That level of pressure was the norm in Montgomery County, Md., just outside Washington, D.C., where I grew up. It is one of the wealthiest and best-educated counties in the country. It is also largely segregated and fiercely competitive. I grew up surrounded by so much privilege it was possible for many residents to ignore race and class inequality entirely. After all, the nation’s first black president lived 12 miles away. So, despite the racial violence that was making headlines, my friends seemed to believe Montgomery County was post-racial.
“It’s sad but it’s a good thing we don’t have those problems here,” a classmate said the day after Trayvon Martin was murdered. It was clear to me, but not to many of my peers, that the community was still very much influenced by stereotypes and misconceptions about race. When I tried to talk to my classmates about that, they tended to be defensive.
Being one of the few black kids in my school was all I’d ever known before college. Having my hair teasingly prodded during recess or being called “oreo” felt normal. From 7 a.m. until 4 p.m., I learned to excuse small indignities, and I used humor as a defense mechanism. When I got home, I could finally vent to the few other people who understood. My mother was very clear: “Don’t let anyone touch your hair and you better not let them call you outside of your name.”
As I got older, I felt less and less like I belonged. When I started taking AP courses and showing up to the same college info sessions as many of my classmates, they made jokes about quotas and affirmative action, as if they hadn’t seen me studying right alongside them for years. One classmate even asked me to give up my spot on the morning announcements because “I didn’t need anything extra” for my college applications anyway.
It wasn’t the comments that bothered me so much as the fact that they came from people I knew. They had seen how hard I worked to maintain an advanced course load and leadership positions.
My grandmother, the eighth of 13 children raised on a tobacco farm in Yanceyville, N.C., was the first of her siblings to leave home. In 1960, she graduated from Shaw University, the oldest HBCU in the South, and dissatisfied with the limited opportunities for a black woman in her Jim Crow state, moved to New York to teach. She sought to realize her best self while being seen as an individual.
Her daughter, my mother, sought something similar when she left her predominantly white neighborhood on Long Island, N.Y. She went to Georgetown University but took her first African-American studies courses across the city at Howard University. Even though she loved Georgetown, it was at Howard that she was finally able to learn in a context that validated her history and identity.
I ended up applying to nearly 20 colleges, and got into some great schools like Swarthmore, but Spelman kept pulling me back. I had never met professors or college administrators who looked like me or who seemed so genuinely interested in what I had to say. On a visit, I remember sitting in on an “African Diaspora and the World” class — a required course for freshmen on racial formation, colonization and capitalism — and not second-guessing myself before I spoke. I did not worry that the class might think my questions were “hypersensitive” or “hostile.” When I was offered a full scholarship and a spot in the honors program, I accepted immediately.
There is something powerful about attending an institution that was built for you. Most colleges were built for white students, or at least, with only white students in mind. At Spelman, I found a place for myself in the curriculum, and an opening to learn what it means to be me.Continue reading the main story
Prompt: Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you
I am not what you would consider a risk taker or dare devil. I’m usually playing things safe, sticking to the rules, and only doing things I know I will succeed in. Academically, I was comfortable with my progress but part of me felt that I really hadn’t accomplished anything. Yes, I received my Varsity letter for track, traveled to Australia as a People to People Student Ambassador, was inducted into the National Honor Society, and I participated in various clubs, but I had never actually pushed myself academically. All the classes I had enrolled in were classes I knew I would excel in. So, while scheduling classes for my junior year I decided to enroll in Advanced Placement (AP) U.S. Government, a class I really knew nothing about.
I came to this realization because I noticed my classes were not too challenging. I wasn’t struggling with any classes or having a rough time with homework. I felt that I was just going through the motions of school, moving from class to class and not really learning or appreciating what I had learned. At times I felt bored with school. I needed a change, something that would make me feel accomplished. When I walked across the stage at graduation I wanted to be able to look out and say, I did everything I wanted to in high school and that I was ready for college.
School is a very comfortable place for me. I tend to enjoy learning and usually I am quick at picking up new material. AP U.S. Government tested all I had come to love about school. I was not completely prepared for the demanding schedule that AP U.S. Government required. I struggled through class, not always getting my usual grades on test and quizzes. I was given chapter reading for the most part everyday, which I started to struggle with. Reading and analyzing documents became an everyday activity, most of which at a college reading level. I was nervous about my readiness for the AP exam. My teacher assured the class that all this hard work and dedication would pay off and show on the AP exam. I still questioned why I would even put myself through such a challenging course while balancing a full schedule. Although, I received only a three on the AP exam I feel that AP U.S. Government was beneficial to my growth as a student.
AP U.S. Government impacted my outlook on everything. Not only did it test what I loved about school but also pushed me to become a better student. I was committed to getting my work done and persisted to study for the AP exam. I thought about dropping the class but I felt giving up would not be the best idea. I had focused most of my time on this subject and was determined to master or at least improve my grades. My school-life no longer revolved around getting a high GPA. I was determined more to see improvement on the AP exam. My required classes benefited from all the hard work. My writing skills and reading comprehension improved from analyzing documents. AP U.S. Government set up a basis for me to further challenge my abilities and to the further enrollment into AP classes for my senior year, such as AP Psychology and AP U.S. History. Even with all the drawbacks of taking such a difficult class I found a love for things law related. I began to want career choices such as a Corporate Lawyer and even a Criminal Psychologist.
Advanced Placement U.S. Government opened up my eyes to what I can accomplish if I just believe in myself and take risks, even when the outcome is unexpected. I feel that after taking the class I am prepared for anything put in front of me. I now know that instead of settling for what’s expected I need to challenge myself. This lesson may seem minor to some but I now apply this mindset to the rest of my life, and the quote by an unknown author, “Be bold enough to reach for the life you want instead of being handed the life others expect you to settle for”, is so fitting.