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When I was seventeen and applying for college, I had some restrictions. The fact was, I didn’t have an unlimited supply of funding to draw from, so, that meant certain schools were off the table before I even began. I would not be applying to the Ivy League schools, just as an example. That was partially my own doing. If I had exemplary grades as a high schooler, rather than the good and solid grades I did get, perhaps I could have gotten a scholarship to have helped me through.

On the other hand, I was in a class of thirty-eight people.

Then there was the geography. My mother and grandmother wanted me to stay within a reasonable driving distance of New York, presumably so they could come visit me during the term and I guess so I’d have an easier time coming home. Bus fare or gas money, if I hitched a ride from a classmate, was pricey. It also meant my dream of going to California as an undergrad was not going to happen.

I personally ruled out any NYC area school. Having been permanently grounded for the entirety of my teenage years, I was not about to continue that trend into college. And since college dorms at New York schools were off limits if you were a New York resident, it would have meant living at home to attend, and that simply would not do.

And finally, there was my personal interest of study. I was clearly headed towards English Lit as a major; a school that was good for the arts was where I needed to be.

I applied to eight schools and got into seven of them, with the most distant one of the bunch Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, PA. It was so far away, we didn’t even look at the campus, this, despite the fact that we had cousins who lived in a small town not far from the area, and some of whom now live in Pittsburgh, proper.

I would have liked CMU for a few reasons. It had a reputation for success in the arts, including a pretty illustrious list of alumni, many of whom went on to great careers in show business or in literature. From Kurt Vonnegut to Stephen Schwartz, from Steven Bochco to Bud Yorkin, from Carol Channing to Henry Mancini. And Pittsburgh was (and still is) a city I admire a great deal. I might even say I dote on it. I think if I had my way, I probably would have gone to Carnegie Mellon, just because of those elements. After all, who wouldn't want fifteen minutes of fame?

Boston University was the next most distant. The advantage here was a direct route. Amtrak would make it an easy in and out, probably the simplest option for travel of any of my choices. There was just something foreboding about Beantown and the school itself, to my mind, even without the Yankees/Red Sox element as a part of the problem (I also got into Tufts University, but I was never serious about that concept. My adviser simply suggested that as a safety school).

The compromise vote was Bucknell University, situated in the sleepy town of Lewisburg, PA. Bucknell had a lot of positives going for it, from my family’s view. First, it was close enough: about a two-and-a-half hour drive from New York, a straight shoot on Route 80 once you crossed the George Washington Bridge, then a quick zip south on Route 15 when you reached Central Pennsylvania. More importantly to me, it was far enough away to be off the RADAR. There would not be constant check-ins at this distance, allowing me my first ever taste of freedom.

Next it was (and still is) a really good arts school. Not only did they have a great English department and a wonderful library, they also had a remarkable theater, worthy of any I had seen on any campus. And it was a simply gorgeous campus – looking like the Central Casting version of what a University should be, and was eventually featured in a commercial for Hyundai.

It also wasn’t too large. The undergraduate population for the school ran about four-thousand total and I think it’s still below six-thousand, now. That was a better transition, coming from my tiny sized high school.

But the best element for me was the financial aid they were willing to provide. That, more than anything, turned the tide. Well, that and the fact that every faculty member that encountered me during second semester of my high school Senior year asked, “You’re going to Bucknell, right?” Bucknell clearly wanted me and wanted me badly enough to demonstrate that in the most obvious way possible: Cold Hard Cash. So, it was off to the Susquehanna River for my college experience!

I think it was pretty clear that my “recruitment” to this university was, in great part, due to Affirmative Action. Many colleges and universities did have and some still do have, problems getting minority students to accept their invitations. We can certainly discuss the reasons why that happened and why it continues to happen, but Affirmative Action was one initiative, designed to help resolve that issue.

Many people don’t understand that Affirmative Action actually serves two purposes. The first and more obvious purpose is that it allows minority students the opportunity to attend the seats of learning that their white counterparts have attended regularly and to receive a degree from those places of higher education, permitting them a better start in life and a better chance to achieve their goals. That’s really nice and something that will provide positive gains for our society in the long run.

Some people, admittedly, mostly white people, who understand that there is only a finite space in a college’s enrollment, take issue with Affirmative Action. They feel as if it permits “underqualified” or “unqualified” students to attend a school, while their children, who likely would have been accepted, might be blocked.

