I am a proud Princeton alum. Though the campus is riddled with its problems, I cannot negate that it built me into the strong woman I am today. I also cannot negate that I feel indebted to helping others navigate their way through what will more than likely be an important journey of self-discovery. Abandoning the institution post-graduation (which people such as our first lady Michelle Obama have decided to do, even if she has her reasons) is not something I am choosing. It’s not something that will help those coming after me.
Last week, I was asked to write a piece for Madame Noire about my experience as a woman of color in the Ivy League. I reached out to some of my fellow Princetonians and Ivy Leaguers that I knew to contribute their stories. I didn’t expect the overflow of willingness to contribute. The power in the words that were sent back to me reminded me so much of the many things I witnessed, experienced, and often thought deeply about while as an undergraduate
Read the original Madame Noire article here: Black Women in the Ivy League: “Everything’s Not so Pretty at the Top”
Then, when you’re done, come back to read the rest of contributions
Thank you so much to all the women who shared. I am delighted to be able to tell your story.
Here’s an excerpt from my Madame Noire article that I hope guides your reading:
These are the voices of several women shared with me what it feels like to be a woman of color at an Ivy League Institution (mostly Princeton.) I am not sharing these stories to say that these are the only important stories relevant to being a student at an Ivy League. 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 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 t consider when we think of what it means to be have a college education or be a college-educated individual From the classroom, to the dorm room, to the inner-being, while not all negative, everything isn’t always so clearcut, nor pretty, at the top.
Scroll through the pages. Read and respect these women’s stories, which are their truths. Not yours.
On THE QUALITY OF EDUCATION:
It’s still so hard for me to unpack all of my feelings about this place. It’s not because I’m sad or anything, but there were parts of my experience that were really great and others that were discouraging. My biggest issue is that the race/gender/sexuality, etc. climate seeps into the classroom. My issue was that in precepts and lectures, conversations were so stunted and limited. I literally had to sit in classes at the #1 institution in the world and hear students talk about Africa as if it is one country. Or, talk about Brown v. Board as if it ended racism. How can an economics or politics class claim to be in-depth if it ignores the fact that the West “won” is actually political and economic power used to exploit people of color and their lands? My issue is that I truly felt that as a social science major, I received a VERY limited and sanitized education.”
– Anonymous, Class of 2013, Princeton University
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.”
– Rana, Class of 2013, Princeton University
ON THE LEGACY OF SLAVERY OF THESE CAMPUSES
As a graduate of a women’s college and of Columbia University, I have long held a conflicted set of emotions, views of my experiences. A child of the Sixties and Seventies, I was among the first “wave” of African-Americans to attend such institutions in our nation’s history. At Bryn Mawr College, my class of 200+ women included about 8 other women of color. “Wave” for that time, I suppose, but, “sprinkling” is more apt. That said, I loved my 4 years at BMC. I continue to volunteer — years ago, for the admissions committee and nowadays, for class fundraising and alumnae outreach. I participate in the many stellar alumnae career development workshops and an array of stimulating lectures. Two years ago, I was pleased to accept the Sisterhood & the other students of color groups’ invitation to visit campus for a show. I also keep in touch with my BMC sisters — and their children!
At Columbia, I also found much to fulfill my intellect and, for the first time in higher education (I also hold a graduate degree from the University of London), I was among a large number of African-American students. I loved the parties and comraderie.
Despite my love and deep appreciation for the offerings of these two institutions, however, I remain conflicted. Perhaps Lupita Nyong’o’s introduction to her acceptance speech comes closest to expressing my conflicted feelings. She said:
Thank you to the Academy for this incredible recognition. It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain someone else’s. And so I want to salute the spirit of Patsey for her guidance. And for Solomon, thank you for telling her story and your own.
So, yes. I’m thankful for my Bryn Mawr & Columbia education. But even back in the day, I saw the blood oozing beneath those elitest campuses, the crosses burned on their Roman classical and Collegiate Gothic style buildings, the whip lashes scarring the European busts that adorned their prodigiously endowed libraries and plush faculty lounges. I knew even then, because my born-on-a-sharecropping-farm-in-Mississippi mother taught me to learn my history.
I know that the labor and sacrifice of my enslaved African forebears is the core of those institutions. Their suffering and endurance are the core of my Ivy & Seven Sisters education. And, as Hallie Q. Brown wrote in 1926, I want my enslaved forebears to see, through me and others, “the shine of distant suns.” When will these institutions acknowledge them, name them, honor them?
