(Front Row) Shuba Maniram ’17, (Second Row) Molly McShane ’16, Nia Robinson ’19, Charles Rainey ’19, (Back Row) Debanjan Roychoudhury ’16, Claudia Huerta ’18
As racial conflict unfolds on college campuses across the country, Middlebury wrestles with tensions of its own.
Last fall, the Black Student Union at Middlebury organized a solidarity blackout in support of Black students at Middlebury and on other campuses around the United States. A photograph taken in front of Carr Hall shows hundreds of Middlebury students gathered on an unseasonably warm November evening. By designed necessity (“It is essential we center Black bodies and experiences in this movement,” the BSU wrote on its Facebook page), persons identifying as Black stood in the front; behind them stood white students, faculty, staff.
Two weeks later, the Middlebury community would be looking inward after an incident in a College dining hall. A white first-year student had worn a sombrero to dinner and when asked by a fellow student, a Latino senior, why she had chosen to wear it, her frivolous answer was too difficult for him to ignore. His attempt to explain how her actions were hurtful to him—that within the current context she was appropriating a culture, his culture—were met, those present say, with indifference. The resulting argument spilled over and ignited on social media, particularly the anonymous forum Yik Yak, and though students were leaving the following week for Thanksgiving break, the College administration arranged a pair of town hall-style forums—immediately before and immediately after the break—to discuss the issues of cultural appropriation, community standards, freedom of expression, and what it means to be an inclusive community. By the second forum—a capacity event in Dana
Auditorium, with scores of people turned away—it was clear that while the dining hall incident may have been the spark that ignited the discussions, there were broader, deeper, and far more entrenched issues to deal with. On December 11, a third forum was held in Mead Chapel. And while the gathering opened with a tearful apology from the first-year student who had worn the sombrero, the rest of the 90-minute conversation moved beyond any one incident and spoke to those broader, deeper, and more entrenched issues, feelings, and states of mind and being.
For some people in attendance at any of the events, hearing about racial (and sexist, homophobic, and ethnic) offenses, both explicit and implicit, on the campus was a revelation, as was the pain, frustration, and anger expressed by students of color. No less palpable were the exhausted, at times defiant, statements from students of color that it should not be their sole responsibility to educate their classmates (or professors) on why they were hurt, why they were angry, why they were aggrieved.
Claudia Huerta, a sophomore from Manhattan, says that the town hall gatherings frightened her. “They opened my eyes to the realization that a lot of people on this campus had not been having these conversations. And it scares me because I think I took it for granted that people were talking about these things.”
An academic year that began with Middlebury’s new president expressing the fervent desire that the community consider diversity and inclusivity not as problems to be solved but as an everyday ethic, a way of living our lives, had found the College entering 2016 with a renewed focus on what it would take to turn that aspiration into reality.
The racial tensions that exist at Middlebury are not occurring in a vacuum. Across the country, college and university campuses are home to protests, sit-ins, and demands for change led by students of color. For every situation that has captured the nation’s attention—Missouri, Yale, Princeton—many more unfold weekly.
To better understand what is happening at Middlebury, I spoke to dozens of people—students, faculty, administrators, staff. The students of color I interviewed expressed varying degrees of satisfaction with the College, but to a person they spoke to the difficulties, the challenges of being a minority in a very white state and at a largely homogenous institution. (While the percentage of American students of color at Middlebury has steadily increased over the years to 24 percent of the student body, that still means that for these students more than three-quarters of their peers—and a far greater percentage of the faculty—don’t look like them, haven’t experienced life as they have, and often are unaware of what this can mean.)
Shuba Maniram, a junior at Middlebury, grew up in the South Bronx, the child of immigrants from Trinidad. Neither of her parents went to college, so the idea of going away to school wasn’t on her radar growing up, but when she was in sixth grade her teacher outfitted the entire class with T-shirts that read “College Student” on the front and “Class of 2017” on the back.
