Gunther and I continue our collegiate tour, stopping last night for a lecture on the art of Korra and a reception at Swarthmore University. The students there and from neighboring Bryn Mar and Haverford were all so wonderful to meet and talk to, and in Gunther’s case, to lick. Thank you for the very touching scrapbook that so many of you poured your hearts into. Good luck to all of you brilliant, young folks as you forge your futures and change the world!
My mother started talking to me about college when I was five years old. Not so much to tell me that I had to go. She told me stories about what college was like for her. I remember sitting on the carpet, looking through her wooden armoire, flipping through her transcripts. The first time I heard the word degree, I had no idea what it meant. My mother told me that she had two degrees, from different schools. She said they both meant different things. My mother was the first person to tell me about scholarships, about hard working students that can be rewarded for all their efforts. It sounded magical: a giant boat full of brilliant explorers. Of course I was going to go to college. Of course.
The trajectory of my education is simultaneously something I try not to think about and something I am obsessed with, two polarizing sides of the same immigrant pipe dream. Where would I be in America without my two graduate degree parents? How would I have found my footing without the luck and sweat of standardized testing and accelerated public school programming? I grew up in a household with one parent who had the luxury and pain of attempting his creative endeavors, starting up his own advertising agency. My other parent has forever had the responsibility of earning a dependable, consistent wage, nevermind her masters in English literature or the growing pile of books at the foot of her bed. What I have seen firsthand of elite education was its isolating power, its heavy price.
I was sixteen years old when I decided I wanted to go to Swarthmore College. The story here is full of young idealism and kismet. I didn’t like Swarthmore for any tangible reason. I liked it for its mascot, the phoenix, which was the name of my high school’s literary magazine. I wish sometimes I had a better reason for being so drawn to a campus, so motivated to end up at a very specific, remote school. But this is the truth. I don’t know why I thought Swarthmore was right for me. It was like something in my brain clicked. I knew I would go to Swarthmore, the same way I had known when I was five years old that I would go to college.
This makes it seem like getting into college wasn’t difficult, like I didn’t spend most of my senior year of high school staring up at the ceiling of my room, thinking how my life would turn out without this fragile little miracle. I had applied to Swarthmore as an early decision student in December. I was deferred in February. I sent them a series of poems and letters, begging essentially for this narrow chance at having the life I wanted. I was accepted in March.
There’s an episode of Family Matters where Laura gets into Harvard and can’t afford to go. This story isn’t like that one. I went to Swarthmore College on a full ride. I didn’t take out a loan. I graduated with no debt in my name. If I think about my blessed reality, really think about it, I start to cry. In America, stories like this seem less and less possible. Certainly, I didn’t talk about my financial aid package at school. It felt like I was bragging and anyway, my scholarship had the divine power to make me feel very big and very small. My truth is that I could not have attended college without a scholarship. My truth, as many other classmates pointed out, is that I needed a “handout.”
Every month, I receive questions from young people embarking on the complicated college journey. A few weeks after I graduated, I got a message that said: “Wow, you graduated from Swarthmore.” It felt a bit like a punch in the stomach. For me, college has always been this thing I would have to do. I grew up understanding very clearly my responsibility to my parents, who had left everything they knew behind to start fresh in this country. So, in part I had to go to college because of my parents and all the work they did to settle us here, work I will never truly be able to grasp. But, I also had to go to college for myself. College wasn’t even a goal, it was a stepping stone. I was setting dreams of becoming a psychologist, of getting a doctorate. This was different from my dreams of being a writer, which needs no qualification, no distinction other than my own commitment and practice. But there are many professions that have their own intricate licensure: college is the most minimal thing on the list.
For the past ten months, I have been working at an organization that supports formerly incarcerated women and their children. Last week, I was talking to an Indigenous woman in our program. She is twenty years old and juggling her motherhood with securing a job. “When do you graduate from college?” she asked me. I told her that I already graduated. She asked me how old I was when I graduated, what I majored in, how I finished so fast. “I want to go to college,” she told me, like she was confessing a great secret. “You’ll go,” I said. We listed all the women we knew who were in school part-time and working part-time and mothers full-time.
Later that night, I told my younger brother this story. He is also twenty years old. Unlike this woman, my brother is already in college. Unlike this woman, he isn’t sure if he belongs there anymore. When my brother told me this for the first time, I didn’t know what to say. I just listened. Of course I want my brother to be happy, healthy, and safe wherever he is. I am always on his side. This is exactly why I feel so ambivalent about his choice.
For some of us, college is not just a means to an end. It is not just about a career. It becomes its own type of survival. It is about class. It is about upward mobility. It is about people listening to you when you speak. College won’t protect you on the street, won’t guarantee that you always have food to eat, won’t promise a fulfilling, or even secure, career. But college is a seatbelt in the car accident of life in America. I am a brown woman with a college degree and at the very least, people give me the most basic human respect. At the very least, people take me seriously. This isn’t just in professional settings. I have gone on dates with men, who only asked me out after learning where I went to college. “You’re a genius,” they say. But Swarthmore isn’t just an academically grueling institution: it is one of the most elite academic spaces in the country. The weight of that reputation has given a depth to my choices, my decisions, and my opinions.