– Luvon Roberson, Master’s Degree (1985), Columbia University
Being a woman of color at an Ivy League was interesting to say the least. Of course the dichotomy between whether you’re a woman first or a person of color first still exists on campus just like in real life. You still get the Black men who are down for the cause but “don’t get feminism” and the white women who can’t see that feminism has to be intersectional. I also became very conscious of my double identity as both a woman and person of color because suddenly I was having experiences that were based solely on these intersections such as being involved with Princeton Association of Black Women (PABW) or being approached by drunk white men on the street saying they’d never had sex with a Black girl. Things like PABW were a blessing because they helped teach me how to navigate my identity in that way and gave me sisters who could understand the unique women of color struggle. Things like that experience on the street were in some ways a wake-up call like, “Hey, you don’t get a pass on being hyper-sexualized just because you go to Princeton, you’re still just another Black girl they wanna see twerk.”
– Liz, Class of 2013, Princeton University
ON MAINTAINING BALANCE:
Being one of few black women in an Ivy League institution is a lot of pressure at times. Often it was very frustrating because somehow I represented the thoughts, opinions, and feelings of every black woman in America – or at least that’s what many of my peers and/or professors thought. Similarly, I felt a lot of pressure from other black students to be more integrated into the community – whether it was participating in the many African/African American culture groups or even focusing on Africana Studies as a field of interest. At the end of the day, my experience at Penn was rewarding and it gave me a sense of pride to know that I was one of the few that made it, but it was definitely a delicate balancing act that many other students don’t have to deal with.”
– Allison, Class of 2013, University of Pennsylvania
ON BEING HERE “ONLY FOR MY EDUCATION”:
I always feel like I’m an outsider looking in and that I have to be on the defense because many people come with preconceived notions about black women. I’m really only here for my education. From day one, I told myself if I made lifelong friends, great, and if not, that’s fine because that’s not why I’m here. Most of my friends are black and that’s who I feel most comfortable around, but where I’m from, I hang out with people of all races. There’s a mix of socioeconomic stigmas attached to certain groups that make me stick to my own. I have no issue befriending someone of another race, but I won’t tolerate ignorance and disrespect, which I feel lies dormant in a lot of people here. I just often feel like it’s me against the privileged students of Princeton (and that goes for anyone irrespective of race.) As a black woman on this campus, I’m aware of my standing, and I’m also aware that I’m only here for a season. I do my work, enjoy the company of friends, and that is it. All of the fun really takes place when I leave the bubble of this institution.
– Anonymous, Class of 2014, Princeton University
Where did you go to School? “IN JERSEY”:
I did not feel conscious of my race in academic settings. However, I was a Science major and never discussed sociological issues in class. In social settings, the difference was apparent. It was interesting that many people of color partied Friday nights at BlackBox (an on-campus nightclub.) However, campus-wide party nights were Thursday and Saturday. After graduating, being an Ivy League alumna is surreal. People either find my credentials amazing or down right intimidating. Because of this, in an effort to better connect with people (whether they are black, white, or blue), I often omit my alma mater or say I went to school in “Jersey.” This makes situations more ‘comfortable’ for all parties.
– Anonymous, Class of 2012, Princeton University
ON FEELING LIKE AN OUTSIDER:
I felt like an outsider most of the time. I didn’t really drink so there weren’t many things socially I could do. I noticed a need to unite with other blacks from the beginning because of this outsider feeling, which I hadn’t felt in high school. My friends in high school were all of different races and ethnicities. There was also the money issue. I’m not sure how much this was a factor of feeling like an outsider, but I didn’t have much, so there was less I could do. all activities had dues… so most of my college career I actually spent off campus at local state schools because I felt I belonged there more than Princeton and there were more people like me.
–Jazmine Ellis, Class of 2010, Princeton University
ON FINDING COMMUNITY WITH WOMEN OF COLOR:
The moment I stepped onto campus, black women formed the community that most sincerely wanted to know me, the community that had a vested interest in my presence at Harvard. It’s difficult to articulate but with many other social encounters, I felt I always had to take the first step and put in the most effort. I had to search for commonalities to make others feel comfortable. I had to initiate conversation. To me, the social gains of always having an event to attend or being able to stop and wave to many people on the street was far outweighed by the feeling of disingenuousness I had when I forced myself to take part in social gatherings that weren’t predominantly black. I know this has a lot to do with my experience at a prep school but there is always that palpable feeling of ‘otherness’ that I personally don’t want to deal with when I want to party and chill. It’s the feeling you get when you stand out the door of a Finals Club for 30 minutes trying to get in while groups of white girls sail past you.
That being said, being a black woman at Harvard is empowering. It’s a badge of higher intellect that can’t be discounted even when one would like to discount your gender and color. One drop of the H-bomb can eliminate most assumptions surrounding your capability. But there are still those moments when at a senior celebration dinner, the recipient of the superlative of “ funniest” makes a joke that characterizes the voice of Evelyn Hammonds, former dean of Harvard College and a tenured professor, as that of “the sassy black woman” and actually receives laughs, when you realize that this institution was never built for you. It’s in those moments where you realize that you alone are responsible for affirming your identity at a place like this. It ‘s for this reason that black women at Harvard stick together. We’re the only ones that can really understand each other’s experience even when it’s inexplicable. – Okeoma, Class of 2013, Harvard University
ON “BEING A SPOKESPERSON” :
Some days you feel like you’re the spokeswoman for all Black women and that it’s your job to represent. And other days you’re proud to even have the opportunity to share your experiences and viewpoints with others.