This teacher was Dena Simmons ’05 (see p. 11), and the following year, Simmons brought Maniram and the rest of the class to visit Middlebury. (“Without Dena I wouldn’t be here,” Maniram says. “And by here I mean college as much as I mean Middlebury.”) Simmons continued to mentor Maniram throughout high school. They shared similar upbringings, and Simmons constantly challenged Maniram to push herself, to imagine a place beyond what was comfortable. When she was accepted to Middlebury, Maniram says the demographics of Vermont and Middlebury worried her, but she idolized Simmons and felt that she had her example to live up to.
But she wasn’t prepared for what awaited her. It wasn’t just the terminology and mechanics of higher education that baffled her (see p. 44); she couldn’t relate to many of her new classmates, nor they to her.
“I vividly remember a moment early in my freshman year when a couple of white girls came up to me and another student of color in the dorms and asked us to show them how to twerk. We said no, so they proceeded to twerk and laugh in front of us. And that was my introduction to what I would come to face at Middlebury.
“And I feel like that moment is symbolic. I didn’t know what microaggressions were—I had never heard the term and wouldn’t have understood the concept then—but that was the first of many times when people made assumptions about me because of what I looked like.”
Maniram and all of the students of color I spoke to say that these assumptions are insulting and invalidating and have not been limited to the dorms, dining halls, or social spaces; for many, the worst microaggressions come in the classroom, when peers or faculty have turned to the one Black person in the room when topics such as slavery, poverty, or urban blight are being discussed. Sometimes the person is explicitly asked to explain a culture; often it’s just a look, a sideways glance that is subtle but no less implicit.
“Differences in race and class can reinforce alienation, not just here, but anywhere,” says Roberto Lint Sagarena, an associate professor of American studies and director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. “But race can compound this feeling, because often it’s a visual difference; it almost becomes exponential in terms of feelings of alienation. And this sets a tone so that students are sensitized to microaggressions. You’re already feeling out of place, like you might not belong, so these slights become magnified. And that increases that sense of pain. A look that might or might not have been something racist or problematic can be interpreted that way.”
First-year student Nia Robinson came to Middlebury because she wanted to be around students who had experienced life differently than she had. A Posse scholar from Chicago, Robinson attended a high school with twice as many students as Middlebury. She has two younger half-siblings, and she says that when she would go places with them in Chicago, she’d often be mistaken for a nanny; her stepfather is white. So, she says, she was under no illusions that going to a school in rural Vermont wouldn’t be a challenge; yet she says now she can’t think of a day when she hasn’t questioned why she’s here. “I’m having such a disconnect because I feel like people aren’t willing to work to understand other people. There are a lot of people here who don’t understand me, and it’s not because I’m a complicated person,” she says. “It’s because we don’t have those conversations. I care a lot about Middlebury, and some days it feels like most people don’t care enough to at least try and understand why a segment of this student body is unhappy.
“But at the same time, I understand that not everyone is having my experience, and for some people, Middlebury is perfect. They think, ‘We don’t have to make it better. It’s great.’”
At the conclusion of the third town hall meeting in December, President Laurie Patton stood at the front of Mead Chapel and addressed the community. “I have seen remarkable intentionality and thoughtfulness in this conversation—and I have also seen ways in which we could improve both in our mindfulness of each other, as well as our hopes for the future.”
She then stated five guiding principles that she hoped would help the community to move forward. “We must make sure that no single group bears the burden of difference, but that we all aspire to inclusivity—those of us who are not part of historically underrepresented groups need to stand in alliance with those who are; we need to not be afraid to make mistakes and engage with others; I want us to have an open and complex understanding of free speech—free speech is not the opposite of inclusivity; the very way we create a more inclusive community is by exercising free speech and continuing to create understanding even in the midst of tension-filled conversations; [there needs to be] on-going reflection about structural bias. We have been talking about structural issues in which racism and other forms of exclusivity are built into our systems. I think this is the biggest challenge for all of us.”
When Patton talks about inclusivity, she’s addressing a very important distinction with diversity. Roberto Lint Sagarena says, “Diversifying our student bodies doesn’t necessarily do away with issues of difference and the challenges that come with them—being on campus doesn’t automatically make you feel like you’re a part of campus. So how does campus culture change to reflect a pluralism in the student body? Is it a matter of simple assimilation and everybody becomes a part of the same? Or is it an acceptance of difference and a respect for difference, where one can have an affinity group and be with one’s own, but also move beyond that and be accepted by all?”
