Unlearning from the Inside: Belonging in Academia as a Student of Color

by Yena Sharma Purmasir

My mother started talking to me about college when I was five years old. Not so much to tell me that I had to go. She told me stories about what college was like for her. I remember sitting on the carpet, looking through her wooden armoire, flipping through her transcripts. The first time I heard the word degree, I had no idea what it meant. My mother told me that she had two degrees, from different schools. She said they both meant different things. My mother was the first person to tell me about scholarships, about hard working students that can be rewarded for all their efforts. It sounded magical: a giant boat full of brilliant explorers. Of course I was going to go to college. Of course.

The trajectory of my education is simultaneously something I try not to think about and something I am obsessed with, two polarizing sides of the same immigrant pipe dream. Where would I be in America without my two graduate degree parents? How would I have found my footing without the luck and sweat of standardized testing and accelerated public school programming? I grew up in a household with one parent who had the luxury and pain of attempting his creative endeavors, starting up his own advertising agency. My other parent has forever had the responsibility of earning a dependable, consistent wage, nevermind her masters in English literature or the growing pile of books at the foot of her bed. What I have seen firsthand of elite education was its isolating power, its heavy price.

I was sixteen years old when I decided I wanted to go to Swarthmore College. The story here is full of young idealism and kismet. I didn’t like Swarthmore for any tangible reason. I liked it for its mascot, the phoenix, which was the name of my high school’s literary magazine. I wish sometimes I had a better reason for being so drawn to a campus, so motivated to end up at a very specific, remote school. But this is the truth. I don’t know why I thought Swarthmore was right for me. It was like something in my brain clicked. I knew I would go to Swarthmore, the same way I had known when I was five years old that I would go to college.

This makes it seem like getting into college wasn’t difficult, like I didn’t spend most of my senior year of high school staring up at the ceiling of my room, thinking how my life would turn out without this fragile little miracle. I had applied to Swarthmore as an early decision student in December. I was deferred in February. I sent them a series of poems and letters, begging essentially for this narrow chance at having the life I wanted. I was accepted in March.

There’s an episode of Family Matters where Laura gets into Harvard and can’t afford to go. This story isn’t like that one. I went to Swarthmore College on a full ride. I didn’t take out a loan. I graduated with no debt in my name. If I think about my blessed reality, really think about it, I start to cry. In America, stories like this seem less and less possible. Certainly, I didn’t talk about my financial aid package at school. It felt like I was bragging and anyway, my scholarship had the divine power to make me feel very big and very small. My truth is that I could not have attended college without a scholarship. My truth, as many other classmates pointed out, is that I needed a “handout.”

Every month, I receive questions from young people embarking on the complicated college journey. A few weeks after I graduated, I got a message that said: “Wow, you graduated from Swarthmore.” It felt a bit like a punch in the stomach. For me, college has always been this thing I would have to do. I grew up understanding very clearly my responsibility to my parents, who had left everything they knew behind to start fresh in this country. So, in part I had to go to college because of my parents and all the work they did to settle us here, work I will never truly be able to grasp. But, I also had to go to college for myself. College wasn’t even a goal, it was a stepping stone. I was setting dreams of becoming a psychologist, of getting a doctorate. This was different from my dreams of being a writer, which needs no qualification, no distinction other than my own commitment and practice. But there are many professions that have their own intricate licensure: college is the most minimal thing on the list.  

For the past ten months, I have been working at an organization that supports formerly incarcerated women and their children. Last week, I was talking to an Indigenous woman in our program. She is twenty years old and juggling her motherhood with securing a job. “When do you graduate from college?” she asked me. I told her that I already graduated. She asked me how old I was when I graduated, what I majored in, how I finished so fast. “I want to go to college,” she told me, like she was confessing a great secret. “You’ll go,” I said. We listed all the women we knew who were in school part-time and working part-time and mothers full-time.

Later that night, I told my younger brother this story. He is also twenty years old. Unlike this woman, my brother is already in college. Unlike this woman, he isn’t sure if he belongs there anymore. When my brother told me this for the first time, I didn’t know what to say. I just listened. Of course I want my brother to be happy, healthy, and safe wherever he is.  I am always on his side. This is exactly why I feel so ambivalent about his choice.

