This summer I am interning in the Amherst College Admission Office. I lead tours, work at the reception desk, do data entry, and give student perspective during dean-led information sessions. I work alongside five other student-interns. While working, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the importance of representation in higher education, specifically about my identity as a black woman in higher education.
Last semester, one of the most memorable tours that I led was a special tour for a group of students from New York City. All of the students were either American black or Latin@. While walking from Keefe Campus Center to Merrill Science Center, I chatted with one of the American Black girls about her other tours that day. She told me that the group visited the University of Massachusetts-Amherst earlier that morning and that she and her friends didn’t like it at all. She said that she only saw white people and told me how it made her and her friends feel “low” and “stupid”. By this time, another girl had chimed in and said, gushing, “we were so happy to see that you were going to be our tour guide”.
Now, I have no doubt that there are students of color at UMass. I also have no doubt that there are UMass students of color who are thoroughly enjoying their experiences there. But because of the lack of visibility of those UMass students of color, these young girls immediately felt isolated, and as “other”, on their campus tour. As “low” and “stupid”. Now, that lack of visibility could have been caused by a variety of factors, including exceptionally bad timing. But that lack of representation was obviously internalized and transformed into self-loathing. I can only imagine how that translated into their inner dialogue. Do black students go to college? Are students of color smart enough to go to college? I see none here. Can I even go to college?
It was after that instance that I decided I wanted to do more work in the Admission Office. I wanted to get more involved with the image that Amherst College presents to its visitors. I wanted that image to be more accurate and reflective of this institution. I wanted a larger group of visitors to be able to identify with their tour guide. Had this group not seen a person of color in the Amherst College Admission Office, those debasing thoughts would have been solidified. Instead, this group ran into the exact opposite here. I’ve found while working here that this office’s diversity is almost reflective of our student body’s, with its racial, geographic, and socioeconomic diversity. This is truly something that makes Amherst College unique and a leader among its peer institutions.
All of this is not to say that I have become enchanted beyond return while working here. I remember clearly the thoughtless All Lives Matter “campaign” this past semester and the seeming resurrection of fraternities through Social Clubs. Working in the Admission Office hasn’t always been a walk in the park. I’ve found myself surrounded by hundreds of white visitors from places like Greenwich, Connecticut. I have definitely felt “other”. I’ve felt the assumptions entrenched in too-long stares. To be fair, I’ve also made assumptions, some of which have been proven true and others false. I haven’t seen too many people of color visiting the college, which could be caused by a variety of factors, including obstacles like travel affordability due to economic inequality. And perhaps most students of color visit Amherst College during the Diversity Open House (DIVOH) weekend, a program that flies in high-achieving students from minority racial groups and/or low-income backgrounds at no cost. Consequently, I haven’t had too many of those memorable tours where a visitor was thrilled to see me because they identified with me as a black woman.
With that said, every visitor has been greeted with racial and geographic diversity, regardless of their ability to identify with it, as soon as they step into our office. I know that it’s not enough to simply bring in students from different backgrounds and expect there to be an all-inclusive party all day, every day. I still believe that Amherst students should continue to push this institution to become a more inclusive space for students of color, for students from low-income backgrounds, for students of queer identities. For everyone. The pushing and activism leads to fatigue, but it is necessary. Our ability to push this institution to be better is an immense privilege that we have. Our resource centers and the expertise of the staff members are exceptional. We do have social issues and but we also have the space to talk about them. Students from underrepresented communities can voice their frustrations and exhaustion and organize coping mechanisms together. I can only imagine what it would be like being a black woman at a liberal arts college with half the dedication that Amherst College has to diversity. Would I even speak up at all?
In short, I’ve become less jaded while working in the Admission Office. I feel that I’m more fair in my criticisms of the institution. I know the efforts that are being made to make the college better, overall. The institution, as a whole, is trying to be better. That trying doesn’t need to be judged as good or bad, it just needs to be acknowledged.