Leslie Harris, an associate professor of history and African American studies at Emory University, says that these issues are not new, and that she’s struck by the similarities in student demands today and the demands at the dawn of higher education integration 50 years ago.
She points out that many segments of society in the United States have aggressively resegregated and that when students arrive at college they are coming to live in a community that, by design, is just as aggressive in its integration. And there are more students—approximately 14 million 18-24 year olds are in baccalaureate programs now, compared to 2 million in 1949—which means more students from diverse backgrounds. “And you can’t just add and stir,” she says. “It’s the work of institutions to think through what it means for all of these people to come together. You have to be flexible—flexible but strong.”
Katy Smith Abbott, the dean of the College, agrees. Throughout last summer and into the fall, she worked with Miguel Fernandez, Middlebury’s chief diversity officer, and Andi Lloyd, vice president for academic affairs, on an initiative that would help students become more resilient, and she says that it’s dawned on her that these same lessons can be applied to the institution.
“We should hold ourselves institutionally to the same standard,” she says. “What does it mean to be an excellent institution with a deep history and many traditions, some of which are not that great, and to say, ‘You know what? We can be excellent and we can still move from our original shape to something new.’”
“Racism in this country has been very creative,” says senior Debanjan Roychoudhury. “It’s been very willing to change and adapt, so we need to be similarly willing to adapt and be very creative in how we address these issues. That’s who we are! Let’s use our creativity to fundamentally shape the way we think about inclusion.”
Already this year, Patton and the administration have implemented a number of programs and initiatives that she feels will make Middlebury a more inclusive place. She’s engaged a pair of consultant groups to lead diversity workshops with offices that interact most closely with students and to assist in recruiting a diverse faculty applicant pool; she’s facilitated discussions between the Board of Trustees and African American studies scholars (including Leslie Harris), who specialize in structural bias; she’s directed the Athletics Department and the Department of Public Safety to examine inclusive practices in their respective areas; she’s approved the hiring of two full-time counseling fellows for the health center; and she created a new organization (Alliance for an Inclusive Middlebury) of faculty, students, and staff, who are charged with proposing policies and creating spaces across campus to “make sure we are as inclusive as possible in all facets of our lives together.” And Patton and other administrators and faculty have been spending many hours meeting with students individually and in groups.
During a conversation with Katy Smith Abbott, I remark that the College has begun to address these issues in a far more rapid manner than is typical in higher education, when institutional change is often tracked in geologic time.
“I think it depends on who you’re talking to. I would say yes, that’s the way it feels to me. I think that’s the way it feels for others who work in student life and work in administrative roles where we’re focusing, daily, on tangible programmatic or policy or institutional change,” she says.
“The tension for me is that I’ve heard very consistently from students —all different voices—saying that the College isn’t doing enough. That’s the piece I struggle with. It’s very real for them. Their experience is absolutely genuine and authentic. And what we’re doing is not visible. Somehow it doesn’t feel like change.”
Tiff Chang is one student who feels that Middlebury is neither moving fast enough—nor far enough. Chang, a junior Feb from Marin County, California, says that during most of her first year at Middlebury, she was one of those students who thrived. But then, she says, she began to understand that other students were having very different experiences. She points to a collision of events that affected her thinking—national news coverage of Ferguson and her subsequent participation in the Middlebury Ferguson Action Group; friends leaving the College, citing structural oppression; her experience “with queer marginalization on campus and existing as a queer woman of color in student government.” She adds, “And, basically, finding out how deeply imbedded these systems are in all of us.”
She found the town hall meetings to be not only unproductive but a perpetuation of the racism and alienation that students of color were already experiencing on campus. She says there needed to be apologies on both the institutional and personal level, and that the meetings, as constructed, created a space that did not recognize that students of color have different needs than white students.