– Jessica, Class of 2010, Princeton University
On the “STRANGE AND QUIET RACISM”:
I came to Princeton from Alabama thinking that somehow I would escape the overt racism I experienced in the Deep South. However, I find that this strange and quiet racism on campus is even more stressful and frightening. Here, they claim to love the race, but they don’t really like the person. It’s scary to know that these students, who will one day become the nation’s leaders, are ignorant towards racism or just simply ignore it. I feel invisible here, to my peers and to the men, and it makes me extremely angry and frustrated. I worked really hard to be here and will continue to make my presence known, but that doesn’t ease the feeling that I don’t belong here. When I see my beige counterparts staring at me, afraid of my skin and my hair, I know this campus is not my home.
–Raven, Class of 2016, Princeton University
On BODY IMAGE:
Being a black woman at an Ivy League was such a unique situation. Speaking to the social culture at Princeton, I found myself not part of the “black community” which was interesting since prior to college my friends were predominantly black and hispanic. A black woman entering Princeton can have such a culture shock.I found myself always questioning my body, as it did not fit the mold of the skinny white girl wearing a crop top and Jack Roger sandals. I also felt as if there was a clear distinction between black women who permed their hair and those that wore “ethnic hairstyles” and had natural hair. I can account that it was a struggle to meander my way through the endless beauty products in an environment that was not conducive to hair that was not blonde and pin straight. As for the relationships aspect, I think that black women found themselves adapting to the dating environment. Dating at Princeton can be great or horrendous, depending on what your preferences are. Many black women can feel insecure and doubt their beauty based on the dating culture at Princeton. I’m not saying that black women are oppressed in the Ivy League, but I think that many of their qualms and struggles are in part a result to a special blend of race and gender issues.
– Gabby, Class of 2013, Princeton University
On THE INTERSECTIONALITY OF RACE AND GENDER:
You’re reminded that you’re both a minority race-wise and gender-wise. However, I used that in an empowering way by being more aware of the intersectionality of race and gender and researching it. For me, I enjoyed studying both African American studies and Gender Psychology. I think studying these exposed a different point of view on life and made me more open-minded.
–Anonymous, Class of 2015, Princeton University
On BEING CHALLENGED INTELLECTUALLY:
There are instances where I’ve felt my intellectual capabilities challenged because I am not only Black, but female as well. Despite the fact that Black women represent the highest minority enrolled in college at this time, I still feel that we are fighting to be recognized equally contra to our male and white counterparts (yet I don’t know whether this experience occurs solely at an ivy league institution–this could be a common experience for Black women at any institution where they are a minority, not just an Ivy League one). However, I have had a positive experience on campus, due largely to my friend group. I’ve met some of the most amazing people and I am constantly blown away everyday by these individuals.
– Dashaya, Class of 2016, Princeton University
“THE BEST FOUR YEARS OF MY LIFE”
I absolutely loved my time at Princeton. As a whole, it was the best 4 years in my life so far and I’d do it over again in a heartbeat. It was a challenge in humility and an opportunity to learn from some of the best in the world. As an engineering major, I was usually one of only a few women and most often the only black person in my class. I didn’t find either experience alienating but rather pretty empowering to hold my own as the lone black female in one of the toughest majors at one of the best schools in the country/world. It definitely prepared me for the (white) male-dominated culture of my job industry.
– Cecily, Class of 2010, Princeton University
“HOW DID YOU GET HERE?”
Thankfully the times of outright racism have passed but questions like “How did you get here?” or “What are you?” or being the only black person in your class makes you really notice race in complex ways. For me, my identity as a Caribbean immigrant was probably more salient that my identity as an African American so that affected how I viewed blackness (as did the fact that I grew up understanding black meant more than one tone or one look.) For me, it was more a recognition that there were certain things about my identity that set me apart, but I’ve never felt like it limited me. It was an opportunity to invite discussion about different backgrounds and experiences. Even in speaking with other black people at Harvard Law School who come from the south and did experience overt racism, they had some constructive critiques of the I, Too, Am Harvard campaign but only because they wanted to be clear that discussions about race shouldn’t be predicated on a feeling of otherness. It should be about openness and inclusion because if not, we invite people to see us as racist or exclusive in some way. And that leaves us with the same structures that lead to discomfort in the classroom.
– Danielle, Class of 2013, Princeton University
I’d like to make this a growing (and ever-continuing) project. Thank you for reading. feel free to leave comments or feedback in the Comments section below.
If you’d like to contribute your experiences, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with the SUBJECT LINE: WOC Submission. Please include your name, class year, and university.
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