For people of color in America, college is more than just a piece of paper. It is a transparent protection. It is a way to stamp out white mediocrity. It is doing well in a space that was never meant for us. It is unlearning from the inside. It is taking courses in disciplines that could be taught by our mothers and grandmothers. It is reading stories that we grew up believing. It is building powerful communities on campuses that have long histories of silencing those same communities. It is saying in front of an entire classroom that you are going to teach in a classroom. It is having everyone truly believe you. Without college, some of this isn’t possible. Without college, we cannot work certain jobs. Without college, the world can feel smaller.
I understand my brother’s pain and discomfort. I am rooting for him to become his best, whether that is in the world of academia or somewhere else. The women I have worked with this year have all told me their own college stories, how some of them worked through their four years, how others are credits away from a bachelor’s degree, and how a handful are still waiting for the day when they can enroll in their first college class. For all of them, college was not a decision they had the right to make – not when they were eighteen, not when they were twenty. It was a series of circumstances. It was just the way it was. At the very least, I want everyone to have the autonomy and freedom to choose if college is right for them.
I want to tell all the young students of color, all the mature students of color, all the people of color who think that they aren’t worth the time and cost of a formal education: you do belong there. This legacy is yours as much as it is anyone else’s. I don’t care if you aren’t good at math or have never been able to code switch, if you always ask for an extension or need a tutor to pass your history classes. You are a student the moment you decide to be. You deserve to learn. You deserve to receive credits for your work. You deserve the cost of an expensive tuition. You deserve the time to go to school. And you deserve the truth, which is that you don’t need to go to college. You don’t need to go to college.
But, it is okay to want something you don’t need.
It is okay to build big dreams for yourself, to imagine you’re an executive director of a make believe office. It is okay to apply to scholarship programs. It is okay to have a Sallie Mae account. It is okay to take time off from school. It is okay to go back to school. It is okay to graduate and feel aimless. It is okay because this is your life. This is your life and you should get to decide what you do.
I know I am lucky to have made my own decisions. I know I get to make these decisions because of my mother’s decisions. When we were children, she used to tell us, “People can take away your money and your job and your land, but your education is yours forever. No one can ever take this from you.”
It was my surest decision, to have something so powerfully and permanently mine. I knew it when I was playing with my mother’s transcripts at five and when I was walking across the amphitheater stage to collect my diploma at twenty-one. I know it even now, when I pack up my desk at my first post-grad job, when people ask me what I am going to do next. “Anything,” I tell them. “Everything.”
Yena Sharma Purmasir a 22 year old poet and author from New York City. Her first book of poetry, Until I Learned What It Meant, was published by Where Are You Press in 2013. A recent graduate from Swarthmore College, Yena has spent her first year of “real adulthood” doing a year’s worth of service at Hour Children, a non-profit supporting formerly incarcerated women and their children. Yena was the Queens Teen Poet Laureate for 2010-2011 academic year. In 2014, she was the recipient of the Chuck James Literary Prize from the Black Cultural Center at Swarthmore College. Most recently, she learned that she is one of Coffee Meets Bagel’s “top 10% most LIKED members.” She owes all of her success to her family and friends, who not only read her poems, but also continue to help her choose the perfect profile picture.
1. Make mistakes. Make the same mistakes your roommates made. Make the mistake you made last semester. Make different mistakes. Make the same mistakes you’ve already made until you understand how to turn those mistakes into successes.
2. It’s not a sign of weakness to ask for an extension or to hand something in late. It’s okay to need time.
3. Trust in your professors. They’re all human, and just like your friends care when stuff in your life sucks, your professors care. Give them the benefit of the doubt. If you talk to them and tell them the truth, they’ll do what they can to help you.
4. Nobody wants you to fail.
5. Diane Anderson can fix anything, and she knows you better than you know yourself. This is a fact.
6. Friends are the people you can sit with at Sharples if you go there alone. Best friends are the people you can watch trashy TV with even though you both have work to do. Sisters are the people who stay up until 4:30 AM so that you can take a short nap at 4 and they know you won’t wake up, who order Cheng Hing with you at 11 at night because it’s easier for you to eat with other people, who come into your room and shake you awake, who check up on you without being judgmental. Make all kinds of friends, but make sisters. (You can have guy sisters. No, that doesn’t make them brothers.)
7. People have all sorts of identities. Respect them as much as you respect your own and do your best to learn the right terminology. Being able to respect and understand others goes a long way toward helping you respect and understand yourself.
8. Empathy first. Always. Remember that.
9. Karma is real. Don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise.
10. “I’m having a personal emergency” is the best way to excuse a missed class or ask for an extension when you don’t want to talk about what’s going on.