She quickly acknowledges that the efforts of Patton and the College are sincere, that Patton cares deeply about the issues, and that people are working really hard to implement change. But to her, the efforts are inadequate. She urges Middlebury to think beyond “one-off items like panels and lectures that serve a self-selected audience, and consider systems-based change.” For instance, she wants the College to hold a mandatory annual retreat for faculty and staff that addresses issues of social justice, cultural competency, new teaching pedagogy, slow learning, and more.
Chang, who has been a co-chair of Middlebury’s Community Council this year, has spoken passionately and publicly about these issues that are clearly very important to her, and she says that if the College embraced “a really deep, committed understanding of inclusivity” it could distinguish itself from its peers. “Inclusivity is the new sustainability,” she says. “Let’s employ forward-thinking policies and practices around inclusivity and lead by example.”
It’s hard to argue with the goal, but some whom I’ve talked to worry that there’s not room to disagree about how to set that example, and that rhetoric on campus has quickly moved into a binary “us vs. them” construct. Said one student of color whom I talked to: “I am so relieved that we are moving beyond any one incident and are addressing bigger issues, but I worry that too often experiences are becoming generalized, that people are being put into categories—‘all of you’ or ‘all of us.’ I recognize that a lot of the entrenched problems on this campus are the legacy of systemic oppression, but one of the things I struggle with is how to express solidarity with a group of people, my people, while still expressing myself as an individual.”
This student added: “I think a lot of what’s troubling to a number of students of color is that we’re afraid to throw each other under the bus by saying something wrong because you want to stand in solidarity. But the truth is, it’s impossible to agree on all of these things.”
Fear is a word that has come up again and again in my conversations. There’s the fear of being subjected to further racist insults, be they implicit or explicit. (Nia Robinson speaks of returning to her hall one night to find the word “Negroes” written multiple times on a dry-erase board attached to a friend’s door.) And if you’re white there is the fear of saying the wrong thing, of being branded a racist. “Being called a racist is so powerful,” says Miguel Fernandez. “It shuts everything down, the conversation stops. All of a sudden you’re not talking about whatever offended the person of color. You’re arguing about whether someone is or isn’t a racist.”
One white student I spoke to says that she has put herself out there, and she’s been burned; burned to the point she was hesitant to talk to me for this story; she says she’s unlikely to engage with these issues publicly anymore—at least not at Middlebury.
“I recognize that the pain of people in this community is very real, I recognize that the anger is real,” she says. “The sentiments are honest and heartfelt, but I’ve found that it’s too difficult to have constructive conversations because the passion is too great, the anger is too great. I’ve found that too often we each focus on the righteousness of our side of the argument, and then we’re not focusing on the argument itself.”
As an example she points to a series of episodes involving the student newspaper, the Middlebury Campus. In February, a collection of cultural organizations sent an email to the student body calling on the Campus to make amends for “continuously publish[ing] articles that have both subtly and explicitly reinforced the marginalization of several groups” at Middlebury. The letter specifically condemned the decision to publish several op-eds, which contained views that the letter writers felt “actively harm[ed] and systematically silenc[ed] minority groups at the College.”
In response, the Campus editors penned a pair of op-eds (“A Paper for the People” and “A More Inclusive Campus”) in which they defended their decision (and right) to publish opinion pieces—in these cases contributed pieces—that run the risk of offending readers as long as standard journalistic guidelines were enforced. The editors also acknowledged that the paper “suffers acutely from a lack of racially diverse voices” and vowed to find ways to make the newspaper more reflective of the entire community. (Full disclosure: I serve as an advisor to the Campus.)
This issue with the Campus does seem to illustrate a troubling point, perhaps the one opinion shared by most: students are feeling pushed toward silence. There’s the young woman and others who fear the consequences of expressing challenging opinions, and there are the organizations who believe such expression, as it was conducted, systematically silences minority groups.
One student suggests—and others agree—that 90 percent of the student body is not engaging in substantive conversations about race. She says that about 10 percent of the student body could be described as activists when it comes to racial discourse. About 30 percent don’t think about the issue at all. And then there’s 60 percent who are very aware of the tension on campus, but are loathe to speak, at least on any meaningful level; the risk is too great.
