Reflecting on My Time at W&L
My relationship with Washington and Lee as an alum has been complicated. I’m grateful for so many things that came from my undergraduate experience at W&L but also feel incredible frustration and anger for what was lacking in my experience. I’ve spent much of the last 15 years as an alum putting my feelings on a far back burner and have avoided thinking too much about my feelings towards W&L because geographic distance from the university gave me an excuse to not engage. Now that I’ve returned to my home state of Virginia, I feel a call to engage critically with my feelings towards W&L. The emergence of the Generals Redoubt campaign has also spurred me into thinking further about what I’m called to do to help the university progress towards being a community that is more inclusive and celebrates difference with gusto.
I came to Washington and Lee in the fall of September 2001 confident and very self-aware but completely naive of the social forces that dominated life at W&L. These forces would put me off balance in a way that was unfamiliar and difficult to name until I graduated and saw undergraduate life at another similarly sized liberal arts institution done in a very different way. An important part of my personal journey is that I came to America as a refugee child raised by a single father. Through my journey prior to and after coming to America, I possessed a maturity and a resilience that wasn’t common amongst my peers and that would help me survive Washington and Lee. If I hadn’t had that strength and deep sense of who I was and my purpose, I have no doubt that I would have come out of W&L with many more scars than I did.
I participated in the hiking pre-orientation trip, and everything seemed fine and as expected during that trip. Things quickly shifted when we returned to campus and real life at W&L began during orientation week. I was appalled by the first party that I attended. I can’t remember the details, but I remember the insane level of drinking and debauchery that was present. I am a fairly big rule follower and I took DARE classes to heart so I had no intentions of engaging with alcohol or any other substance at any point in my life. Being principled and stubborn, no amount of peer pressure or coaxing was going to change my mind. And the behaviors and scenes that I witnessed didn’t do much to persuade me to change my mind either. I naively thought that this was an anomaly and thought the next party would be different. As you already know, I was proven wrong.
The other dynamic that is seared into my memory of those first few weeks--and really every week thereafter--is that I never received a personal invitation to any of these parties. While other girls on my hall got phone call invitations and flyers under their door to attend this and that party, I received nothing. The only way I learned about the parties was through word of mouth from my hallmates. It was years later that I learned about an underground practice in which fraternity members would go through the physical Facebook at the time and hand select suitable girls to invite to their parties. Being a brown girl, it wasn’t surprising that I didn’t fit the criteria. Knowing what I know now about the toxic levels of misogyny that existed and the high occurrence of sexual harassment and assaults that took place in these fraternity houses, I am grateful to have been left out even though it stung to not feel included. The functions that I did receive personal invitations to and attended often were events hosted by the university. At those functions, there was a common demographic theme amongst those who attended. They tended to be people of color, international students, and students on financial aid. As a result, my circle of associates and friends shifted.
Though my world prior to W&L was also predominantly White and I came into W&L more accustomed to having White people in my circle than people of color, I was quickly made aware that my white peers at W&L were on a very different wavelength from me. Though I was treated with civility, I never fully felt like I belonged amongst my peers. For the first time, I felt out of place amongst White people and found camaraderie with other people of color. Many of these friends were Black, and I received an education in inclusion and community from these peers that completely changed my worldview and perspective on society and still informs my thinking today. I became woke before woke became a thing because of the relationships that I formed with fellow peers at W&L who lived on the margins in similar ways to me and felt poorly served mentally, socially and sometimes intellectually by the mainstream social culture at W&L. It’s in this small, close-knit community that I met my husband. While the general student body felt alienating, I found incredible support and mentorship amongst the faculty and staff. I was able to cultivate invaluable relationships with them that I now know in hindsight was instrumental in helping me find my way at W&L and in life post graduation. These are gifts that I will always be thankful for, but they came with pain and struggle, struggles that I believe could have been avoided.
I realized this more when I went to work as an admissions officer at Connecticut College, a small liberal arts college that was similar to W&L in size and small-town feel but that did college life and community in a dramatically different way. When attending university functions at Connecticut College, particularly cultural events, I was floored by the number and the diversity of students who attended and participated in these events. Whereas at W&L, I was accustomed to mostly seeing only students of color attend and participate in cultural events, at Connecticut College, students from across backgrounds participated and attended these events. Social life happened in dorm rooms and seemed more accessible to wider swathes of students because it wasn’t dominated by an exclusive Greek System. In a word, it felt like a more inclusive community where students from different backgrounds seemed to actually engage with each other in authentic ways. As an admissions officer who had a specific focus on multicultural outreach, I paid extra close attention to the experiences that underrepresented students had at Connecticut College and made a point to mentor them during their time at Connecticut and beyond as often as I could. I became a bit envious of the students I got to know well because they seemed to be having a total blast and to genuinely love their experience. They are eager to go back for alumni reunions and have an affinity to Connecticut and to their college experience that I could not relate to. I wish I loved my alma mater as much as they did and became resentful towards W&L for not providing me with the college experience that would make me want to stay connected. Pearl Buck wrote in The Good Earth that “the test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.” Likewise, the best test of any school community is how it cares for its underrepresented members. In that test, I felt like Washington and Lee had woefully failed.
Though W&L has improved numerically in regards to racial and socioeconomic diversity, it continues to struggle deeply in terms of cultivating a school community where everyone feels celebrated, valued, and seen. As long as the Greek System continues to dominate the social structure at W&L, I don’t believe the university can transform into that school completely. But not being able to change completely doesn’t mean that it can’t change a little bit at a time. While I doubt that the university can change completely because I think it will remain beholden to the Greek system indefinitely, I also believe that W&L can get better and be a healthier community for more students a little bit at a time. It already has albeit not at the rate and to the extent that I would hope. And this is where I see myself finally fitting in as an alum.
I’ve come to the understanding that just like you can’t change what family you’re born into, you also can’t do much about the undergraduate institution that you graduate from. One can get multiple graduate degrees and attend multiple graduate programs but you only have one undergraduate experience. So the choice that lies before me as an alum is to either remain on the sideline and grumble about how W&L isn’t the institution I want it to be, or I can jump in and be a part of the efforts pushing W&L forward to be the institution I want it to be. At the end of the day, I do love W&L and there is a bit of nostalgia that seeps in whenever I return to campus these days, and because I love it, I want it to be better. I’ve also come to the realization that as an alum, I have a voice that I can use to affect change. For a long time, I didn’t understand the efficacy that I possessed as an alum and as a full member of this W&L community because I still internalized the sense of powerlessness and marginalization that I felt as an undergrad. I didn’t always feel like I had the right to speak up when I was at W&L as a student. But like Maxine Waters famously reclaimed her time, I now reclaim my status as a Washington and Lee alum with all the rights that it comes with to call for change where I see fit and do whatever I can to help the university progress towards a community where everyone can thrive.