For some of us, college is not just a means to an end. It is not just about a career. It becomes its own type of survival. It is about class. It is about upward mobility. It is about people listening to you when you speak. College won’t protect you on the street, won’t guarantee that you always have food to eat, won’t promise a fulfilling, or even secure, career. But college is a seatbelt in the car accident of life in America. I am a brown woman with a college degree and at the very least, people give me the most basic human respect. At the very least, people take me seriously. This isn’t just in professional settings. I have gone on dates with men, who only asked me out after learning where I went to college. “You’re a genius,” they say. But Swarthmore isn’t just an academically grueling institution: it is one of the most elite academic spaces in the country. The weight of that reputation has given a depth to my choices, my decisions, and my opinions.

For people of color in America, college is more than just a piece of paper. It is a transparent protection. It is a way to stamp out white mediocrity. It is doing well in a space that was never meant for us. It is unlearning from the inside. It is taking courses in disciplines that could be taught by our mothers and grandmothers. It is reading stories that we grew up believing. It is building powerful communities on campuses that have long histories of silencing those same communities. It is saying in front of an entire classroom that you are going to teach in a classroom. It is having everyone truly believe you. Without college, some of this isn’t possible. Without college, we cannot work certain jobs. Without college, the world can feel smaller.

I understand my brother’s pain and discomfort. I am rooting for him to become his best, whether that is in the world of academia or somewhere else. The women I have worked with this year have all told me their own college stories, how some of them worked through their four years, how others are credits away from a bachelor’s degree, and how a handful are still waiting for the day when they can enroll in their first college class. For all of them, college was not a decision they had the right to make – not when they were eighteen, not when they were twenty. It was a series of circumstances. It was just the way it was. At the very least, I want everyone to have the autonomy and freedom to choose if college is right for them.

I want to tell all the young students of color, all the mature students of color, all the people of color who think that they aren’t worth the time and cost of a formal education: you do belong there. This legacy is yours as much as it is anyone else’s. I don’t care if you aren’t good at math or have never been able to code switch, if you always ask for an extension or need a tutor to pass your history classes. You are a student the moment you decide to be. You deserve to learn. You deserve to receive credits for your work. You deserve the cost of an expensive tuition. You deserve the time to go to school. And you deserve the truth, which is that you don’t need to go to college. You don’t need to go to college.

But, it is okay to want something you don’t need.

It is okay to build big dreams for yourself, to imagine you’re an executive director of a make believe office. It is okay to apply to scholarship programs. It is okay to have a Sallie Mae account. It is okay to take time off from school. It is okay to go back to school. It is okay to graduate and feel aimless. It is okay because this is your life. This is your life and you should get to decide what you do.

I know I am lucky to have made my own decisions. I know I get to make these decisions because of my mother’s decisions. When we were children, she used to tell us, “People can take away your money and your job and your land, but your education is yours forever. No one can ever take this from you.

 It was my surest decision, to have something so powerfully and permanently mine. I knew it when I was playing with my mother’s transcripts at five and when I was walking across the amphitheater stage to collect my diploma at twenty-one. I know it even now, when I pack up my desk at my first post-grad job, when people ask me what I am going to do next. “Anything,” I tell them. “Everything.”

Yena Sharma Purmasir a 22 year old poet and author from New York City. Her first book of poetry, Until I Learned What It Meant, was published by Where Are You Press in 2013. A recent graduate from Swarthmore College, Yena has spent her first year of “real adulthood” doing a year’s worth of service at Hour Children, a non-profit supporting formerly incarcerated women and their children. Yena was the Queens Teen Poet Laureate for 2010-2011 academic year. In 2014, she was the recipient of the Chuck James Literary Prize from the Black Cultural Center at Swarthmore College. Most recently, she learned that she is one of Coffee Meets Bagel’s “top 10% most LIKED members.” She owes all of her success to her family and friends, who not only read her poems, but also continue to help her choose the perfect profile picture.

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