So a result can be silence that is just as uncomfortable and perhaps just as damaging. And this worries Nia Robinson. “I know that there are a lot of people who either have good intentions or they empathize with students of color, but they’re not being vocal about it,” she says. “And I so badly want them to speak up because I’m sure they have thoughts and ideas that are completely different from mine, ideas that will challenge me, and that’s a good thing. I come back to a quote from the writer Audre Lorde—‘Your silence will never save you.’”
Shuba Maniram says that she’s found she can have better conversations if she starts by expressing how a statement made her feel, “because somebody may know what it means to be hurt.” (Or at least that’s the hope: See Debanjan Roychoudhury on p. 40) “If I can get you to focus more on how you’ve made me feel instead of characterizing you in a certain way, then our conversation has a relational aspect. If it goes the other way, that’s when people silence themselves.” But sometimes—often, for many—the burden of these conversations is too great. It’s what Patton referred to when she said, “We must make sure that no single group bears the burden of difference.”
“Yeah, there are times when I have to step back,” admits Maniram. “Ultimately, I’m not here to teach people how to be a better person in the world. I’m here to learn. I’m here to get an education; it shouldn’t be on me to always be educating others.”
Anna Iglitzin agrees. A junior Feb from Seattle, Iglitzin is part of a cohort of white students who have formed an allyship group. They’ve struggled to come up with a name for their effort—“Whites Against Racism” had been mentioned, but some disliked the militarism of the acronym so they’ve settled on “Wonderbread: White Students for Racial Justice.” They write op-eds for the Campus, addressing issues of “white privilege, written by white students, predominately for white students,” and they hold regular gatherings, where they attempt to engage previously reticent people in uncomfortable conversations. The thinking is that white students will feel less vulnerable expressing their feelings, their confusion, to their white peers; they’ll be more apt to ask questions if they’re not consumed by fear of upsetting someone.
Iglitzin readily admits it’s an imperfect solution. She worries that she’s helped create a homogenous group on campus attempting to educate others in the homogeny about issues she’s never experienced. She’s also worried that she’ll get something wrong, that she’ll incorrectly interpret something that has been told to her by a student of color, that she’ll inadvertently perpetuate stereotypes. But she and others in the group also understand that if this is what it takes to get conversations started and if this effort helps people who are exhausted, who can no longer bear the burden of explanation alone, then it has to be done.
“But success,” says Iglitzin, “is when those people who do talk to us then venture outside of our circle to engage people who don’t look like us.”
Roberto Lint Sagarena shares a similar sentiment when talking about Middlebury’s new multicultural center. On a blustery April day I sat in Sagarena’s office in Carr Hall, home to both the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity and the Anderson Freeman Resource Center (AFC). The latter, which Sagarena also directs, was proposed by students who felt that the College was lacking a venue that specifically supported students from historically underrepresented or marginalized communities; it opened this year, an occurrence Sagarena wryly calls “fortuitous.”
Sagarena says, and students concur, that the AFC has helped demystify the collegiate process by bringing in writing tutors, counselors from the health center, and counselors from the Center for Careers and Internships to meet with students in Carr Hall; not as a substitute for, say, visiting a writing tutor in the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Research, but as a way of letting students know these resources exist.
And the AFC is a space where alienated students can be themselves. “And that’s great,” says Sagarena. “But it needs to build up to something. I want the Center to serve as a home base for previously alienated students who can then take ownership of the rest of the campus. There needs to be a circulation to the Center; we need to be able to help students expand beyond the AFC, and we need to be able to bring in students who would have never thought about what it means to come from a historically underrepresented community.”
Not long after I talked to Sagarena, the College announced that a popular student-run program called JusTalks would become mandatory for incoming first-year students, beginning next year. I spent a good deal of time talking with Molly McShane, a senior, about JusTalks, which was founded four years ago to provide students with the tools and opportunities to hold conversations about difficult topics.