This issue was even taken to the Supreme Court, where in 2016, a case was brought by a white student who wished to attend the University of Texas, claiming she was “discriminated against because of her race.” The conservative SCOTUS split, but upheld the concept of Affirmative Action. Still, it was clear, the dissenting voices on the court were not content with the ruling, which also meant that a lot of Americans didn’t like or understand the issue, either.

That leads directly to the other element that Affirmative Action provides. It is the one most people, especially those like the woman in that Supreme Court lawsuit, neither realize nor understand. To me, it may be the more important purpose. The fact is, the United States is not the so-called “melting pot” often referenced when being described. We are, for the most part, separate groups. Part of that is due to Jim Crow Laws that were only repealed in 1964. Those laws forbade minorities to live, work, even shop or dine in the same places with white folks.

The problem with such separation is that it permits people to imagine what those “other people” are about, which is how we get stereotypes and prejudice. Affirmative Action was a method of clearing that well, of taking those thoughts and bringing them into the light. You can’t assume people are different when you are in classroom and in the cafeteria with them. You can see we really are all the same, and why would you be afraid of someone, based on hearsay? Who knew that it would, in some cases, create even more animosity?

But what I didn’t completely know or understand as I was making my final decision of what school I would attend was that Bucknell University had a real reason for wanting more minority students. Bucknell’s student body were (and very much still are) from the most insulated suburbs of the upper crust throughout the region: Connecticut towns like Darien, Cos Cob and Greenwich, the Philadelphia Main Line with those sprawling mansions, areas of Maryland and Virginia that housed golf courses and/or former plantations, and even the portions of New Jersey that people considered attractive!

The people from all of those places, were, likewise, incredibly insulated. That meant they had, to say the least, no empirical knowledge of what minority students were about, or even in some cases, no concept that minority students existed.

The issues I faced as a minority student at Bucknell made my reflection on my time there ambivalent, at best. But if you are an African American, that is often a standard. Independence Day, Thanksgiving, it’s tough to characterize the feeling you get from days like these, because of the meaning, but ambivalence does seem to sum it up. It’s like if you really loved a relative, say a grandmother or aunt, and they died on your birthday. Then, every year, you would celebrate your special day, but in the back of your head you know that you lost someone that meant a lot to you on that same day. Now, imagine waking up and having to consider that thought on a daily basis.

So, while I finally had my first opportunity to become the social person I always hoped to be, I was suddenly in an atmosphere where nobody really wanted to be social with me, simply because of who I was. It took a while for me to understand what was happening, but when I belatedly did, I had to grin at the circumstances, and just keep moving.

//

This story was written for LJ Idol, using the prompt Invitation
*This also is the continuation of a series of essays I wrote in autobiographical form tagged "Story of My Life." The most recent previous essay in this series was written in January, 2009.

Comments

( 26 comments — Leave a comment )
i_17bingo
May. 27th, 2017 11:03 am (UTC)
It frustrates me about Affirmative Action that (white) people assume it was their college to begin with. That young woman in the Supreme Court was, by all accounts, a really lukewarm student at best, and the minorities who "stole" her place were excellent students. I hear from that side of the debate the importance of merit, but in this case it was less important than what this woman thought she was entitled to.

Sorry to get off on a mini-rant, but Affirmative Action is very important, and it's so unfairly maligned it's kind of upsetting.
penpusher
May. 27th, 2017 11:32 am (UTC)
This is the problem with racism in America. It is something that no white person has actually experienced first-hand, so there's no way to explain what it is to them in a way that can be understood. It's like trying to tell a person with no nerve endings what pain feels like! How could you do it?

The default situation for white people in this country is they have EVERYTHING. (They may not have it all, personally, but they have access and a vast amount of support.) So, the only time they would actually notice something different happening is when stuff they would like is being "taken away" from them - Affirmative Action qualifies as one of those circumstances.

It really doesn't help to encourage empathy in a circumstance like this, when you're being asked to empathize with people who are nothing like you, people you see as a drain on society, people you hate. When you already know everything about a situation, there really is no point in listening to what anyone has to say about it. This is what we are facing when it comes to the topic of Race in America.

Thanks very much for reading and your thoughts on the matter.
bleodswean
May. 27th, 2017 07:48 pm (UTC)
I really, really enjoy your non-fiction essays! This one was a difficult read and I'm sorry to hear you've encountered prejudice. I never got the feeling when I was in uni that students of any colour had an issue with diversity. But this was West Coast...and I know East Coast higher education is serious bizness.

So....do you hold a degree in English Lit?
penpusher
May. 28th, 2017 12:11 pm (UTC)
Thanks very much!

