Editor’s Note: The author of this op-ed is a student at Pomona College. The student chose to be identified by the initials AM.
When COVID-19 became a global pandemic in March, higher education institutions were quick to evict students from their campuses. Many institutions enforced this policy without considering the unique situations of first-generation, low-income, undocumented, homeless, LGBTQ, and international students.
This speaks to the insidious nature of higher education institutions. These are still spaces designed for the white, wealthy, and male. By institutional design, the voices of marginalized students were silenced.
However, at the same time many students were quick to organize. Students at my own school, Pomona College, created a group called Occupy Pomona. They created a list of demands, raised money, and fought for students being forced off campus.
On Friday March 13, I was one of the students who received a generic email from the administration informing me that I had five days to pack my belongings and leave. The email was just 400 characters long. They didn’t ask if I had somewhere to go. They didn’t care. And even though Occupy Pomona was fighting for me, yet I was afraid to be a part of it.
Why was I afraid?
Part of it were the rumors going around designed to instill fear.
If you leave past 5 p.m. on Wednesday, you will be fined. You will be accused of trespassing. We will call Claremont Police Department (CPD). You will lose your job for not obeying.
Pomona’s administration was intentional with their tactics to get people off campus. As a low-income person, I cannot afford the added financial burden of a fine, much less losing my campus job. Being undocumented, my safety in this country would be threatened with an interaction with CPD as a trespasser.
Academic institutions have an effect of silencing marginalized communities from a very young age, and so the onus is on them to counteract that.
My fear was something that was strategically constructed. As anthropologist Renato Rosaldo says institutions will only embrace diversity under the condition that we “come in, sit down, shut up. [We’re] welcome here as long as [we] conform with [their] norms.”
I wanted to be welcomed. For as long as I can remember, I have been in a running competition with myself, pushing myself beyond healthy limits to be exceptional. My schooling experience reinforced that if I wanted to be accepted, I must be exceptional. As an undocumented person, my only chance at a “good” future was to get into higher education.
However, the silencing that I experienced at Pomona was the same silence I was taught in school. Throughout K-12, I raised my hand to use the bathroom and waited until I was sure it would not disrupt anyone. At school, I had my most basic human behaviors controlled. Consequently, I learned that I did not have agency, and I could not question authority figures of challenge systems.
Throughout my schooling journey, I was praised for being quiet, studious, and humble. These behaviors were “rewarded” by tracking me into the path of AP classes and ultimately higher education. My schooling intentionally and unintentionally assured me that my silence was a characteristic that colleges were “looking for.”
When I arrived at Pomona, I learned that they were right. Silence and passivity were praised. As a high achieving student, I was not only tracked into higher education, but I was also tracked into silence. Still, the longer I attend Pomona the more I recognized that this silencing is not the reality for everyone. The campus radiates of entitlement. Some students’ voices carry so much power with little at stake. Yet as a student with marginalized identities, my institution expects me to passively be grateful that they accepted me in. And with their policy decisions, they remind me that any damage they cause in my life is a marginal sacrifice to protect themselves.
In all situations, there are students like the brave ones who organized Occupy Pomona. They understood the power of being a collective and they were unwilling to settle for inequity and injustice. However, there are also students like me who internalized a “fear of the consequences.”
Academic institutions must enact changes in the way they educate their students. Both K-12 and higher education institutions have a significant role in the silencing of students, especially students with marginalized identities. Below I name some ways in which academic institutions can adjust their curriculum, administration, and operations:
- Staff, faculty, teachers and school administration should allow and encourage students to be curious, share their opinions, and engage in respectful disagreement. This is important to encourage from a young age.
- Diversify positions of authority in academic institutions. People of diverse backgrounds should be involved in the decision-making process that impacts a diverse body of students.
- Closely related to the previous suggestion, equitable policies should be created. These decisions should reflect the unique situations of first generation, low-income, undocumented, homeless, LGBTQ, international students, etc.
- To ensure that the policies are equitable, student input should be considered and encouraged. When major decisions are made, the people most affected are students—so their input should be taken into consideration. This suggestion looks differently depending on the grade of students, but administration, teachers and faculty can make adjustments.
- Finally SHARING the construction of knowledge. Teachers and faculty should allow students to share their own experiences and connect with class material that reflects their own experiences.
I recognize that this is not an all-encompassing list of suggestions, but it is a start to diminish the silencing of students in academic institutions. Academic intuitions should be spaces where people should learn, question, and create. They are not spaces where children and youth should internalize fear, silence, and guilt.
Institutions need to stop teaching silence.