McShane, who is white, attended the National Cathedral School, an all-girls school in Washington, D.C. She discovered JusTalks as a sophomore at Middlebury, a time when she was struggling to connect with other students who found value and community in conversations about identity and power. JusTalks was her answer—she was able to give voice to her experiences (and learned from listening to others’); she also found a community who shared her interest in talking about difficult subjects. She says that the small group settings build up trust and help foster deeper, more challenging—and also more affirming— conversations over time.
Next year, every first-year student will participate in a JusTalks daylong event during either winter term or spring semester. “Setting the framework in a student’s first year builds a foundation,” says McShane. “It’s a way of saying to every new student, ‘These are the conversations we have and this is the way we treat each other.’”
Adds Smith Abbott: “It can be a space where people don’t have to fear saying the wrong thing as they ask questions and sort through their feelings.”
On this point, I press her about how Middlebury’s faculty can be brought into these discussions. She agrees with the sentiment that for many students of color, the “single most urgent place where they need to see change is in the classroom.” Diversifying the faculty is a work-in-progress, but it’s also the change that will happen the most slowly. So the challenge becomes this: How do you have an impact now?
“As an institution, we need to provide our faculty with opportunities to have the conversation—Why is this important? What kind of discomfort is acceptable and what is not?” she says. “We need to make the resources available for people to have those conversations and, ultimately, to learn, to deepen their skills as classroom facilitators.
“Because they weren’t trained for this,” she adds “and being vulnerable, allowing oneself to be wrong in a space where they are supposed to be the educator is really, really hard.” (More faculty training in this area is another of Patton’s initiatives.)
A year ago, Miguel Fernandez met with department chairs to talk about diversifying the faculty, and he says he was largely met with push back, specifically with how he was defining diversity. The professors asked about expanding the definition to include diversity of religion, diversity of thought. All important, Fernandez told them. But he specifically wanted to talk about the urgent need to increase racial diversity.
“It was different this year,” he says. “I think a large percentage of faculty have found themselves in uncomfortable situations, and they’re looking for the tools to help them navigate this new terrain.”
I have had faculty describe this feeling as being “unmoored,” that at any moment, in teaching their material, they could be treading into quicksand. And many of these faculty members express confusion and dismay about the situation—they say they were once activists themselves and are empathetic to the students’ feelings, yet they find themselves being described as part of the problem.
Smith Abbott is not surprised to hear this. “People care, they’re curious, they’re worried.” She notes the increase in attendance at voluntary workshops and discussion groups, but she also points out that “students rightly say, ‘It’s not everyone yet.’ And we’re trying to figure that out.”
On a sunny Friday afternoon, I met Charles Rainey for lunch at a Thai restaurant in town. It was a few days before elections for the 2016–17 Student Government Association (SGA), and Rainey was one of four students running for president—the only rising sophomore. As a first-year senator, Rainey has been a presence on the SGA (see p. 43), and he was running on a platform—“a movement,” he calls it—that could upend the very role of student government at Middlebury.
The oldest of five children, Rainey grew up in suburban Atlanta. He attended predominately Black schools and says there was a lot of empowerment in his community, but also a lot of prejudice that existed just beyond his neighborhood. He says that being Black is not monolithic—“there’s not one Black experience”—but his life experience has helped him understand what it’s like to be marginalized.
At lunch, he’s in campaign mode, even though I have no vote and this story will be published after the election. “But this is a movement,” he reminds me with a smile. “Not just an election.”
He says the SGA can’t afford “for another year to go by where conversations are not centered on issues concerning inclusivity.” The SGA must represent all students, not just some, and he believes that not everyone is being represented. But he’s encountered resistance, both as a senator and in his campaign, primarily by people who feel that it’s not the role of student government to debate these issues. And this deeply troubles him. (He describes the focus on issues such as dining hall hours as “inconsequential.”)
To our lunch he wore a T-shirt that bears a Desmond Tutu quote: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice then you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” To Rainey, “the SGA has been largely neutral on matters of inclusion and social justice; people have taken a stance that the SGA shouldn’t get involved in these issues. You know what I think about that.”
