We sat across from each other in NYU’s dining hall eating lunch before the start of our next class. I still remember the nonchalant smile on her face the moment our conversation abruptly shifted. She said, “my high school friends and I know that she only got into Harvard because she’s Black.”
All of a sudden the air was thick, coated with a dense bias. My lungs constricted and begged for air. It was difficult to respond; impossible to retort and defend the Black Harvard student that I did not know, but felt a responsibility towards. I wanted to tell her that to believe someone is unworthy of their success because of the color of their skin not only trivializes their experiences, but also diminishes their hard work and accomplishments. That is what I wanted to say. However, I could only muster a mechanical head nod and an unconvincing smile before abruptly changing the topic. Although I willed myself to move the conversation along, the words had taken their toll. We often do not realize that once words are evicted from our mouths, they still yearn for a new home.
Her thoughts on Black success stuck with me. They obtained squatter’s rights in the corners of my mind and resided comfortably in my conscience. I unwillingly internalized them and carried them around for the rest of my freshman year. They would soon be accompanied by similar sentiments from other students I encountered at NYU.
Throughout my undergraduate career, I rarely saw faces that looked like mine. This lack of representation led to my battle with imposter syndrome. I sat in classrooms with students who not only felt that they deserved to attend this prestigious school, but sometimes felt an entitlement to be there. I constantly encountered students unashamed to remind me that they viewed my presence differently than those who looked like them. I grew accustomed to viewing my worth through the lens of my peers. My mind filled to the brim with non-conducive questions, all stemming from that initial conversation that took place in the dining hall, early in my freshman year.
If she thought the accomplishments of her friend were solely a result of her skin color, how many people thought these same thoughts about me- the Black acquaintance in their classes that no one bothered to take the time to get to know?
How many people saw me walk through the halls of NYU and considered me to be a student accepted through affirmative action? How many people took every success I’ve had, every perseverance, every late night study session, and relinquished it of significance? How often did my peers alter my truth for the benefit of the story they wanted to tell? Isn’t this how history gets rewritten from the eyes of those who hold the pen?
For non-minority students, it is a privilege simply being able to exist; devoid of thoughts that questioned what others think of them solely based on what they look like. These thoughts play a role in how one views the world and makes decisions. Most importantly, they occupy mental space in ways that cannot be fully explained to those who do not experience it first-hand.
I wish I could tell you I put this experience and these thoughts behind me and that they were in the past. I graduated from my undergraduate program in 2014 and recently completed a Masters degree from NYU. Two degrees later, and every now and then, I still feel that familiar slip where I question what others think of me and my abilities. How many degrees, awards, or accolades will it take to feel worthy of my success?
I’m learning that I am the only one who can make myself feel worthy of anything. I’m learning to reframe who I am based on what I know to be true, and not from what others think of me. This may seem trivial to some. However, when the world constantly tries to make decisions about who you are without your consent, it is sometimes easier to believe them than to say no. I’m learning that someone can only take away my self-worth and my confidence if I give them permission.
It is an everyday battle to remind myself that I am someone worth being; that I am worthy of this space, this voice, and these degrees. I’m learning to celebrate all small wins (and of course big ones) because they are mine and no one else’s. I’m learning to find a mantra that works for me to stay grounded in my beliefs. I’m learning to find different ways of quieting my thoughts — like playing basketball, biking, and writing poetry. Something that allows me time away from doubt and more time being in full acceptance of where I am on my path. I’m learning that a job defines me only if I give it the power to do so.
Maybe I was asking myself the wrong question all these years when I wondered how many degrees it took to feel worthy of my success. What if it was never meant to be a question, but a mantra?
I am exactly where I am supposed to be to get to my next step. I deserve every success that has come my way, and I am worthy of every success yet to come.
I am shattering glass ceilings and opening doors I was never given keys to.