Meeting ‘others’: The other reason to go to college
Multiculturalism is the extra credit in your tuition rates
The psychology instructor asked the lecture hall students to speak up about a point he’d made in his presentation. I looked around at more than 80 or so students who were taking way too long to respond to his question, and my arm shot up. I rattled off a bunch of statistics on what he’d written in his PowerPoint presentation, challenging one of his points.
“You’d have to be blind not to see that,” I added at the end.
Then I heard the gasps. My argument wasn’t disrespectful to the instructor; it just backed up something else I’d noted during our assigned reading. It was the last line that made other students react like that, but I meant no harm.
However, right in the front row sat a woman who was legally blind, and I know that student heard me. I wanted to evaporate out of the room like liquid nitrogen. Instead I sat there, cringing in my seat. My roommate’s ex-boyfriend sat next to me and patted my leg sympathetically. No matter what amount my student loans and grants paid for, that was a long-lasting lesson that was not covered under my tuition.
On occasion, I’ll browse through back-and-forth bickering from people who just don’t understand the point of college. They’ll point to millionaires, billionaires and other entrepreneurs who were successful without the degree. Their points are valid. But my response is always the same.
“You’re going to learn things in college that you just would not have to face in everyday life and probably not in Corporate America — unless your job is so diverse that you wouldn’t have a choice.”
That doesn’t mean all college students do. There was a girl I met at the beginning of my junior year of college. She was hearing impaired. When she introduced herself by name to the entire floor of freshmen and new transfer students (including me since I’d left my prior university), she ended her introduction by saying, “I’m partially deaf, but I can hear what I want to hear.”
I smiled at the comment, knowing full well this was both a warning to anybody who dared try her patience and a useful icebreaker to let everyone know at once that they should always face her so she could read their lips. I thought she was spicy and liked her immediately. When my first roommate and I had it out after a few weeks of living together, the sista who was partially deaf became my roommate for a few weeks before I got an off-campus apartment.
When a good associate of mine (one of the freshmen) showed up to my room and started telling a bunch of personal stories, I cut her off quickly and reminded her the room was no longer my own. She shrugged and said, “Ole girl is deaf anyway. What difference does it make?”
Although my new roommate didn’t make a motion like she heard the comment, I scowled. I just had this feeling she did. Right at that moment, I decided this “friend” should be someone I’m cautious around. She downgraded to associate — at arm’s length. (Example 4 here was when we went from associates to enemies though.) Arguably though, her response was the kind of flippant comment I made in the lecture hall. Somehow though, I was immediately embarrassed. The associate? Well, there are some people you just cannot teach. Overall, though, you can.
Will college change your politics? Yes and no
I’d breezed past tweets about this map multiple times, but Illinois (my homestate) kept catching my attention. I am well aware that as soon as I drive out of Chicago, the political signs differ in certain suburbs and downstate. While Chicago is clearly the star attraction, there are more than 12.67 million people living in Illinois and less than 2.71 live in the city, according to U.S. Census numbers from 2018–2019. You can kinda see where Illinois is affected here though.
Moving FiveThirtyEight scales and looking at Biden’s 2020 votes versus 2016 votes show how drastically the numbers change based on college-educated voters versus non-college-educated voters; it didn’t particularly change voting parties for minority groups though— degree or not.
While I was writing this “black friends” post, it made me think of a remark made from a biracial co-worker: “Being friends with you is like having eight black friends all at once.” He is not wrong. I am what Trinity United Church of Christ (no, I’m not a member, just an admirer of some of their programs) would classify as “unashamedly black.” I’m also obsessed with the Luther Vandross’ song “I’m Only Human.” Unashamedly black and unapologetically human, and I know I make mistakes, too. So when someone calls me out on something, I take it all in, mull it over, try to figure out where I can improve on that opinion and then move forward from there.
How college diversity helps people bloom
Being around those unlike me make me constantly challenge my beliefs. Being around those who are visually impaired and hearing impaired taught me a lot about disabilities. Having a freshman-year roommate who was clinically depressed taught me a massive amount regarding mental health. Hanging out with Native American tribes, a group I never saw in Chicago (we have everyone else), taught me more about Indigenous culture. (Girl Scouts did, too, but not at that level.) Taking eight years of Spanish and making it my (temporary) minor made me do a deep dive into Hispanic history. So did just hanging out with Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and Guatemalans throughout college (and high school).
There is something about putting a bunch of people in one classroom or one campus or one dorm or one college town or even in one social group that will force you to look at your own thoughts through new eyes. While naysayers of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) will have you believe that these schools lack diversity, think again. About 75 percent of the examples mentioned above were from me mingling on an HBCU campus. Even though the people “look” like me, “talk” like me and have more in common with my background, there were always these idiosyncrasies that made them stand out. When you go to college (especially out of state), there will be someone you’re not used to seeing on your own block or your own social circle.
It even puzzles me when I meet well-traveled people who are still oddly ignorant of other cultures. But when I speak to them and find out the places they’ve gone, it usually ends up being to countries and continents where they hang out with people who look exactly like them or are of the same economic bracket. When you’re in college, you don’t have as much control of your surroundings. You pay your tuition and room and board, and after that, hold on tight. You are destined to meet some people that will make you reevaluate your upbringing or stand firmly in your views.
So when I look at that electoral map and see how red changes to blue, it makes sense to me. People of color will come to college with a set of experiences that white people simply won’t. Black women in college will have moments in their lives that white women in college will never have to go through. Men who grew up in rural towns will come with a set of ideas that will definitely be challenged if/when attending a school that is largely urban. And even observing the conversations between college-educated whites and non-college-educated whites brings up some discussion points that raise eyebrows.
Once you add in mental and physical health differences, upbringing based on location, economic upbringing (i.e. scholarship students versus those who have zero debt from tuition), that adds an extra layer of “lesson” plans. While I hear people go back and forth about whether college is worth it, my answer remains the same. I’m a grad school dropout who doesn’t regret not getting my master’s, but I damn sure felt like it was money well-spent for my undergraduate degree. It’s not really the courses that did it, although many were fun. It’s the life lessons I learned that helped shape me into the adult I am today.
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