For some of us, the start of a new school year feels exciting and comfortable. School is a familiar place. It might even feel like an extension of our home. It is affirming, a place where we believe we will thrive. For those who are joining a community for the first time, or for whom the culture feels foreign, the start of school may not feel so comfortable. There may be apprehension and worry about becoming part of, or returning to a community that is very different from our own. There may even be members who feel quite disconnected. Like they don’t belong. That would not be surprising since schools are microcosms of the larger society, and we know that there are many individuals and groups in our society who are not offered full membership, who are disenfranchised, and who suffer from bias and discrimination, and other forms of interpersonal and systemic oppression.
There have been times in my life when I have felt like a true member of a place, and other times when I have only felt like a guest. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I always felt like I belonged. Many factors contributed to this. As a young Latina, I thrived in a neighborhood where I constantly saw people who looked and sounded like me. My parents came to the United States in the 1960’s from the Dominican Republic, and they settled in an immigrant community in New York City, called Washington Heights. You may have heard of Lin Manuel Miranda’s broadway musical, In The Heights. (If you haven’t, don’t worry, the movie version is due to be released next summer, and the trailer looks great!) That’s where I grew up, and my story is not that different from the story of the protagonist in the show. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I felt affirmed by my community.
The elementary school and high school I attended were in my neighborhood so I felt familiar in my surroundings. Some of my teachers were mean and impatient with me, especially early on when I was learning to speak English. I often didn’t understand their instructions. I think some teachers thought I was being willfully defiant, or lazy, or that I was stupid. Fortunately, there were many more teachers who were kind, who believed in me and showed me care. Eventually I learned that if I needed help, I could ask someone, and I wouldn’t be judged for not knowing.
At the end of 6th grade, something amazing happened. I was a shy and timid, but conscientious student. The assistant principal at my school took me aside one day and said, “Rosanna, I need your help with something. I need a responsible student who I can trust to do a very important job.”
Even before she told me what it was, I was feeling incredibly proud that she was having this conversation with me. She told me she needed a student to quietly leave five minutes before the end of every class to physically stand at the designated place and ring the bell signaling the end of the class period for the entire school. She said that she needed to be confident that this student would have excellent attendance at school every day, that the student would not fall behind in any of their classes, and that the student would be timely, punctual and assume this responsibility with the utmost seriousness, and asked if I was up for the job?
I was shaking with nervous excitement. This was a really big deal. Of course, I accepted, and I carried out my job every day for the next two years. When I think of that time I realize there were a number of adults who could have easily done the job instead of me. Looking back I firmly believe the assistant principal wanted to make me feel valuable and boost my confidence. She wanted to give me a responsibility, an opportunity to make an important contribution. I was treated with care and dignity, and as a result, I thrived.
In my 11th grade year, I was beginning to think about college. I always assumed I would go to college. It was my family’s expectation. I assumed I would attend a college or university in New York City, and that I would commute from home, and likely have a part time job so that I could contribute to the household income. My English teacher, however, had different ideas about where I should attend college. She was one of the teachers who believed in me, pushed me, and cared for me. She said to me one day, “Rosanna, there is a great big world out there beyond your neighborhood, and New York City, and you should see it.” I knew she was right, but I was overwhelmed with the idea of it, and didn’t know where to begin thinking about other places and schools. She introduced me to liberal arts colleges. Small ones I could attend as a boarder. She was especially keen on me applying to Amherst College, which at the time was making big statements about increasing the diversity of its student body. So I applied, and was accepted.
I really had no context for what attending an elite liberal arts college in western Massachusetts would be like. It’s true that I would not be too far from home. The trip was only about three and half hours by car, but for those of you who are familiar with New York City, I had never been north of Yonkers, south of Atlantic city, and maybe twenty miles west of the Hudson River. Western MA, might as well have been Wyoming or California. I also had no concept of the degree of wealth and privilege I would come into contact with. In fact I had no social capital to help me fit in at Amherst. I was not an athlete, no one in my family had attended that or any other college, I had not attended prep school, I did not travel to foreign countries with my parents, we did not own a summer home, I never attended summer camps.
Sometimes my clothes gave away my social class, but as a light skinned Latina, who spoke English without an accent, I was fairly ambiguous and could more or less pass among whites, if I tried. So I did that for a while. I didn’t talk about my background, or where I came from. I was really vague about myself, and I met a lot of nice people, who were completely unaware of their privilege and made a lot of assumptions. Sometimes people blatantly expressed bias in front of me about Latinx people and other groups, not realizing I was Latina. These experiences only intensified my feelings of not belonging at Amherst.
My feelings of otherness were so intense, I began to withdraw. At first I sat in the back of my classes, making myself small. Eventually I stopped attending classes altogether, and no one noticed. Ultimately, I failed a class in my first semester. Then, finally, I was called in to speak to the dean. He let me know that I was on academic probation and had until the end of the spring semester to get back on track. He also made a few suggestions for how I might go about getting back on track. Things like attending counseling and finding a tutor.
After talking to the Dean at Amherst, I had to make a decision. Was I going to give up? Was I going to merely survive? Or was I going to thrive? My parents had already given me permission to give up. They said that I could come home anytime, but I didn’t want to. I had come so far, I wasn’t ready to give up. I also didn’t want to just survive. I wanted to thrive.
There is no doubt that every institution, every school, has a culture. It’s important for the members of that community to reflect on what that culture is, and to think about how it makes sure that all of its members have what they need to succeed and feel included. Every member of that community plays a role. Will you invite the new person to take a seat at the table, or will you invite them to help you design the menu and cook the meal? Community and Inclusion means that every member of the community feels seen, heard, valued, respected, and safe. Let me clarify what I mean by safe. Oftentimes we talk about being unsafe, when really what we mean is that we are uncomfortable. As a first-generation person of color in a predominately white environment, I felt uncomfortable every day. It’s hard to be "the only" in a group, or in a class. It’s hard to feel different because of the color of your skin, or your culture, or your accent, or any number of other visible and invisible differences.
Being different didn't make me feel unsafe. Being mistreated, not cared for, ignored and rejected made me feel excluded and emotionally and psychologically unsafe. It made me want to be guarded, to retreat, and to not want to share aspects of myself with others. I could have left, and without the help of others I perhaps would have. Perhaps it was the memory of all the positive experiences I had had as a child, and the voices of my past teachers reminding me that I was capable and worthy. Whatever it was, I decided to stay.
Over the next few years at Amherst, I began to do things differently. I sought help from a counselor, and from other adults in my life. I started to attend affinity group meetings and looked for allies. I developed a core group of friends who always lifted me up. I took classes that sounded interesting to me and to which I felt I could contribute. I took a painting class and developed a passion. I got a part-time job working at the child-care center, and babysat for some of my professors. And sometimes I joined my voice with others to protest an injustice. I didn’t retreat, I continued to show up, even though it was hard. I knew that having access to a multitude of perspectives would enrich me, and that my perspective would enrich others, even if they didn’t realize it at first. So I showed up everyday, and I was challenged by a great many things that often made me feel uncomfortable and sometimes made me feel unsafe.
In order to be a community that is inclusive we have to create environments where individuals can be vulnerable and brave. Places where students do not see asking for help as weakness. Places where we invite students to share parts of themselves with the community because we genuinely care about them. Places where students can overcome setbacks by seeing them as challenges and opportunities for growth.