Who Is the Happiest at the "Happiest College in America"?

"Many people report a sense of appreciation and pride to be affiliated with CMC, but there are also those who feel disenfranchised." –Claremont McKenna College’s 2011-2012 Campus Climate Task Force Report

"Who taught you to hate yourself from the top of your head to the soles of your feet? Who taught you to hate your own kind? Who taught you to hate the race that you belong to so much so that you don't want to be around each other? No... Before you come asking Mr. Muhammad does he teach hate, you should ask yourself who taught you to hate being what God made you." – Malcolm X, May 22, 1962, Los Angeles

In elementary school, I remember being proud that my father was a waiter. For Halloween one year I happily dressed up in a white dress shirt, bow tie and my father's waist apron. When my fifth grade teacher asked the class to write about our career of choice, I, of course, wrote "waiter." He politely asked if I could choose something else.

In high school, I wanted to distance myself from my background. I envisioned having a family like my first boyfriend's mother's side of the family, who were mostly white and middle class. This is what a "normal" American family looks like. Since families like mine were not well represented in the media I consumed, I considered my family "abnormal."

Not until college did I realize I had been taught to be ashamed of being from a working class, immigrant Mexican family, despite growing up around many families like my own. Anywhere from the media to the Claremont Colleges, I am constantly receiving the message that we aren't worth anything. To this day, I am still trying to unlearn these twisted concepts of "success" and "normality" that made me want to turn my back on my hometown and community.

The author as a child.  Courtesy Lisette Espinosa

One of the many things I've learned from queer activists is that assimilation does not equal liberation. Achieving the "American Dream" for myself does not mean that people like my parents, relatives or hometown community will stop being dehumanized or that they will be given the respect they deserve. You only need to look at the news to list the stereotypes often projected onto working class people of color. These myths and misrepresentations are often internalized.

Maybe most of us have felt out of place at Claremont McKenna College for one reason or another, but my feelings of not belonging cut deep across economic and racial lines. It was uncomfortable coming to CMC and seeing my home being better represented in the poorly paid, working-class staff rather than those more central to managing the school's trajectory and curriculum. Over the years, I have seen many people with similar backgrounds to mine build relationships with the workers at the 5Cs. Referring to the Colleges, a student in my Latina Activism class, Neftali Dominguez HM '17, said in class the first week, "How can they say they care about students of color when they treat their brown workers like shit?" At the Claremont Colleges, it is not unusual for workers to get fired or harassed for organizing for better wages, benefits, and working conditions.

Within the first weeks of school, I told an upperclassman Latino that I felt like I was admitted to fill a racial quota. Why would they want me here? Impostor syndrome is prevalent among first-generation students. These feelings caught me by surprise as I had never known what it felt like to be the "minority" in my predominantly immigrant, low-income Latinx hometown. The week after classes started, I cried at the Chicanx/Latinx New Student Retreat, where I felt comfortable enough to voice my concerns about the school. Feelings of inadequacy have haunted me throughout my time at CMC, and my struggles with anxiety and depression first arose at the end of my second year.

Students of color often report feeling unwelcome at predominantly-white institutions, and CMC is far from an exception. Our campus climate and institutional culture are primarily grounded in western, white, cisheteronormative upper to upper-middle class values. Last school year, approximately 60 percent of undergraduate students did not qualify for financial aid based on ability to pay. And it was homophobia and transphobia on campus that encouraged me to complete a gender studies sequence. My second year on campus, the LGBTQ-related posters in the Stark elevator were consistently being ripped, written on, and literally clawed at.

The CMC administration knows the college needs a lot of work. As mentioned in their most recent Campus Climate Task Force (CCTF) report: "By some, CMC is perceived as an institution that fails to prioritize diversity and lacks sensitivity to diversity issues." In a formal report released by CMC in 2013, the Climate Task Force, which was composed of students, faculty, and staff, agreed that the college needs to do considerably more to support its students of marginalized identities and backgrounds. In fact, the report outlines CMC's long history of resisting this type of change.

The report states that while CMC's national reputation grew in the 1980s, some members of the CCTF remember that period as "marked by overt misogyny" and "hostility toward gays and lesbians." In 1989, a prominent CMC faculty member "attacked the gay liberation movement" in a campus speech and a publication. Many CMC faculty and administrators resisted pursuing affirmative action and creating ethnic and women's studies departments, unlike other liberal arts colleges at the time. This contributed to CMC's image as a college unwelcoming to those of "diverse backgrounds" and those interested in teaching or learning about these topics. Though praising its reputation as a "leading liberal arts college," CMC’s accrediting body, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, criticized the school’s lack of “recruitment of talented women and persons of color” and “attention to diversity and campus climate issues for minorities” in reports in the 1990’s, 2000, and 2009.

Mirroring its continual neglect of "diversity issues," CMC also reproduces indifference to social inequalities and oppression in its own student body.  

Although 90% of students surveyed in 2011 reported feeling treated well by the CMC student body, Black and Latinx students were less likely to agree that CMC is "free of tension related to ethnicity/race." Furthermore, the college was described by the report as having a "pervasive, 'hyper-masculine' and heteronormative ethos...that generally discourages the expression of nonconforming gender identities and sexual orientations."

