on social experiments.
All five of us made the trip to New York City. My parents, my sisters and I spent the weeks prior in Washington D.C., visiting museums and ice-cream trucks, and in between, I would sneak in errands to prepare me for my first year of college. Choosing a new cellphone number at the AT&T store. Scanning through bedding and cookware items at Bed, Bath & Beyond. Stopping at every Urban Outfitters I walked by so that I could stockpile the graphic tees and high-waisted jeans that would become central to my new persona as a college student.
Seven days before the commencement of the new academic year, Barnard held an orientation for all incoming first-year and transfer students, known by all as NSOP. Three days before NSOP began, the campus was opened to the small group of incoming international students who would have their own programming involving presentations about this strange new country we were in, activities that would take us all around New York City, and meetings for us to all make sure that we would remain in legal status for the next four years as foreigners.
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We were a hodge-podge of a group. I was Tanzanian who went to school in Swaziland. I became friends with a Turkish-Italian whose parents were moving to Singapore. She was roommates with a Swiss-Chinese-American who had grown up in Hong Kong. There was a Brazilian, a Nigerian, a Tunisian, and more, and as different as we all were, we all shared a sameness that came from concurrently straddling multiple cultures and worlds, all of which thrust us into the same place at the same time, rushing around Time Square at 7pm at night, gazing up at all the lights.
There are lores built around what a college education is, or rather, what it should be. There are movies and books, political promises and ideological positions, all about how college is a raucous romp, a marketplace of ideas, a solution to inequity, and a human right. Whether these ideas compliment or contradict are besides the point, as what remains more important is the fact that they all seem to convene at the same conclusion: a college education — for a certain class and certain type — is a must.
The material merits of a college education are well-documented. College graduates earn more financially, experience higher levels of job satisfaction, and are more likely to experience social mobility. In contrast to these quantitative measures, the qualitative arguments for a college education tend to be more contentious in considerations of the social benefits. One prominent vision of higher education posits it as a space for young people of different backgrounds to come together and learn with and from each other, growing from the osmosis as a result. An alternative conceptualisation views it as a way for previously disconnected folks to find a community of like-minded individuals with whom they can build bonds of solidarity and collaboration that will hold for years to come.
What is the social purpose of a college education? What is it that happens when young people across different backgrounds are brought together for a four-year social experiment of their own choosing, left to their own devices with how to spend their time and futures? What is college for, for who, and to what end? What could it, and what should it, be?
Despite having already moved in to my dorm room days earlier, my nosy family and I made sure that we would be pottering around the quad to study the three girls who I would be spending the next ten months with. Stripped down to our crudest parts, we were straight out of a glossy, post-racial college brochure — a WASP from upstate New York, a Latina from East Los Angeles, a Jewish girl from middle America, and a Black international student from Africa. As we circled each other, I mentally tried to gauge how and why Barnard Residential Life would put us all together. And as we gradually started to talk and bond over Glee, Taylor Swift, and how earnestly excited we all were for classes to start, it started to make a bit more sense. We were all just versions of each other.
One night during NSOP, myself and some other international student friends meandered around the Columbian side of the street looking for something to do, when a group of boys our age came up to us and asked if we wanted to go to a party. Excitedly, we obliged, and they scanned us in to their building where we all ended up in a dorm room with all the lights on and a dozen new students standing in a circle. A Kendrick Lamar song came on, all the White people started rapping along, and I locked eyes with one of the few other Black people in the room and we laughed.
Those first few days in New York were spent like a montage. I watched a Yankees game, went to Smorgasbord Brooklyn, got waffles in Central Park, all the while trying to scope out who these people were. Back in Morningside Heights, we played ice breakers on the lawns, swapped stories in the dining halls, and as our parents gradually and reluctantly left us in the city, we were forced to move closer together. We were stuck with each other.
College is a unique educational experience in comparison to those that come before it for several reasons. It is non-compulsory and requires all students for the first time to actively choose to place themselves in school, meaning that consequentially, there should be greater joy and excitement attributed to this (literal) student buy-in. Moreover, the size and reach of institutions of higher learning makes the experience particularly unique because of the far-reaching scope of individuals that it brings together, previously separated either through distance, socio-economic status, or otherwise. College is novel because, at least in theory, it is an experiment in different people enthusiastically being brought together.
To what end though, remains the question. In my four years of college beginning in 2015 and concluding in 2019, I observed the acute and complex role colleges were playing in culture wars. In my part of the world, college was viewed as a necessary catalyst for transformation, either personally through exposure to things previously unseen, or politically through the nascent emergence of grassroots movements such as the Arab Spring and Rhodes Must Fall that could occur when young people from all over came together to share their experiences. In the West, however, the social value of the college experience was up for debate, and over four years, I saw the critiques shift from the idea that campuses were problematic because the same people came together to uphold insulated echo-chambers, to later arguments claiming that they were hotbeds of political pressure, brainwashing innocent minds to become “woke” beyond their will.
I would argue that all of these ways of understanding what college is hold some truth within them. A college education involves changing your views on some things and becoming more entrenched in them on others, both as a result of the knowledge being passed on by professors and their classes, but also through the social relationships made. A college education works best, I would contend, when multiple things are true, with its graduates able to say that who they were changed because of the new and different people they met, and who they wanted to be was affirmed by others similar who wanted the same thing. To do this, it must be made accessible for all who choose to embark on this experiment for that diversity to be real and for it to reflect not only the world that we currently live in, but that which we want to see.
Classes began and I was busy with First-Year English, Intermediate French, Intro to Urban Studies, International Politics and Explorations in Black Literature. More importantly, I was busy adding everyone I met on Facebook and messaging them all to get lunch in Hewitt or hang out on Low Steps, trying to keep the NSOP party going.
Less than a month into the school year, I was turning twenty-years-old. I had no plans and had only told a few people, not wanting to put any pressure on the still developing relationships I was making. And so I went to class and then my room, sat on my bed and did my homework, peaceful and content.
I heard whispers in the hallway outside getting louder and louder as they got closer to my door. All of a sudden, there was a knock and as I invited them in, a gaggle of girls that I had met over the last few weeks stumbled in and burst into song. They held a mini-cake and a card with Drake on the cover and it made me laugh and feel cared for by these people I had only just met. If this was what college was going to be like, I was already so glad to be there.
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