From a young age, I wanted to change the way I looked. Every town I grew up in consisted of spaces that never seemed to fit me; they were made for specific kinds of identities and people to grow up comfortably in. I was very insecure about how I looked mainly because I wasn’t white. Being racialized as something other than white complicated the ways in which I viewed myself.
In high school, my anxiety coupled with depression fueled my fears of having everything I did become racialized. I wanted to eat only non-Asian foods at school, I refused to learn Korean, and I just didn’t want to feel ostracized because of my racial identity. This felt so threatening that I didn’t want to ever interact with strangers without the comfort of my friends or family, people who wouldn’t strictly view me as my race. This made leaving the house alone, being assertive, and trusting myself much more difficult. I grew up in predominantly white neighborhoods that resembled Pleasantville too much. I had mostly white friends who (even though they would try) couldn’t seem to truly understand the racial struggles I experienced, even when I explained it to them. I did try to seek out other Korean Americans who could maybe empathize with me, but I never felt like I was “Korean enough” to be with them. Even with my parents, my experiences are far from theirs. Generational differences made any gaps too wide to close. My anxieties made me too reliant on people who couldn’t understand me because, as I later learned, I had to be somewhere where I could learn to understand myself.
It wasn’t until I was choosing where to go to college when I thought about going somewhere not many other people around me chose to go. About two years ago today, I decided to attend a historically women’s college. When I think back to those essays that asked me why, I truly just wanted to go somewhere that seemed to stray so far from what was my norm: to be in a place for students who have been marginalized and find community there.
I think of my previous school as an incubator; it was pretty small, kind of sheltering, but it still felt new and safe and gave me what I needed to grow. Sometimes it felt like another world in its gated campus hidden within the Pleasantville-like suburbs that surrounded the school. Because identity was always a central aspect of every conversation we had at that college, empathy was necessary in order to engage. I didn’t feel like I needed to explain myself as much, and I never felt insecure about what I looked like. Confidence, care, and compassion were all fostered through the support and community I felt. As the year progressed, I learned ways to care for myself since doing so is always difficult, especially in college where everything is unfamiliar.
In turn, the transition from my life before college to learning how to navigate it was very difficult. I remember a lot of my first year as uncomfortable because it didn’t reflect the communities I was used to seeing: Minorities made up the majority. A lot of people don’t know that many students who attend historically women’s colleges are queer, some aren’t cisgender, and many occupy oppressed identities that intersect.
It’s easy for people to preach about being accepting and unprejudiced about their perceptions of others, and I know this because I do it all the time, but it wasn’t until attending my previous school where I confronted my oppressive biases and beliefs about others who were different than me. I knew I was privileged, but being here pushed me to think about my privileges in a different way. As someone who didn’t identify as queer and grew up financially stable and around mostly white people, I found it difficult to view my friends as more than their oppressed identities. I dehumanized people who were kind of like reflections of myself. I was finally in a community where there was space for marginalized people, people I should be able to empathize with, but I had internalized racism, queerphobia, classism, all of these harmful things that obstructed my desire to finally feel like I could belong somewhere. I was the root of all my problems because even though I knew any internalized prejudices I had could be unlearned I was just unwilling to do so.
Instead of trying to address these problems, I wanted to leave because avoidance and retreating back to what’s comfortable has always felt easier than confrontation. So I decided to transfer to the University of Michigan: a place that was so close to home, a place that represented the familiar for me.
Transferring made reflection a lot clearer. Maybe it’s because looking back on the past is always easier than momentarily going through it, or maybe it’s because I do miss my previous school, and missing something makes it easier to think about. Going to a historically women’s college cultivated a sense of self-awareness and consciousness that grew from the relationships I built with the people around me and with myself. And as grateful as I am for that year, I’m satisfied with my decision to leave because my previous college’s experience has pushed me to challenge myself at Michigan. It’s easy to feel afraid in a huge school that can magnify marginalization and exclusion, but I realize that, though having a sense of belonging is good, you can’t have it until you experience enough personal growth and healing that will allow yourself to feel like you belong. Coming to Michigan helped me realize that I needed to go to my previous school in order to understand myself more. I’m more confident and proud of myself and my racial identity. I’m working on dismantling the oppressive systems I’ve internalized and perpetuated over the years. I’m working on being compassionate towards others. I’m working on making space for myself when I feel like I don’t have a voice, and I no longer rely on others to make this space for me.