Going to school at Mount Holyoke is both a gift and a privilege in so many ways. For many, it is the first time when personal ideological and political ideals are not only taken seriously, but offered a community to build upon and grow into. It has become a haven for students who have often gone unprotected and ignored. A haven where their pronouns are respected and their feminism is not shrugged off as a phase or overreaction. Arriving here this fall as a first-year, I looked forward to the rapport I would develop with people who are passionate about the same things I am. I wanted to grow as a feminist and and use what I learned to change the world. I was proud of the looks I got for going to a “women’s college”.
However, I have taken a little longer to adjust than I expected. The in-depth conversations that I yearned for in high school left me speechless here. Everyone has something to say, something important, something life changing. That is, everyone except for me. I left my first Gender Studies class feeling silly and unprepared for college compared to my outspoken classmates. I think that as isolated as I felt, the feeling of being overwhelmed and unprepared for the activist culture at Mount Holyoke is common for new students. It is difficult for the veteran members of the safe spaces and groups around Mount Holyoke to readjust to the gaps in the arriving class’s knowledge. Come September, the campus is suddenly flooded with people questioning the necessity of asking for personal pronouns or failing to appreciate the importance of safe spaces for queer people of color. Despite the genuinely curious nature of students, the clash between the seasoned student activists and the newcomers is at times, tangible. I have seen it online, heard it in dining halls, and felt it in classes. I couldn’t help but feel it during class when, during a discussion about the complexities of the gender binary, my classmates shot down a simplified tool used to explain it to others with significant rancor.
Conversations about these personal and high stakes subjects are hard. It is easy to hurt and be hurt, especially during discussions about critical topics. It is easy for everyone involved to forget the learning curve on campus. Some people may be well versed in feminism and social justice before starting college, so taking part in conversations here is an easy transition. For others, their passion is what brought them to Mount Holyoke but they haven’t yet been exposed to the language of activism. This ignorance may seem conspicuous. It can be callous and oblivious, but it is rarely malicious. While taking part in social justice and activism, it is paramount to remember the positions of privilege we hold: we are all attending Mount Holyoke, but some lack the advantages that our classmates benefit from. Many of us hold various forms of privilege whether it is financial stability, feeling represented in a hetero and cis-normative culture, or simply speaking English as a first language. All of these play a role in who can take part and benefit from activism. Looking at privilege as it relates to activism may seem almost counterintuitive, especially on a campus where so many students are working to break down barriers and educate others about privilege.
Remembering personal privilege and learning from the experiences of others is something that I have witnessed people struggle with here. They seem to forget that the articles we read in class are not representative of everybody’s reality, no matter how acclaimed the author. One scholar’s way of describing an issue may not perfectly align with the views of someone else experiencing that reality, whether is it living in poverty or navigating the world as a minority. It is so frustrating to watch as academic and ideological elitism drag people away from the intersectional feminism that they are so committed to. Yes, our school is progressive in many ways, but it is painfully obvious that myopia and an insidious culture of selective activism are deeply ingrained aspects of campus life. Selective activism can make allowing some voices into conversations feel next to impossible.
Many people are familiar with the language of feminism and politics. But not every student arrives here with the same familiarity. Many go home from college and explain the difference between sex and gender to their parents for the first time; Advanced Placement classes are not offered at every high school; and as we learn in many classes here, some concepts do not translate easily from English to other languages. So it is understandable then, that many students begin to build the foundation for their own activism only after arriving on campus.
Sometimes early academic and ideological foundations of the way we interact with the world are shaky. They may be simplistic or misadvised and can be problematic in one way or another. But over time they can be improved, with a willingness to learn and a commitment to personal growth. This is why I’m asking, as an occasionally hapless first-year who is trying her best, for everyone to have patience. I ask the other newcomers on campus to listen with open minds and to accept criticism when it is offered. Being called out isn’t the end of the world; it hurts and can be embarrassing but it is also evidence of growth. Yet, don’t underestimate your capacity for understanding, by actively seeking out knowledge and different perspectives you are creating your own framework for your world. And to those students already comfortable with their beliefs and their conversations: I ask for your empathy, for you to remember how it felt to live and exist here for the first time. And I ask everyone to remember that college offers many opportunities to learn, not just from professors but from the many new and vastly different people we meet on campus. Our diversity is a strength that we all can benefit from, and every arriving class member adds to that strength.
Mount Holyoke is at the forefront of liberal arts education and college activism for good reason. As individual students we are challenged to think critically while together we take steps every day to create the world we imagine. Mount Holyoke is meant to be a place where students can safely learn and build on their knowledge without fear of judgement. Maintaining this safe space takes time and effort on everybody’s part. No matter how difficult the adjustment is, everyone has the right to strengthen the ideals that underscore their work as activists and builders of the future.