To My Comrades Still Navigating Higher Education
By Alex Ngo
I am a recent college graduate inspired to write this as a thank you to my comrades for the times they picked up one of my fallen stars, embraced me, withered and weak, and lifted me back up. As I leave college with a degree and my dreams tucked behind my ribcage, I humbly offer these reflections and lessons to other (queer) people of color still navigating institutions of higher education.
As a first-generation, cash-poor college student who was also a queer person of color, I was expected to be one of the “Leaders and Best” at school. Not only that, I had to be even better. I had to do more. I had to choose academics over my survival. I had to carve myself out. I had to be hollow.
I hid my shock as I navigated class differences for the first time, realizing I was going to school with rich, privileged white students who did not understand what it was like to come from a community where the dream of going to college often remains just that: a dream. I hid my pain as I learned about the history of my marginalization in classrooms that replicated that very oppression. I hid my scars as I learned to articulate my struggle while other students were partaking in oppression voyeurism. I hid my anger as others sought to exploit my yellow, my poor, my queer, my other for their own learning.
I quickly learned that I was led to college under false pretenses. I naively thought I would actually be able to learn, grow, and “change the world” without jeopardizing my own sanity, health, and well-being. That’s how they get us. They tell us we’re part of something bigger than ourselves and that we’re destined for greatness when in reality, all they see is a crowd of faceless students to be exploited, chosen to fund their institution with our parents’ sacrifices, our student loans, our hopes and dreams.
They tell us we’re better than the communities we came from and indoctrinate us into a capitalist “education” system that builds success on the backs of the people who watered us. My classmates somehow thought I was better than my mother, who worked day and night waiting tables to support her four children; they thought this because I “made it out.” They turned the adversities I faced into their own version of a feel-good success story, despite the real heroes coming from the cash-poor community I grew up in.
While trying to survive the demands of school, my comrades and I nourished ourselves on theory too thin to keep our bones warm and slept only when the settled dust on our eyelids was too heavy to hold. We attended classes that offered our humanity as part of the lesson plan and were taught to see all of this as normal under the racist, elitist, and ableist framework that keeps systems of oppression and universities functioning.
Still, our hearts continued to beat and our fire continued to burn and we held onto ourselves and each other through it all, despite being told our hands were only good for typing papers, taking notes from professors who only saw us as learning tools, or stitching together the institution’s false image of “diversity.”
We promised to protect and love one another. We formed coalitions and created worlds inside our raised fists. At night, we dreamed of better futures within the margins of radical possibility. We sang lullabies into the still air waiting to find each other so we could finally tell our stories. When we finally found one another, our rage turned into collective action.
We protested, organized, and changed policies. In order to be heard, we skipped classes to stage sit-ins in administrative buildings built on stolen land. We sat on panels even when we knew we were being tokenized for an agenda that did not fully see us. We accepted awards reluctantly, knowing that recognition is often a tool to silence us. We worked until sunrise crafting manifestos and planning demonstrations, despite knowing that the university would eventually co-opt our activism and call it its own. We were powerful because we existed in an environment that sought to destroy us.
Despite the armor we wore to show the world we were not victims, we hurt. I saw too many of my comrades struggle with mental health issues and as a defense mechanism, they normalized and minimized their suffering. I did, too. We were first pushed to become activists in order to survive, but what happens when that activism impedes our survival because we forget our capacity for health and happiness?
As (queer) people of color who still carry our many traumas in the curve of our spines, we often forget to take the time to nurture love and joy. We forget to remind ourselves that we are not our traumas. We forget to remember we can thrive. Happiness is something that we are told does not belong to us, but I am determined now more than ever to hold onto happiness, real down-to-the-core happiness, and to remind myself that my existence is enough.
I want to tell those of you still in school that you are enough. You deserve to be loved and to love without apology. The justice that you will enact in the world will expand and spread so much further than the walls of your colonial institution. You do not have to submit your own health and well-being in order to see yourself as a warrior. You do not have to engage. To choose not to is often an act of rebellion when those with power assume you are at their disposal.
You should not have to feel guilty for setting boundaries. Preserving yourself is revolutionary. Take care of your comrades and spread justice through love, rhythm, art, home-cooked meals, and affirmations.
Center your energy, listen to your vibrations, nourish the water that flows within you, and keep your fire burning. Reframe your definition of success. To be well-acclimated to a corrupt and broken world is not something we should strive for. Your truths do not and should not fit within the confines of other people’s comfort. Your existence is too large and special to be restrained.
To you, studying in classrooms that exploit your existence; to you, fighting sexual violence on campus; to you, facilitating oppression 101 workshops; to you, standing tall on campus; to you, providing free consulting to administrators and professors who should know better; to you, healing through trauma; to you, working multiple jobs to pay for school; to you, loving and connecting with others chest-to-chest, palm-to-palm, eyes-to-heart, universe-to-universe; to you, my comrade: thank you.