I am from the East Garfield Park neighborhood on the west side of Chicago, a community struck by decades of disinvestment and replete with closed facilities. Blocks away from my home is the high school that witnessed my curiosity and resentment for the world grow. During my preteen years, differences between my neighborhood — where the median income was close to the poverty line — and the upper-income neighborhoods surrounding downtown Chicago became intensely difficult to ignore. I never questioned my home because its value was so much more monumental than the high-rise buildings I saw as I journeyed downtown, but I questioned what brought about our closed facilities and the absence of hope for change. I was curious about the sources of power that negatively struck communities like East Garfield Park. As my career interests and life experiences fused in high school, I was interested in learning how I could bring change to my community. Ultimately, I concluded that a college education would lead me to a professional career, and I reveled in the idea that the university I would attend would be the perfect place for me to pursue my dreams.
In March 2021, I was accepted to the University of Michigan. That was it — a dream come true. I would attend one of the most recognized universities in the country, and I would be able to change the forces of power in favor of my neighbors and those to come. Like many dreams, I was humbled by the realities of it. Since the day I arrived on campus, I’ve become more convinced that the dream I had was not mine to make.
The University of Michigan is 205 years old — older than most public institutions and cities around the country. Before arriving on campus, the need to acknowledge the University’s demographics never roamed my thoughts. This university had the same mission as any other higher education institution around the United States: to provide a college education. I chose the University of Michigan for its prestige and promise of serving the bright futures of its students. As a first-generation college student who had always relied on unconditional and comprehensive support in my early education, I lost hope in my dream as I watched the University hide me in the shadows of ‘we treat all students the same.’ This dream was now corrupted by the absence of social-emotional support, the frequency of encounters with white privilege, and the inability to feasibly advocate for myself. The once-perfect place to pursue my dreams became a deception.
A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to sit in a group conversation with a high-ranking U-M administrator. The conversation had the goal of gauging the student life experiences of representatives from a broad range of student organizations. Like in most rooms across this university’s campus, I was one of the few students of Color. Monuments of tension and protest began to build in my head. My presence had too much at stake, and I was eager to name the numerous ways the University did not serve my friends of Color and me. My inner dialogue constructed an essay, but I could only say one thing: any administrative efforts across the University should be done with students, and not for students. Stakeholder engagement is crucial for collaborative and relevant decision-making. I glanced at those present in the room, and I couldn’t help but go back to questioning power. The power dynamics in that room looked different than the forces that economically corrupt and criminalize East Garfield Park. The power in that room hid behind statements like “We always appreciate student input,” but gave little-to-no opportunities for students to provide it. My positionality on this campus is the source of that power. It feeds itself through the presence of every person enrolled across the 19 colleges, but what happens when students come from communities of broken dreams and a pittance of hope? We are incapable of giving it our energy, and it leaves us to think that this place may not exist to serve us. Quickly, we learn that this place is just like any other historic institution or force of power that victimizes its subjects. That to me is the failure of this university.
This place was not made for students of Color. Its inability to transgress away from simply addressing issues will only put more pressure on future students of Color. It took decades after its establishment for the University of Michigan to open enrollment for people of Color. This university is older than the Jim Crow laws, continuing to perpetuate Black student suppression and maintaining itself as a machine fueled by prestige. We can’t identify ourselves in the faculty or the classrooms we enter every day, but we can take space for the change we want to make. We can do this by advocating for ourselves in every space and at every level. In our classes, we can urge our professors to expand the course reading selection to highlight authors of Color. When the world turns upside down, we can ask for an extension. Most importantly, we can believe that we deserve grace. Convince yourself that you deserve all the support you can get because your energy is extending the path for the success of students of Color to come. Our presence is resistance, and it is important to make noise. Let’s feel empowered to share our stories, even if only with one another. Know that we make the University, but we are not the University.
MiC Columnist Luz Mayancela (she/her/hers) can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.