11. Your mental and physical health matter. Do nothing from time to time. Watch your guilty pleasure. Read books you like. You can’t work all the time. You’ll go crazy. Tell yourself you won’t all you want, but you will.
12. Rely on other people. Let other people rely on you. Never, ever, EVER break the trust of a friend.
13. Sometimes, your friends happen at pre-Swat meet-ups. Sometimes, you have to look for your friends. Sometimes, Rachel Head puts them in your room and you’re all sleeping in the same Twin XL bed by October. I’m not saying one kind of friend is better than others, but… …Nah. That’s totally what I’m saying. Make the kind of friends you can crawl into bed with.
14. PET ALL THE CAMPUS DOGGIES.
15. Take a class with Andrew Ward. Lucky for you, he teaches IntroPsych.
16. Take IntroPsych. Really. Psychology teaches you about other people, and there are some things you learn in psych that really help you in life.
17. Don’t say anything about someone that you wouldn’t say to that someone. This is a good lesson for life, but I definitely learned it because of the booths in Tarble and my inability to remember to swivel.
18. Hobbs. Go there. Study there. Work there. Exist there. Eat their food. Drink their coffee. Scoff at their prices, but do it anyway. TRY THEIR SUGAR WAFFLES. Just. Hobbs.
19. Take lots of pictures. One day, you’ll want to remember everything. Make sure you have photos to rely on.
20. Have a birthday week. Be the center of attention. Everyone needs it every once in a while. Don’t worry that you won’t be as fabulous a birthday princess as I am; you’re still doing great.
21. Loweclassmyn, it’s not “Essie’s.” It’s “Tarble."
22. Every single person you meet at Swarthmore (and in life, really) will know something you don’t. Listen. Let others talk. Learn from what they’re saying. You won’t regret it.
23. Learning, listening and understanding do not necessarily mean agreeing. Argue. Discuss. Converse. Be opinionated. Don’t let people shut you up.
23. Learn how to make stuff you like at Sharples. I once went an entire semester eating nothing but panini-press peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches.
24. Go to Philly. Make a point to go at least once a semester. Go for dinner, go to a museum, go shopping. Go let the workers at Lush wash your hands for you. Just go.
25. Don’t ever lock yourself away in your room because you think you can’t, or because you think you aren’t something enough.
26. Get involved with things.
27. Don’t be afraid to quit things in the middle.
28. Listen to throwback music! Nothing gets a party going like "Oops! …I Did It Again.”
29. Solo cups are not for vodka.
30. Take breaks. Reward yourself for your accomplishments.
31. Getting out of bed and going to class is an accomplishment. So is answering your phone.
32. You can do an absurd amount of work in twelve hours.
33. Ask. Ask for help doing, ask for help understanding, ask questions.
34. Make the NYTimes your homepage. You should know what’s going on in The World, even if it’s vaguely and through headlines.
35. Tumblr and Netflix and Hulu and Twitter and Facebook will eat your life. Use them anyway.
36. Turn off your phone sometimes. Be unreachable.
37. Get lost somewhere - in Philly, in New York City, in the crum.
38. Don’t do 36 and 37 at the same time.
39. Smile. Smile at animals, smile at little kids running around on campus, smile at your friends, smile at Paul Rablen when you see him walking around campus six thousand times a day. Smiling makes you happier. It’s true.
40. Study with other people, even if that just means doing work in the same place. Bring headphones.
41. Follow John Green on Twitter.
42. Read all the Neil Gaiman. Just do it.
43. Don’t have guilty pleasures. Have pleasures. Don’t ever be ashamed of the things you like. Blast Taylor Swift from your bedroom and dance around in your underwear, watch Dance Moms, read Twilight. If you like something, like it.
44. Change, but change for you. Change because you learn things about yourself. Change because you learn things about the world. Don’t change because someone asks you to or expects you to or because you think society is expecting that of you. You won’t be the same person at graduation that you were at orientation, but you should be able to look back to that wide-eyed froshYou and be happy with the changes you see.
Three months ago I took this picture. It was days before my Early Action decision for UChicago–the most prestigious college in the Midwest and where I most desired to live the life of the mind. Unfortunately, three months ago I was deferred. Because of that deferral, I had another decision today. And today I was waitlisted.
Instead of dreading the negative aspects of my number one school deferring me, I decided to apply to other schools in December, some of which I now favor even more than UChicago. Because of this, I don’t see my newfound placement on the waitlist as such a terrible thing; in the fall, I’ll have the fantastic opportunity to attend a university that truly believes in me, even if just months ago I would have preferred UChicago.
I have great faith that other colleges will notice my potential and my love for both learning and improvement.
Don’t bomb your interview! you can read current students’ advice for nailing the interviews along with their essays, stats, and background on admitsee.com–a student-run startup founded at the University of Pennsylvania. Oh, and if you’re already in college, get paid for anonymously sharing your info!