During her speech at Wellesley College’s 2019 Convocation, President Paula Johnson referenced a conversation she’d had with Wellesley alum and Democratic Representative Liz Miranda. When asked what advice she would give to her younger self, Miranda replied with: “I would have learned to be a better bridge.” More specifically, the representative wished she had “impacted so many more people who came from varying viewpoints and lifestyles.”
This sentiment is undoubtedly admirable — however, naive when applied to the current students of Wellesley College. Historically, social change in the United States has come into effect through similar arguments. In the mid-twentieth century, when colleges became integrated and affirmative action policies became law, activism was effective only when the focus was placed on the potential benefits to white people. Diversifying higher education was never about creating opportunities and enabling access for minorities; instead, it was diversity’s proposed positive effects on white students that provided the political boost necessary for minority activists’ success.
Even liberal institutions like Wellesley were strategically built for the white, cisgender elite to succeed. According to the Wellesley College Diversity and Inclusion Page on the official college website, 49% of the class of 2022 identifies as students of color. This statistic may be skewed due to the discrepancy in individual versus societal definitions of race, but, it is obvious that since its founding, Wellesley has become increasingly diverse — and the administration wants to advertise this fact to its potential students and donors.
Diversity itself is not the issue; it is within its justification that problems begin to arise. Students of color struggle to make their way past the incredibly inaccessible gates of Wellesley and arrive at an institution that lacks the necessary infrastructure to support them on their way to success. There are few professors of color and even fewer minorities in administrative roles. Minority students have complained about sour experiences with the Stone Center due to their homogenous staff. Cultural organizations on campus struggle to secure funding. The dropout rate for first-generation students of color is disproportionately high. Being a bridge is arduous labor and asking the least supported groups on Wellesley’s campus to take on this role is asking too much. I am tired of being a bridge for my fellow students who have access to the same, if not more, resources than I.
Although President Johnson’s call to action was addressed to the entire student body, it is primarily students of color who end up taking on the role of being a bridge. Many minorities at Wellesley are asked to represent their respective identity groups when discussing topics in class; in discussions of race, class, and sexuality, professors rely on these students to educate their peers — and in some instances, to educate the professor themselves.
If I had a dollar for the number of times I have sat in class and had to listen to students’ remarks about how they are in disbelief by the past and present mistreatment and violence against minorities, I could pay off my El Table tab. Frankly, I am tired. Higher education is meant to be a learning experience for all parties involved. However, I am forced to spend my time educating peers on information they can readily access in class, on the internet, in the Clapp Library, or on JSTOR.
This pattern is not isolated to the classroom. Interpersonal relationships and extracurricular organizations often mimic the structural inadequacies of academia; students of color cannot escape the role of “bridge” even in casual situations. We are often tasked with providing emotional support for students struggling with their privilege and spend much of our free time on campus forced to advocate for ourselves.
We must recognize the people that allow Wellesley to label itself diverse are burdened with extra work every day on campus. Until they are given adequate support, recognition or a paycheck, they should not be expected to carry any additional weight. Although President Johnson attempted to start the year off with a message to bridge divides, it is important to remember that bridges get walked on.