Hillary Clinton Holds Campaign Roundtable In Las Vegas

Making College Free Won’t Fix My Problems With Academia

Hillary Clinton recently announced her plan to eliminate student debt and make it easier for low-income students to pursue a higher education. In her first year as President, she promises to make college tuition-free for students from families making than $85,000 a year and will extend this program to families making less than $125,000 by 2021. Anyone who has either attended college or been discouraged from attending because of the price tag knows college affordability is an urgent concern for our generation – yet many of us know too well that paying for school is only the first obstacle low-income and students of color face in our academic journeys.

I grew up in a Latinx migrant household where going to college was seen as the only path to success. I was led to believe that if I didn’t excel academically, my parent’s sacrifices and hard work were all for nothing. College was always the end goal, the silver lining to a dark and gloomy cloud called the undocumented migrant experience. No matter the psychological, economic, or emotional costs, I was going to attend and graduate from college, no if’s, and’s, or but’s about it.

Once I became a college student and managed to pay my tuition bills, I realized my struggles were far from over. Not only did I feel disconnected from other students because of my class status, I also suffered from feelings of inadequacy and alienation. I felt like I had immigrated all over again, leaving home and entering this unfamiliar territory where no one looked like me or had backgrounds like mine. Between participating in roundtables on diversity that never led to any change, to being asked to explain my oppression to my classmates and being told the only acceptable theories and methodologies are those that have been used to colonize and recolonize my home country, I quickly learned higher education was not designed with people like me in mind.

If I ever complained to my parents about my internal struggles, the academic work load (which I, as the product of the public school system, was not prepared for), and the emotional labor involved in being a POC in academia – they responded with: “Pero you’re so lucky to be there. You know how many people wish they were in your shoes?” So, I bottled it in and decided that perhaps I was demanding too much of my professors and peers.

But, the longer I stayed in academia, the more I realized that I wasn’t the problem – the problem was a system rigged against people like me. While a student at Yale Divinity School, I heard students complain that hiring faculty members of color would take away from hiring professors of different Christian denominations. I had to watch my Black friend cry as she walked past a building named “Master’s House” while administrators refused to acknowledge her tears and the ancestral memory they reflected. I went two years without a single Latinx professor or administrator, without a mentor of color, and constantly felt like no one understood what I was going through.

There have been instances where I’ve been asked to speak to Latinx middle and high school students about the benefits and privileges that come along with a college degree, to share my story to inspire them to work hard and pursue a higher education. But how do I tell them they may be worse off in college than in the workplace? How do I tell them that I suffered from severe depression and anxiety because of the exploitation and abuse I experienced in college? How do I tell them it’s not as empowering as our families and communities imagine it to be?

Even if college is “free,” many marginalized students pay for attendance with their mental and emotional wellbeing. We will always be asked to sacrifice something. We will always end up losing something. Always. The system is not made for us to win.

Hillary Clinton wants to make college free for low-income students. But, as long as colleges and universities continue to gentrify the communities around them, to underreport and downplay campus sexual assault, and treat diversity as a quota to fill and not a mission to guide their work, making college free won’t fix my problems. While students continue to organize and mobilize around racism, classism, and sexism in the classrooms, schools continue to marginalize students by ignoring their racist, heteronormative, settler-colonial histories and practices. These are real problems that unfortunately, free tuition cannot fix.

Making college free is an important step, but isn’t the only answer to the complex problems marginalized students face on a daily basis. While we continue to push back against all the obstacles we face in accessing higher education, I’ll leave you with these words from my undergraduate sisters and brothers at Yale: “We out here. We been here. We ain’t leaving. We are loved.”

Header image via msnbc

Durham, NC

Barbara is a doctoral student at The University of North Carolina interested in im/migration and migrant activism and organizing.

Barbara is a doctoral student at The University of North Carolina interested in im/migration and migrant activism and organizing.

Read more about Barbara

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