In the report, women reported feeling valued as intellectuals and friends by day and sexually objectified by night. My second year, I was sexually assaulted by an intoxicated student who followed me into the elevator and tried to forcefully pull me to his room. Many people have had similar experiences across college campuses.

Gaypril poster in CMC's Stark Hall clawed at in 2013.  Courtesy Lisette Espinosa

When Carlos Ballesteros, another CMC student, wrote an op-ed for TSL on how issues regarding the party scene receive a disproportionate amount of outrage compared to issues of diversity on campus, multiple online commenters suggested that he transfer. They had a hard time understanding why Carlos cared so much about having more professors of color and more students from low-income backgrounds. It pained me they could not put themselves in our shoes. I was not surprised The Onion wrote this satire about an "Orange County native" and "Claremont McKenna graduate" who believes those not as well-off must somehow deserve their circumstances: "I look around and see a lot of people who don’t have what I have, which leads me to conclude our social institutions have these built-in disparities for a purpose—one that I trust makes perfect sense."

I have been told by staff that one reason hiring more diverse faculty is difficult is because the hiring process is biased. Those who have connections on campus are more likely to be hired. In addition, the CCTF reported that the problem is in part due to "unwelcoming attitudes" of people currently employed at the college. Letters to CMC administrators and colleagues reveal "instances in which members of the professional community have felt devalued, or have been harassed because of their gender or sexual identity," leaving some faculty "afraid that researching or teaching in gender or ethnic studies would diminish their chances of achieving tenure."

The Climate Task Force offered a long list of recommendations in "community composition," "facilities and space," "policies and practices," "academics: curriculum and advising," "co-curricular activities and student services," and "institutional commitment and celebrated success." Last semester, a group of students interested in organizing those who have felt isolated by the campus climate and institutional culture because of their racial or ethnic identities met to discuss their experiences at CMC. The group, CMCers of Color, sent both CMC President Chodosh and ASCMC a petition of proposed actions that echo many of the same concerns the college's own Climate Task Force Report outlined. Disability issues, socioeconomic issues, and Islamophobia were some of the additional issues underscored.

These problems are not new to those who see disparities and experience these tensions on campus.

I frequently use resources and attend events at Pomona College, Scripps College, and Pitzer College. I would visit Scripps Communities of Resources and Empowerment so often that someone had wondered if I had transferred schools.

At the beginning of this semester, a friend invited me to attend a dinner for Scripps students of color. A tent covered a large portion of Jaqua Quad and a dozen tables were filled with students, faculty, staff and alumni. But the event frustrated me. I could not imagine this type of event being held at CMC. Back during speaker Devanie Dóñez' '94 time as a Scripps student, the welcome reception for students of color was held in a dorm living room, and she noted the event's growth in size. I wondered how many CMC students would have appreciated hearing from their own school what I heard from the alumna Trustee's speech:

"Diversity and inclusion are not themes that we talk about for a month or a year. We will never stop talking about this or these issues... We will never reach a point where the work is done... Tonight, I want to remind you again, you are welcome here. You belong here. You are needed here to be known, to…be visible leaders of the call for the most inclusive Scripps possible. And all the rest of us here tonight...as trustees, as administrators, as educators, we will support you and be accountable to you as we strive to do better...So often assumptions are made about students of color, what it means to be a student of color, who we are, where we are from...One faulty assumption I think we may all face at some point is the idea that diversity and excellence are mutually exclusive. I hear that implied in conversation..."

She also spoke about the time she was mistaken as a dining hall worker because she was Latina. Last semester, a Latina CMC alumna disclosed that she had been confused with housekeeping: "We're out of paper towels."

Not once in my four years have I invited my parents to CMC's Parents Weekend. It feels strange having my parents to “experience CMC culture” when that culture doesn't value their work or experiences.

Whether we believe the Colleges are committed to "diversity and inclusion" or just playing a part key to their image, something is wrong here.

Some will think I am overreacting. Some will say I do not belong at CMC and should have transferred (which I cannot afford). Some will believe I am "biting the hand that feeds me." Others will say I am focusing too much on the negative aspects of CMC's campus (those that I frequently hear in private but hardly in public) and not enough on the positive. I see these types of comments often on Carlos' articles online.

These types of reactions discourages students from speaking up, fearing possible repercussions.

My friend Denys Reyes once wrote, "I understand that it is intuitive to defend our school, but someone's first reaction to injustice should not be, 'Not all of CMC!', but 'What can we do to make sure CMC is not this way again?'"

Luckily, my experiences at CMC resulted in immense personal growth, a re-evaluation of my values and identities, and improved relations with my family and community at home. I am a proud Chicana. My background is not a deficit, but a strength.

Whose voices are the loudest on campus? Whose voices are kept at the margins? Who do we look to for knowledge, and whose knowledge is valued? Are our "success" and "leadership" measured in dollar signs? What role do the colleges play in replicating inequality while touting "responsible leadership"? Who is respected, and who is not given a living wage? Whose life is given priority, and whose lives are criminalized, jailed, detained and disposable? What stereotypes and ideologies do we allow in our lives that contribute to the normalization of structural inequality and social suffering?

This is why I want to ask, who is our Claremont education for?

Lisette Espinosa CM '15 is from Oxnard, Calif. She will be graduating with a degree in neuroscience and a gender studies sequence.