Seeking Community In The Ivy League

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Mali Dandridge is headed to Brown University. (Photo credit: Pablo De La Hoya)

I was admitted to my top choice college, Brown University.

On the day college decisions went live online, I squeezed my eyes shut and clicked on the link. When I opened my eyes, confetti exploded across the screen, and there was the word I’d been hoping for: “Congratulations.” Blood rushed to my face, and I started crying tears of joy.

But I also immediately began to worry about how I would be perceived as a black girl in the Ivy League, and where I would find my community. The few black Ivy Leaguers I know have all said that at one time or another, they felt slighted because of their race.

I grew up hearing stories from my uncle, who went to Harvard in the 1980s. He remembers some of his fellow black classmates being disinclined to speak up, out of fear that they’d be cast as the “dumb black person.” “They let their blackness become their weakness,” is how he put it, and he advised me not to do the same. Their behaviors only reinforced the biased suspicions of many of their classmates and professors at the time: that they were only there because of affirmative action.

Seeking comfort, I talked to my mom, who attended Princeton in the 80s. I hoped that my uncle’s experience was an extreme case. Turns out I was wrong. She said she felt pretty insecure on campus and gave me advice on how to “get through” it all– as if getting through college, not enjoying it, should be the objective. She said she had to have faith in her abilities when others wouldn’t. I found it chilling that her achievement would create so many struggles.

Despite hearing these disheartening accounts, I still hoped that people would have matured in the last 40 years. I hoped that the illusion of a “diverse” and “accepting” generation in society would somehow protect me from the outright prejudice that my family members endured.

But based on microaggressions I’ve faced at school around my college acceptance and other achievements, I know that things haven’t changed all that much.

For example, one classmate suggested that I was only elected as a student leader for diversity’s sake, not because I had earned it. Another time, a boy in my class said that race “obviously helped” me get into Brown, without considering my good grades and extracurriculars, or the role of race in his acceptance to competitive schools as a white guy. If this can happen at my small Catholic high school in the San Francisco Bay Area, which prides itself on being a “diverse and inclusive community,” then surely it could happen in the elite Ivy League.

At this point, you may be wondering, “Why even bother with the Ivy League, if you have so many concerns?” I’ve asked myself that question. But then I decided there are so many benefits, it’s worth trying to get around the negatives.

The fact that Brown is known as the “liberal, open-minded” Ivy gives me hope that I can find a community of people there who will let me prove my intellect without making snap judgments about me based on my race.

Mind you, I’ve never set foot on Brown’s campus. So in many ways, it’s still a figment of my imagination. But I keep thinking about something my uncle Jim mentioned in passing. He said that Brown students are weird. “They’re the types to wear mismatching socks to make some sort of political statement.” I thought about my favorite pair of bright yellow socks, my long history of bold outfit choices, and my love of social justice, and smiled.

It seems like being different is a badge of honor at Brown, not something to be ashamed of, which is why I think it will be a good school for me, as a black girl.

This is the full version of Mali’s essay, which appears in shorter form as part of Youth Radio’s partnership with the New York Times Race/Related.

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