When my roommate told me she was part of the “Miami Posse,” I hadn’t yet heard of Posse. I found out that Posse Foundation is a great program that selects groups of public high school students across America to attend universities on full scholarship. These cohorts are comprised of intelligent and promising students who may be overlooked by the traditional college application process or don’t have the resources to attend college in the first place. Here at Pomona, we have Posses from Chicago and Miami. With Pomona being quite a small college, almost everyone here is connected to a Posse scholar, be it someone in their class, sponsor group, club or sport. (The Posse Foundation founder, Deborah Bial, is speaking at our Commencement this year.)
I feel extremely lucky to have been paired with my roommate, and not only because we both happen to be early sleepers and (very) messy – her Posse members were some of the first people I met at Pomona and to be among them helped me feel I belonged.
Last month, I attended the PossePlus Retreat, an annual event where Posse members and other Pomona students and faculty come together to share stories and participate in discussions about a specific topic. This year it was on Politically Correct (PC) culture. It was intense, emotional and eye-opening. It invigorated and inspired me. Though I haven’t gotten very personal as a blogger here, I would like to explain how this retreat taught me lessons of respect, empathy and privilege.
The topic of PC culture was the cornerstone of various activities and small group discussions on how language shapes our identities and affects how we view ourselves. We examined the ways we describe ourselves in terms of race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomic background, religion, health, bodies and hidden identities. It was interesting to examine what “hidden identities” meant to different people — for some, it was their personality traits; for others, mental health. It also sometimes meant a passion, a talent, a fear.
Over the course of the retreat, we began to trust each other more and continued our dialogue on how language affects us during our free time. I felt relieved that I could express my opinions with others in a safe space, where I wouldn’t be dismissed for sharing my experiences of being misjudged and oppressed by the powerful majority in America. Although Pomona is diverse compared to other elite institutions, I have still spoken to people here, from strangers to acquaintances to good friends, who I feel dismiss me because they have the privilege to not go through the everyday oppressions I have endured my whole life.
I think it is extremely important, as a future student of any college, to understand that no matter where you go, your identity will be challenged and ignored by certain people. It is the nature of our society, and it is very important to be aware of when people discriminate against you. For a long time, I did not know I was treated differently because I’m a woman, because I’m Asian, because people don’t know about my hidden identities. I just thought hey, that’s the way the world is. And I need to deal with it. Many people at the retreat shared the same experiences, and I think that all of us had moments where we realized that certain events in our lives which pained us inside were not the products of our own wrongdoings, but of discrimination and stigma against our identities.
Finding myself was a big part of this retreat, and what really changed my life was hearing the stories of my peers. I was among some of the most brilliant young people in the world, people who had overcome countless struggles to get to where they are now. Going into the retreat, I was very aware of a certain aspect of my identity which distinguished me from many students at Pomona and people attending the retreat: my extremely privileged socioeconomic status. On the final night of the retreat, there was an opportunity for people to share stories about the words they have said, or have been said to them, which have had the greatest impact on their lives. During that night, my fellow peers shared some of the most poignant, honest, incredible and tragic stories I have ever heard in my life. They were stories of their hidden identities, struggles and triumphs which I had neither experienced nor known.
It was also a night where I told a story about my privilege, the beginning of my journey discovering who I am and how I wanted to find a way to create constructive dialogue between people of diverse backgrounds. My story was certainly not the most impactful, but I knew that it was one rarely told because from my experience, the majority of the economically privileged do not openly acknowledge that their wealth has given them an immense advantage in all aspects of their lives. It is no coincidence that going to Pomona is the first time I have shared a classroom with students whose parents are taxi drivers, housekeepers and more, working multiple jobs and dedicating their lives to make sure their children have the best shot at climbing up the steep social ladder. People who are so smart and incredibly hardworking, but largely ignored by the power holders of society.
The people I have met at Pomona, who have so bravely shared their stories, have taught me what my privilege really is. They have taught me what hard work really means, and the sacrifices it entails. They have taught me the power of hidden identities. They have taught me never to prejudge, never to assume that what I see on the outside defines and limits the person in front of me. They have taught me the importance of respect. My privilege is more than just my socioeconomic status. Going to Pomona, being a part of the Posse community — these are only a few of my privileges. Very few people who have shared my life experiences have also been offered the opportunity to participate in something like the Posse Retreat, where we are directed to confront our many identities among each other. But I feel this can change.
I encourage all of you to open your eyes to every person you encounter on the street, at work, at school, even in your home. You can never underestimate the life experiences of others. It took the Posse retreat to open my eyes at Pomona. What will it take to open yours?