space that could turn violent or disenfranchise your existence. You have power within these spaces to express as little or as much as you feel comfortable with, but you need to know that your voice is just as valuable as your white peers. Your existence as a person of color is valid and you are valid. Do not let these people make you believe you are less. You are so, so much more than they can even comprehend. You are here because you are intelligent and worthy of being in academic spaces. You are worthy of being in spaces where decisions are being made. This university is lucky to have you, and don’t ever let anyone convince you otherwise. You are loved and valuable. Stay radical, kids. These institutionalized white cis heteronormative imperialist structures aren’t going to dismantle themselves, you know.