I think you cannot be a member of a minority group and not experience some form of racism, at some level, here in the United States. Most of the time it's not something that will *stop* you in your tracks. But it will remind you that certain members of our society do feel you are beneath them, and that, more than anything, is what it is designed to do.

I did graduate with a B.A. in English from Bucknell. Maybe I'll go back to telling more stories of my life... certainly the college stories were eventful!
rayaso
May. 28th, 2017 04:30 pm (UTC)
This was a very interesting essay, with its heart at the end.
penpusher
May. 29th, 2017 08:02 pm (UTC)
I actually was clicking along telling the story of my life until I got to college, which really was something I hadn't quite confronted in a way I could reasonably share with anyone. It took a lot of processing and understanding to get to the point where I could begin again, and this was, perhaps, the start of that. Thanks for reading.
favoritebean
May. 29th, 2017 08:33 am (UTC)
Thank you for writing about Affirmative Action. I think there are a lot of people who really don't understand its purpose, as can be seen by the 2016 case. I really wanted to pull out my hair that so many people didn't get it.

I hope that enough people will read this and get a better idea. I remember a lot of people being upset about Affirmative Action during my undergraduate studies, and I really didn't understand their POV. Then again, we had a president who actively discouraged minorities from applying to our state school. Yeah, we called for his resignation, and he was ousted before I graduated. But that was still the 90s. Sad things haven't changed all these years later.

Sorry, I totally babbled.

Again, thank you for writing about this. A very compelling take on the prompt.
penpusher
May. 29th, 2017 08:05 pm (UTC)
It's pretty simple. You can be upset about Affirmative Action if you choose to overlook all of the history that happened that created a need for it.

Thanks for reading and, for what it's worth, I didn't think you babbled at all!
lordrexfear
May. 29th, 2017 11:10 pm (UTC)
Wait...
you're black? :P ;)

I found it actually more fascinating your breakdown of figuring out where you went to school more then the crux reason and why that reason existed. As important a discussion as it is. Just figuring out college without all that other shit that should not matter is a task.

Also, you moved back to NYC after living out of state? Man, if I had actually looked into colleges out of state I probably would've never come back to NYC unless on a vacation. Then again my life would be 1000% different. Just as yours would have you chosen a different school. Those decisions make and break us, but time machines (or even alternative timeline reveal machines) don't exist... YET.
penpusher
May. 30th, 2017 02:29 am (UTC)
Haha!

You are correct that the process of choosing a college both is difficult to determine and definitely has an impact on everything that happens after it. The problem is that even if you made the decision you thought would have turned out better, there is absolutely no way of knowing that to be true.

I only moved back to New York after college because I didn't have a way of supporting myself/paying my college loans without living at home. And it was key to pay off those college loans sooner rather than later.

With that last sentence, I feel like you've seen an early draft of my novel manuscript...
halfshellvenus
May. 30th, 2017 11:38 pm (UTC)
I'm left wondering how you could be in a graduating class of 38 people (unless that was the entire school!) and still be anywhere near NYC!

Though the desire to get away, I very much understand. Been there, made that decision. ;)

Our kids have applied to college recently, so we've been through some of this from the other side. University of Washington wanted to know how our daughter would help diversify the campus, which has the odd effect of coming off as if minority students are being sought to provide a more diverse experience for the white students. Your Bucknell description reminded me of that a little.

But we've had the talk with our kids, about why AA did and does exist, and also that just because you haven't personally witnessed racism does not at all mean it isn't happening. If you're not the target, you may not see it (it isn't directed at you) and your presence may be the leavening influence that prevents it from happening that particular time.

I think the other students at Bucknell were clearly missing out on what an awesome guy you are, which is very much their loss.

penpusher
May. 31st, 2017 01:48 am (UTC)
I attended a private high school on Central Park West. The entire school, from 6th through 12th grade was fewer than 300 students. And our Senior class was divided into two sections.

The fact is, to do anything in this life requires some form of rehearsal. Yes, there are some things we are naturally equipped to do, but for a lot of elements, it takes practice to become good. So, my lack of experience with having social time with other people was a unique issue that, in some ways, I still need to address.

I think you're right - the element of adding minorities, certainly in Bucknell's case and likely in your example of the U of W was really more for acclimating the white students to the world they would face, but it also did provide minority students with a sense of what they would be dealing with when they graduated, unfortunately!