He has an extensive list of policy proposals—better integrating JusTalks into the first-year experience; the creation of a peer-mentoring program called MiddSibs, in which juniors and seniors are paired up with sophomores and freshmen to form a support network based on shared interests, identities, or backgrounds; mandatory inclusivity training for residential life staff and faculty. While some of the ideas hold more practical promise than others, the point is that Rainey wants to keep the campus’s focus on these issues, wants to keep the pressure on decision makers, and he thinks it should be SGA’s responsibility to do so.
Katy Smith Abbott says that Rainey’s campaign is pushing the student body to question what their government should be. “Are students eager for somebody who really wants to use that office and that student body to push for change in an activist spirit, or do they want it to continue as it has—as a more traditional, if you will, governing body?”
Rainey lost the election, coming in third place. Karina Toy—an Asian American who touted support for a student leadership retreat, more parking spaces for students, and greater SGA transparency—won. During her campaign she agreed with Rainey that inclusivity was an important issue. She said she was supportive of efforts to build a more inclusive community, but she expressed skepticism at how influential the SGA could be.
At the photo shoot for this story, Debanjan Roychoudhury gazed out the large floor-to-ceiling windows in the Axinn Center and watched Rainey jog across the quad, a late arrival to the shoot. To nobody in particular, he said, “Man, he’s gonna burn out.” Roychoudhury would know better than anyone; a few years ago, he was in the same place.
“My sophomore year, I raged against everything,” the senior from Queens tells me one morning while we sat at a table in Crossroads Café. He arrived at Middlebury as an enthusiastic first-year, excited about being in a new place among new people and eager to be involved in as many activities as he could handle. He threw himself into his classwork, joined a number of cultural organizations, and volunteered in the community. He was optimistic, he says, convinced that Middlebury was a place where he could grow and become part of a community that was already becoming special to him. Those feelings didn’t last.
He describes a wave of events that buffeted his optimism. There was the hateful, misogynistic, homophobic letter mailed to a student on campus; there was the time he was at a Halloween party and asked if he was dressed as a basketball player (the six foot four Roychoudhury wasn’t wearing a costume, “though I felt like I had one put on me right then”); there was the time a white student assumed he must love the rapper Jay-Z, presumably because Roychoudhury has dark skin and was wearing a knit Yankees cap, attire favored by the artist; there was the time he attended a campus discussion centered on the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold a Michigan law banning the use of racial criteria in college admissions, and he heard a faculty member say that now Black students at Michigan would know they deserved to be there.
“So it became my job to prove to people that I was smart enough to be here, that I was earning my scholarship, that I had earned my place,” he says. “And I fought like hell to prove that.” What felled him, he says, was intransigence. He felt as though he and others were pushing and pushing to talk about these issues and no one was listening; the AFC was two years away from opening, and Roychoudhury felt like he was drifting away. Burnout followed, the burnout he worries about for Charles Rainey. He focused on getting by—getting by and getting out.
Now, though, he feels differently. “I woke up one day and realized that none of this has defeated me. As a student of color, I belong here just as much as anyone else; this is my school just as much as it’s anyone else’s.”
I asked him what prompted this realization, and he thought for a minute. “Maybe it’s as simple as honoring people like Martin Henry Freeman and Marianne Anderson,” he says, gesturing to his backpack which features button pins with the likenesses of the two Middlebury alums, students of color who graduated in the late 1800s and went on to exemplary careers in education.
“Nothing gives me more pride than thinking about what they accomplished. And they are Middlebury,” he says. “Now think about what life was like for them, think about their norm. My grandparents lived under colonial rule. Compare their norm to mine; compare Freeman’s and Anderson’s norm to mine. It’s different, right? It’s better, right? Change is happening if we keep working, if we come together. Sometimes it’s hard to see, but it is.”
Roychoudhury stands up from the table and says he needs to get to class, but he has one last thing he wants to tell me.
“Did you know that when Martin Henry Freeman walked at graduation, the other students held back? They wouldn’t walk with him. And then one guy stepped forward and linked arms with him, and they walked side-by-side in the procession. When we look back on this moment—and I believe it’s a big chapter in our story, and we will be looking back on it—who is going to stand and link arms and walk with their brothers and sisters?”