Updated: Jul 3, 2020
So, I went to college. There were times I wished I hadn’t, but not going was never introduced as an option in my family. I loved, and still love, learning, and I had large ambitions. I wanted to be a healer, closing the equity gap in women’s healthcare for Black women. I am a healer today, but not in the way I thought I would be when I was 17. That is okay, but how I came to it was not.
Amherst successfully shattered any dreams of medicine for me. The pre-med path is arduous at any college and students are okay with that. We don’t mind arduous, but we hope for fair. At Amherst, “fair” is a nearly unreachable standard: equity is not a priority. It seems more like the goal of the path is to weed out the vulnerable rather than produce the most intelligent, well-rounded, empathetic, and creative physicians. I have many friends who survived the pre-med track via sheer force of will and I am proud of them every single day. Each of them paid dearly for their “survival,” often trading their sanity, their collegiate experiences, their relationships, and their academic exploration (which Amherst allegedly prizes). Those who remain on the path are vulnerable and susceptible to mistreatment.
I went to a college where a physics professor comfortably told me I could not complete a course because of my disability and told me I was cheating because I was making grades in the A- range. (This was after he had leveled similar allegations against other Black female students and came up short, to the tune of being asked to take a leave.) I was encouraged to withdraw rather than the faculty member be disciplined or fired, as he should be. There ended my pre-med journey. I continued to work to better the situation for my peers and those who would come after me through working with Being Human in STEM (founded in the wake of Amherst Uprising), but personally? I was done.
I went to a college where I was failed in a course (despite submitting necessary, even beautiful, work), belittled in class, and ghosted by the professor. When I attempted to address it on multiple levels, I was dismissed repeatedly — even by the Chief Officer of Student Affairs.
I went to a college where rapists and white supremacists were tolerated, coddled, and supported in their professional and educational ambitions. One white supremacist even got a shout-out on the College Twitter on commencement day. (He decided, with some friends, to go to his teammate of the past four years’ room and terrorize him with chants of “nigger.”)
I went to an “elite” college. These stories are not the first and not the last. Not a year went by at Amherst where I didn’t have some sort of lawsuit worthy interaction. I know I am not alone in that. I was entangled with Amherst for five years of my life, and they were mostly hell.
So, how do you advocate for yourself when no one with the explicit power to change things will listen or support you? You surrender to burnout, institutional inertia, and honest-to-God malfeasance, then you figure it out. You build for yourself what they refuse to build for you. You realize you have personal power and you use it. One of my favorite phrases of all-time is “Inveniam viam aut faciam.” Often attributed to Hannibal, it translates to, “I will find a way, or I will make one.” When I say I rebuilt myself from the ground-up, I am not exaggerating. I am a walking gut renovation.
Where students, usually white, could rely on the institution to openly support them, infuse them with confidence, and help them thrive, the same institution did not do that for me. In fact, much of what it did was sabotage. I have to name it because the gaslighting tactics that Amherst employs are so profound. Looking someone in the eyes with the known power to change your situation while they coo at you, “empathize,” and do nothing is gaslighting. I survived my own abusive relationship in my personal life, and please know that I say this without any desire to trivialize, I did not think my college experience would be one.
Over the process of my personal reckoning, I’ve had countless conversations with Black femmes who attended the College and the familiarity of their narratives is both horrifying and reassuring. No, you are not crazy, something is wrong. The equation is always the same — Black + femme + Amherst = I was pushed out or I had to get out to survive. For the fortunate, escape came in the form of study abroad, where sometimes international racism was far more palatable than that faced on campus. For the unfortunate, it came in the form of coerced trips to McLean Hospital, “empathetic” cooing while being placed on leave, and/or being “advised” to take time off. After conversation with five Black femme Amherst alums in the past week, I calculated the average of how long it took us to graduate. It took us, on average, 7 years to complete our course of study at Amherst. The top end of the range is so horrifying that I would love for her to tell her story in her own words one day.
I could never discount the wonderful professors I had, the incredible staff members I got to know, or the special friends I made (often the categories overlap); however, I can acknowledge I didn’t get my money’s worth. It’s wrong to feel so utterly hopeless and divested from an institution before you even graduate.
Black students, especially Black femmes, watch ostensibly rigid standards fall away for their white male counterparts. This conduct reaches a level where it becomes obvious that there are two separate Amhersts, possibly more, and completely disparate rules. Where Black students are made to feel like they are asking for special treatment (think of something simple like an extension or taking a test early), white students have genuine special treatment affirmed as a right.
I wasn’t perfect and forgiving myself for that has been one of my hardest journeys. While sojourning, I realized I should not have to be perfect to be loved, cared for, or protected. Those are not things Black students should have to earn, especially while our peers of a different hue were allowed to be “imperfect” to say the least. When you exist in a PWI as a Black female student, you strive for perfection because every mistake, every vulnerability is exploitable. Perfection would be being a white man at Amherst, and unless someone’s invented something horrifying, that can never be for us.
I am calling on Amherst to conduct a profound analysis of student retention, student satisfaction, student mental health, and length of study along racial, gender, sexual orientation, and ability lines.
I was never protected by Amherst College, and I have very little love for it as it stands. I love the idea of all that Amherst could be, if, for once, it actually stopped paying lip service to its marginalized communities and acted with true integrity. Amherst cannot foster genuine inclusion or joy on hot air. Everything Amherst College is will always be gossamer and gimcrack without meaningful, tangible change.