One of my favorite sights to see on campus aren’t just the old beautiful brick buildings, the fall scenery, or the beautiful glass sculpture in the library. This particular sighting I’m discussing happens every now and then, primarily in the fall or spring. It’s witnessing prospective students seeing the campus for the first time. When I was a prospie, I also had that teary eyed look of wonder as I marveled at our beautiful campus. I know there are many of us here who would agree with me and who also had a similar experience, and I know this because many times I have heard the phrase, “Mount Holyoke is like a utopia!”
For many people, Mount Holyoke is a utopia in its primarily liberal ideologies (although we do have students that identify as conservative). And I am not going to pretend that I do not revel in this liberal and radical ideology that is present on this campus. The critical discussions I have had with students here are no comparison to conversations I had with my peers growing up. Again, this is the first place where many students feel they have the ability to live into their identity more here than anywhere else. Due to this, it is also said, that “Mount Holyoke is a bubble.” Often times this is stated in the context that people will never find a place like this school where their ideas are not challenged or find such a widespread consensus on certain ideologies.
However, these statements are much more weighted than one thinks.
I think we can prove in light of recent events at the college in the past few years that Mount Holyoke is very much an institution that works within a real world. What people refer to as real world problems happen to students on this campus. In no way are we cut off from the problematic aspects of society by attending this school. Students who identify as any minority very much feel the repercussions and oppression that the supposed outside world perpetuates, even within the confines of this campus.
This isn’t to be dismissive of some benefits of the community. When I’m an adult in the real world, will milk and cookies be readily available to me at 9:30 PM Monday through Thursday and Sunday? No. Is it safer for me as a lesbian to be openly gay here compared to other areas of the country? At times, yes (arguably because of my privilege as a cis-woman and white skin). Will I have to buy an apartment, pay taxes, find a job, and perform other capitalist activities to function within society as I live in the United States? Yes. It’s unavoidable.
However, I want people to think about their position on this campus when they say it is a utopia or that it is a bubble. It is highly privileged for one to say that this school isn’t in the real world, because there are many students at this school who have had experiences where this “utopian” idea was interrupted. To say Mount Holyoke isn’t in the real world is to deny the reality of students who may not experience this “utopia” based on race, socioeconomic status, ability, sexuality, and more.
There is a belief that by virtue of being a student at this school, you are automatically instilled with all of the ideas and skills to discuss and promote progressive movements and ideologies. I often refer to this campus phenomenon as, “jumping on the liberal bandwagon.” However, it needs to be acknowledged that just because our school is more progressive and we generally have more progressive students, does not mean that people will not unintentionally do or say something problematic at some point. Nor does it mean this institution is immune from doing or saying something problematic. It is because liberal ideologies are implied and assumed among all students that we then are afraid to discuss them. It seems as though, to discuss them would be to question them, which is a detrimental mentality to have for those of us who plan on doing activist work. We must engage in critical dialogue of how even seemingly perfect places and people have their flaws.
This campus isn’t a utopia for students of color when they feel like they can’t take classes with certain professors. This campus isn’t a bubble when sexual violence happens as it also happens on college campuses across the country. This campus isn’t a utopia when some students are struggling financially to go to this school. This campus isn’t a bubble when queer people of color are segregated from queer spaces (as this is also a wider issue within other queer communities). Having the ability to say Mount Holyoke is a utopia is an exercise of one’s privilege.
Let me make something perfectly clear. Mount Holyoke is an institution. And within the United States capitalist system, institutions are bound to do problematic things. At this time in history, it is unavoidable. My purpose in writing this isn’t to crush the utopian dreams that a student may have about this school. Rather I encourage people to reframe their thinking. By recognizing that Mount Holyoke isn’t a perfect place, you actually give it great credit.
You are saying we have potential. You are saying we can do better.
I engage in critical dialogue because I believe in the potential of Mount Holyoke. If I thought it was hopeless, I wouldn’t be working to make it better. Critiquing something doesn’t mean it is hopeless. However, falling under the mentality that we can’t criticize Mount Holyoke because it’s better than an alternative is harmful. Giving recognition to the hardships that other students carry on this campus is what it means to be an ally. The struggles others face are also your struggles as we are all participants in this community and should want to improve the experiences of the people who make this place possible. It is important to celebrate fully the accomplishments of the college, yet we are also called to lay down with our fellow students when they are knocked down by the consequences of the institution. That is how community is built. Let us begin to do what we can to share the burden that our peers may be carrying in order to build a stronger foundation of siblinghood at this school.