I will graduate from my elite college with an education white students don’t get

Tiffany Onyejiaka is a student at Johns Hopkins University.
Tiffany Onyejiaka is a student at Johns Hopkins University.
Image: Jen Baik
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Next spring, I will walk across the stage at my college graduation. It’s an exciting milestone, but I can already envision a particular shortcoming: I’ll be receiving only one of the two diplomas I earned.

There’s the degree that attests to my four years of academic achievement. And then there’s the second degree—the one I will be awarding myself. This diploma will validate the self-realizations and perseverance I cultivated in order to thrive at an institution that was not created to see Black students like me succeed.

Like many high school students, I was hopeful that college would be a time of enlightenment and self-discovery. I dreamed about the experience via carefree montages of budding friendships, thought-provoking courses, and extracurricular activities that would pique my interest and expand my passions. College was advertised as a microcosm of a greater society that was not supposed to be plagued by “real-world” problems. Racism was not once mentioned in any of my admissions brochures or campus tours.

I grew up in the suburbs of Washington DC, in a town where Black students in AP classes and Black parents with advanced degrees were normal. I had the impression that my race was primarily recognized as a physical distinction, not a mental or social one. That’s not to say I didn’t experience some degree of subtle racism as a kid. But, as a bright student at a liberal all-girls preparatory school, my education and social capital afforded me certain protections from blatant attacks and overt discrimination. When I began my freshman year of college, I assumed the same would more or less hold true.

Instead, my melanin-filled skin seemed to evoke different reactions. Suddenly, my eyes were opened to a cacophony of micro-aggressions that I was utterly unprepared for.

My realization of what Blackness meant in my new college life did not hit me in a single moment. I cannot pinpoint a particular time when I realized I’d be spending four years getting an education in the company of certain peers—some of whom had not been raised to view me as a social or intellectual equal. It occurred to me as a series of incidents that, bit by bit, chipped away at the great colorblind hope I clung to.

It happened when White classmates I studied with double-checked my homework answers because they doubted my intelligence. When people I had spoken with by phone did double-takes upon seeing me in person because my level of articulation did not match their preconceived notions about race. When a boy in my freshman building exercised his “freedom of speech” to post on Facebook that he thought Black girls were ugly. When a close friend recounted a sick joke about aborting Black babies in an effort to reduce the crime rate. When I read posts on the community newsfeed, Yik Yak, that alluded to killing Black people.

Events like these taught me that even overt, non-systemic racism can persist in areas of privilege, including some of the most theoretically progressive and forward-thinking academic institutions in the United States. In my experience, college mitigates—but does not eradicate—the anti-Black sentiments that affect its students. The creation of diverse communities and safe spaces is essential, but until colleges take on the mantle to explicitly teach all students about the history of anti-Black sentiments—and until institutions properly address infractions—my Black classmates and I will continue to carry the extra course load that comes with enrolling at a predominantly White institution.

These racially-charged incidents and realizations are what I believe makes me deserving of that second degree. Like all Hopkins students, I had to learn to take useful notes and write thoughtful papers and all the other things it takes to succeed in college. But, in addition to what everyone else is doing, I had to learn to navigate a terrain that can feel laced with landmines against a Black student’s self-esteem. Understanding what it means to be Black is not accomplished through coursework or credits. I had to learn how to excel in courses with conservative professors who used carefully crafted rhetoric to disguise racist thoughts. To take final exams moments after hearing racist comments by my peers during times of social unrest around the nation. To educate some of my non-Black friends about the realities of the Black experience because no one else in their life ever did.

There are no tests or review materials to teach you how to be Black and bold when others want you to remain a silent token of diversity. I just had to figure it out.

Black students have to continuously learn to rise above the temptation of apathy, and assert ourselves and our right to proposer in front of our fellow students, faculty, and administrators. To excel at levels we were never expected to reach. To stop feeling guilty earning measures of success others think we do not deserve. To insert our Black bodies into classrooms, labs, conferences, and boardrooms that are too content with mere sprinklings of color across enclaves of White faces.

We maneuver through lecture halls dominated by faces that do not reflect our own, or so many of the other faces in our increasingly diverse country. We pass by portraits and busts of university founders who intended for Black people to only occupy positions of servitude at their universities. We walk over quads that cover the graves of our ancestors to get to class. We do this each and every day. And though it will not say so on our transcripts—or on those expensive, elite diplomas—it won’t stop.

This post originally appeared at The Well.