If I reduce my mother and sister’s college experiences to just a few sentences, they have similar profiles. Both were admitted into elite private universities (Harvard for my sister, Williams College for my mother), both were (or are) serious students and both are people of color.
But there are a few important differences. For one, my mother is black and my sister, like myself, is biracial. For another, my mother went to college in the ’70s, while my sister is a freshman this year. I didn’t realize how profound a difference her race would make in Isabel’s college experience until my family dropped her off in Cambridge last month.
In the past, my parents seldom talked about their experiences of race relations during college. But when they did, they mentioned how the divides were very strict. If you were black and didn’t hang around with the few other black kids a lot, you were criticized. My sister and I find this difficult to relate to, since in neither of our academic careers had we ever experienced anything like it and we had both gone to very diverse schools.
The first change we noticed was when my parents and I were waiting to meet my sister and drop her things off at her dorm room. During prefrosh move-in, parents must drive to the Harvard football stadium and wait in a long line of cars leading to the Yard, where each student’s family gets thirty minutes to unload outside the dorms. We were in our cars, waiting in the line, looking around and making abrupt observations about the other families (“Looks like a lot of people from New Jersey,” I noted from the license plates in line) when I saw that behind our rental minivan was a silver Mercedes and two black adults in front.
“Mom, look, we’re not the only black family here,” I said. “Where?” my mom asked, and looked around until she saw where I was pointing. It may have been the 21st century, but there was a part of all of us that hadn’t expected to see black and minority students at Harvard. We were excited.
The column of vehicles was moving every few minutes, so there were a lot of people getting out and strolling around. My mom got out of the car and played it cool. The lady in the other car took the bait, exiting her car after a few moments. I stayed inside, behind the tinted windows, watching my mother and the other mother talking. My mom did a lot of nodding, some smiling, a little laughing and then more nodding. They talked about their Harvard-bound children, where they were from (the other mother was a Harvard alum), how long it had taken them to get there, how many kids they had, what their kids wanted to study and how proud they were of their families. It was all the usual parental jabber, but under it all, my mom later explained, she felt a tacit acknowledgement that this was a big moment and they had come a long way. That’s why, in what seemed almost like cosmic fashion, she and the other mother had gravitated toward each other among the many parents around them: because they both were women of color who went to top colleges in a time when such places were a lot less accepting of that. Their children knew this was big, but not quite as much as they did.
After about 10 minutes, the line of cars started to move and the conversation was over. My mom got back in. I was behind the wheel by then, with my dad reading in the back, and we started to move forward. The lady, my mom recounted, was Lauren, a lawyer and mother of four from New Jersey. She was taking her daughter to college for the first time. My mom recalled the whole conversation with a laid-back contentment. She had wondered whether this moment would happen when she was in college, when she graduated, and when her kids were born: would she end up back at an Ivy League school talking to other black parents the way she just had? Now she knew the answer was yes. She had expected to meet a lot of middle-class or upper-middle-class parents, and maybe even some famous Harvard parents, but not as many black Harvard parents. This assumption came more from the traditional stereotype of what kind of family sends a child to Harvard. My mom had gone to the elite Williams College, after all. She was one of less than two dozen black students there, and by my mom’s senior year, a large fraction of them had dropped out. So it was reassuring for my mother, who had grown up in the more modest echelons of America, to know she had worked hard and gotten into a top-notch school — and that years later, she wouldn’t need scholarships or financial aid to send her children to this kind of school.
When we were getting ready to leave Isabel to catch our flight back to Chicago, my mom cried and hugged us both. Most of her tears came from sending her last child off to college, but I suspect a few of them were also for being able to send her daughter to a school she had wished she could go to. She knew that the divisiveness that had colored her college years wouldn’t loom as large for her daughter, if it even made an appearance at all.
—Daniel Strauss is a staff writer for The Statement