The issue of racism is still, by and large, one we haven't addressed in any substantive way, and until we are willing to examine it in a reasoned manner, it will remain an undercurrent that can and will continue to spark up at any given moment at any location in any town or city in any state of our country, all tragedies that would have been averted had we simply taken the time to talk about it.

Thanks for taking the time to talk and comment!
beeker121
May. 30th, 2017 11:50 pm (UTC)
Your second point about affirmative action is so true, until we start meeting people instead of seeing groups who are other, even well intentioned folks can make bone-headed mistakes. As a small-town, Midwestern, white girl working in theater exploded my world view in all the best possible ways.

I hope Bucknell turned out to be a good place for you, despite initial problems.
penpusher
May. 31st, 2017 02:45 am (UTC)
I think generally, how I handled the circumstances got me through it. I would also say that I learned a lot about human nature and about what people value in others, and how that might differ, based on arbitrary reasons.

But I made great use of all the educational elements I did while there, and all of my extracurricular activities turned into things I actually did professionally at some later time, so, I succeeded pretty nicely, overall.

Thanks for understanding and for sharing your thoughts about it all!
eternal_ot
May. 31st, 2017 08:09 am (UTC)
This made for a wonderful thought provoking read. I totally agree on the fact that unless you experience it yourself you can't relate to it as much. Great take!
penpusher
May. 31st, 2017 11:23 am (UTC)
Thanks so much for your kind understanding and lovely compliment! I still have hope we can resolve these problems which could lead to a resolution both in the west and around the world!
xlovebecomesher
May. 31st, 2017 09:56 pm (UTC)
I can't imagine being a part of a class of 38 students and then going to college where it's a lot bigger! It must of been an adjustment to say the least just in size alone. Very good take on this topic - I'm curious if Bucknell ended up being a positive or negative experience as a whole?
penpusher
May. 31st, 2017 10:36 pm (UTC)
I was a little relieved to be in a bigger pool, actually. 38 is way too small a class for anyone to be in. We literally knew more about each other than any of us wanted to know, and that was just from my time during class, which was, basically, my only time to be around my classmates.

Even though my high school class was tiny, I live in a city of 8 million! So the size of my college really was no issue. And as far as being a positive or negative, the short answer is both! Overall, especially with some perspective, is it was basically more positive in some ways, including helping me gain some valuable coping skills. Definitely didn't help with relationship aspect of my life, but that's a whole other story!
lolaslaughter
Jun. 1st, 2017 01:12 am (UTC)
My husband comes from an adoption family. He is white but many of his brothers are different races (African American, Puerto Rican, Egyptian to name a few) and it makes me sad to see that race still does have an impact. For us we're just one big family, but every so often people get flustered when I introduce them to my extended family. It's almost like they can't understand how we could all actually be related. I loved your entry and I hope you found people at Bucknell who didn't see color, but saw a fellow student and a possible friend instead. ❤️❤️
penpusher
Jun. 1st, 2017 03:31 pm (UTC)
Your husband's family sounds like the America we all should be striving for! I did find some good friends while I was in central PA, a few of whom I am still in touch with, via facebook or some other social media.

Thanks for sharing a bit about your reflections and for a wonderful compliment!
encrefloue
Jun. 1st, 2017 09:39 pm (UTC)
Sorry you had to face those thoughts every day of your college career. That must have been so draining and maddening. Thanks for sharing!
penpusher
Jun. 2nd, 2017 02:21 am (UTC)
The coping mechanisms I developed during that time definitely helped get me through the time. Without that skill set, I might not have been fully prepared for the rest of my life! Thanks for reading!
flipflop_diva
Jun. 1st, 2017 10:02 pm (UTC)
I was sort of hoping there would be more of a happy ending to the story. I'm sorry you had to deal with all that.

I really liked the top section about picking colleges. Super relatable. When I was picking colleges, we lived in California and my dad told me it had to be west of the Rockies. And not a University of California school because he didn't think classes of 300+ students were appropriate. Heh.
penpusher
Jun. 2nd, 2017 02:30 am (UTC)
The happy ending was I survived the time, and even, in some ways thrived, but the full story really didn't happen until I actually arrived on campus and started in with my classes and dorm life.

Thanks for reading and for your comment!

Edited at 2017-06-02 02:30 am (UTC)
murielle
Jun. 1st, 2017 10:37 pm (UTC)
I have always said, I love it when I learn something. I learned more than something here, I learned several things. Thank you.
penpusher
Jun. 2nd, 2017 02:31 am (UTC)
I'm thankful you read along, and I appreciate your reflection! Thank YOU!
( 26 comments — Leave a comment )

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