Confessions of a State School Ivy Leaguer (Part 2)

~ Written while sitting in the airport waiting for my plane to D.C. to attend and present my research at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) Annual Meeting. ~

A few months ago I wrote Confessions of a State School Ivy Leaguer (Part 1). In hindsight, I was right on the money. But, instead of fighting it, I’ve decide to become an expert at “playing the game” (whatever that means). So, I’ve been name dropping and networking everywhere, because that’s what we do. Except now, saying, “I’m a graduate student at Brown University studying urban education policy” doesn’t feel like such an unconquerable tongue twister. Why? Because I realize it’s really not a big deal. Rather than being fixated on the prestige and all that I never thought I could own up to I’ve decide to focus on all I can gain from this program and how much my perspective has been challenged and changed.

Here are some realizations:

Brown students are no different. I used to think, “who are these people, and what am I doing here?” I still think that, but I now realize, at their core, people want to belong and feel purposeful. We crave connections with each other — to something larger than ourselves. We know this. Brown students are no different – they’re just people. We’ve ascribed value to their lives and accolades because of their university affiliation. But really, they’re just people. It only means something if we let it. I built Brown up to seem like something for which I was entirely unfit. I felt motivated to continue the facade and charade of “belonging”. Something changed when I stopped competing and convincing, and instead relentlessly chased after learning. And then, I truly thought “I could be happy here” – there were moments at least. Not all at once but slowly, I gained confidence and stamina.

Here’s why:

I stayed the course – and was rock star! The change happened once I realized I DO belong! As in, I’m smart enough, diligent enough, persistent enough, intellectual enough, eager enough. I am enough. But then, the real work began. Now that I know these things, rather than keeping up the show and attempting to convince others, I have to own it. I know I’m good, and that I do good work. My emotional investments in my work and myself are propelling me up the social and academic ladders. Now it’s personal. It’s beyond simply playing the game. This is my life. And in this life, I’m unapologetically pursuing my dreams of becoming a researcher. That means, I have to show up every day. I have to grasp, and sometimes flail at, every opportunity.

Speaking of opportunities…

I learned my faculty work for me. In the simplest sense, if there were no students attending Brown, the faculty wouldn’t have jobs. My tuition (and hefty endowments/donations – YAY Ivy League!) pays their salaries. So, in a way, I’m their boss, and they work for me. That means I’m entitled to ask them questions and expect them to answer me thoroughly. I’m going to capitalize on the important knowledge and experience they have, and be a captive audience member so that I can grow my own knowledge and skills. They owe me that much. And in return, in my next endeavor, (once someone gives me a job) it’ll reflect well (perhaps even superficially well) on the institution . I’ll (un)willingly perpetuate the cycle of misconception because I am amazing and unstoppable. It’s not because of this university, but in spite of it. That’s how the game it played.

And in playing the game, I discovered that…

If you look beyond the curtain, this university has a lot to offer. At Brown there are spaces where you can be inquisitive and wonder. You can cultivate and engage in great conversations. There are spaces to be fearless in your pursuits, but you have to seek them out. There are so many talks and resources available. But, if you’re going to be exceptional then you have to show up. You have to show up often. Contrary to public perception, going to Brown doesn’t mean that everything will be handed to you on a silver platter. In fact, most of the experience hasn’t be easy at all.  However, if you advocate for yourself, commit to your craft, and focus on your goals you can be impressively successful – and learn a lot too. Real talk – I am learning a lot! But, you also should know, there have been extensive, debilitating road blocks along the way.

Such as this:

Brown is a great place to be a feminist – unless you’re a Jewish and/or queer feminist. The activism on this campus is both a blessing and a curse. Each day I’m excited to see students donning shirts that read “CONSENT” or “This is what a Feminist looks like”. I see stickers hearkening women’s empowerment and I’m often impressed by the conversation and engagement around tough issues. However, behind the curtain there’s some really toxic advocacy too. There’s competition for the “best” activism and spaces that privilege voice over value. These types of actions (here and here for example) make it dangerous to be a Jewish and/or queer feminist or activist on this campus. [note: I am juxtaposing feminist and activist because of how closely related those identities are to me. Someone else may be an activist but share a different set of values related to equality.]

And, while we’re talking about feminism and conversations…

Code switching is real. Sometimes, I feel like there’s a performative element to being a Brown student. If you can set aside Brown’s history of slavery and oppression and instead frolic freely among the waves of liberalism you’ll see what I mean. There’s a lingo and a “type” at Brown. In fact, most students will tell you, as long as your opinions reside with the popular – read majority – stream of thought you’ll get along fine!  If you can talk the talk and look the part you’ll fit right in. But, it’s a hard place to have a loud, and opposing, opinion. And for most of us, the socially acceptable buzzwords like, “conceptualization”, “space”, “colonialism”, “patriarchy”, “subjectivity” (to name a few) aren’t part of our daily vernacular – see what I did there?  The elite speech patterns I’ve acquired  to get along at Brown makes me feel and seem pretentious to everyone else who is important in my life. I have to “turn off” my “Ivy League speech” when I’m in other contexts because I literally can’t stand to listen to myself or because I can perceive how annoying it is to other people. Performing Brown feels necessary to make it here. It also feels really fake, impersonal, and detached. Yet I’ve become so accustomed to this lifestyle and role that sometimes it takes hours for me to snap out of it. I find myself hopelessly stuck in cycles of blaming systematic, institutional oppression and whatnot.

Lamenting aside, the reality is, the name does mean a lot to other people! And, that matters. You know, if we’re playing the game.