It was a snowy day in Wisconsin.
In the middle of May, about 6,800 of the University of Wisconsin’s 2016 graduating class, myself included, filed in to the outdoor Camp Randall football stadium to graduate.
My family came to Madison from Chicago to see me graduate — they still won’t let me forget how cold it was. And they talk about a special moment when the chancellor mentioned me in her opening remarks as one of many exceptional students in the Wisconsin community. My hometown crowd of visiting abuelos, tios, tias y primos all stood in the stands, cheering wildly. In that moment, the entire class of 2016 shared a memory, and I was a part of it.
This week, my Chicago Sun-Times colleague Neil Steinberg wrote a column — headlined “You mean you’re NOT an undocumented immigrant? Take your diploma and get out” — that grabbed a great deal of attention. In it, Steinberg mused on his visit to Pomona College to watch his son graduate.
Pomona, a small liberal arts school in southern California, is known for being diverse and inclusive. So the college had separate ceremonies for some of its smaller communities, including one for black graduates and one for LGBTQ students.
“Do they not have a place in the larger school because they are denied it? Or because they refuse it? It seems an important distinction,” Steinberg wrote.
He couldn’t understand why students who aren’t white or heterosexual would want their own celebrations. So let me explain.
I had a second family at the University of Wisconsin. And it was with them, my brothers and sisters of Latinx, black, Asian and Native American descent, that I walked across the stage at a separate ceremony — of course to the soundtrack of Destiny’s Child. At this ceremony — for the Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement — some of the speakers shouted out their communities in other languages, and my grandparents were able to tune in when a student switched to Spanish. My family, immigrants from Mexico, got to feel an amplified sense of belonging with just those few words in their native language.
Having separate ceremonies wasn’t about exclusion or division from the rest of campus but, rather, an emphasis on the shared experiences we had as students of color at majority-white universities. It was a shared sigh of relief that we made it despite obstacles that included hate crimes and threats, higher rates of sexual assault and the everyday reminders that there were so few of us on campus.
Most importantly, these ceremonies are celebrations for our families, who flock to campus to see us accomplish what many of them did not.
At mine, there were embraces and tears because, for many of us, graduation wasn’t just an individual accomplishment but one that advanced our entire families and cultural communities.
Pomona could not be more different from my large state university. And I can guarantee it never snowed at a southern California graduation ceremony.
But one thing the two schools have in common is what most universities in the country have in common — the majority of the student body is white.
Even after decades of affirmative action, blacks and Hispanics are largely underrepresented at the country’s top universities including Pomona and UW-Madison, a gap resulting from educational barriers at every level.
Students of color do have a place in the larger community of their universities despite the disadvantages that keep our communities from attending and graduating at the same rate as whites.
And we certainly don’t refuse to be involved on campus — even when confronted with implicit and explicit messages of exclusion. The peers at my ceremony were leaders in student government and the student newspaper, had their own businesses and were innovative researchers in fields like engineering and psychology. Today, they keep me motivated as we all figure out our careers and become more ourselves.
In his column, Steinberg said he kept feeling nudged out — that he wanted to “crash the black commencement.” Of the three separate ceremonies he attended for his son, and the endless ceremonies across campuses that feature predominantly white faces, there were some that he wasn’t invited to.
For many students from minority groups, that feeling of being left out is constant. Celebrating our communities and achievements in our own space is one small step toward remedying this exclusion, and it inspires younger students who look like me to pursue higher goals.
Steinberg felt left out for once — or maybe more than once — and got to write 700 words about his hurt feelings. That’s a privilege. A white one.
Alexandra Arriaga is a digital media specialist who covers politics for the Sun-Times.