Op-Ed: What Transferring Out Taught Me: A Response to Racial Tension at F&M

By Natalia Espinoza | | Contributing Writer

Instagram has been buzzing lately. Buzzing with the distractions, college acceptances, overdressed pug puppies, and plenty of the chaotic buffoonery I would ordinarily call my feed. One day last week, an image I never thought would re-enter my present struck me: the Protest Tree. The mighty tall oak with the F&M flag denoting my institution from before my transfer to Columbia University reigned supreme. I always stopped and stared at the tree en route to Shad, Blue Line, and my daily espressos. The Protest Tree was bare and empty then, a result of COVID and a half-missing student body. It stood, desperate for fliers, pamphlets, or some semblance of attention from the frantic, mask-wearing passersby. When I transferred, I unconsciously understood that I would remember the Protest Tree as it simply was: tall, old, and bare. 

On September 26, 2021, signs were stapled on the tree: 

Black people should be thankful we made them so good at sports.

The Jews are next — be ready.

Why do all Asians wear masks if they are the ones who brought COVID here in the first place?

And plenty more racially charged slurs posted by F&M students on Yik Yak. Above these in bold: “Nothing has changed since 2019!” along with a plethora of other charged comments on F&M’s supposed passivity regarding racism on campus. 

All hell seemed to break loose after that. 

I will transition this piece by saying that my transfer from F&M was more difficult than it was enjoyable. I thoroughly loved the campus. I loved the way the trees cocooned themselves to sleep once October temperatures dropped and the way they awoke themselves as commencement wrestled clingy seniors into the adult world. I genuinely believed F&M would be the college I would forever refer to whenever employers, grad schools, and nosy friends and family asked where I attended undergrad. Rather, transferring became a decision based on logistical and practical factors: i.e., money, family, money, location (closer to home), and money once again. Why did Columbia accept me? I have no clue, but here I am now and I can in some sense look back at my prior experience with a level of hindsight I otherwise would not have known. 

Here are some revelations:

1. F&M is a good school. 

I by no means want to advertise the college after everything that has happened these past two weeks. Things have been especially difficult and I can only speak from what I hear from friends and see on Instagram. F&M is a great school in the sense that it fosters civil intellectual discourse amongst its students, no matter how vehemently they may disagree. This trait is something a lot of us lacked in our high schools or towns growing up. We learned to converse in our Connections courses and felt like grown-ups taking our newly acquired banter to Buchannan, house common rooms, Turkey Hill, and a bunch of other places in downtown Lancaster. All F&M students attend F&M because admissions officers consider them worthy of the resources available, not to mention the fact that the school allocates so much funding toward their students; has a plethora of resources ready at anyone’s fingertips; and offers a great, rigorous education. This is a wide honor and privilege a lot of students never have the opportunity to attain. 

2. That never excuses racism. 

As a minority who lived on campus, I did feel a sense of shock coming to such a white, wealthy institution. Yes, COVIDrestrictions were a mess and the module system was abysmal, but the transition from a diverse environment to a relatively homogenous one can be shocking. I was never around to witness any of the 2019 fall protests, nor could I speak on the issue with as well-rounded a perspective as I may prefer, but there is never an intellectual or rational basis for racism on a college campus.

3. The conversation is important.

The ability to converse on these issues is more of a privilege than we may take to be. It is a right most people go their entire lives devoid of fully experiencing, and for others, something worth dying over. As someone who currently attends a gigantic university in Uptown Manhattan, there are seldom opportunities to share my voice, express free opinions, and express disagreement with those I am at odds with. Simply stating on Instagram, Snapchat, or any other social media platform, or even in person that one side is simply wrong and uneducated about a topic does not remedy anything. If anything, it might just worsen present divisions and make tension on campus tremendously more unbearable.

 I understand that campus can feel rather divided right now: from what I gather, there seems to be a clash between those who are sharply against the racist Yik Yak posts and those who sharply refute their claims as “wannabe oppressed.” I understand there are plenty of nuances to this and there are a million types of people in between, but I do not subscribe to the notion that people on either side of the spectrum are bad people. None of us are (with a few noteworthy exceptions, of course). What matters is that students continue to share their discourses civilly in our college houses, our classrooms, over caffeinated lattes from Blue Line, and, yes, by the Protest Tree. That is what will change minds about these issues, more than we may think.

It is tempting to use words like “we” and “us” while writing this piece, partly because I like to think these issues affect me in one way or another: after all, F&M would have been so much. F&M was so much. Now it’s a lot of buzzing posts on chaotic Instagram feeds, and the occasional campus visit. 

Natalia Espinoza was a Contributing Writer for The College Reporter prior to her transfer to Columbia University. Her email is nne2107@columbia.edu.

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