Take Space, Make Space

I’ve had two of the most intellectually stimulating, challenging, and rigorous weeks of my life here as a law student at the University of Cambridge – every day demands that I bring the best of myself, and I love that.

I love waking up in a converted Victorian villa, biking to rowing practice before sunrise, and smelling fresh dew on my way to morning lecture; I love the pressure from a good, kick-your-ass supervisor, the diligence required to get through all the reading, and the organizational prowess needed to meaningfully digest it.

But despite feeling empowered to thrive here, even as someone who was raised in upper class circles and attended a feeder school to elite higher education institutions, I feel displaced and disoriented, excluded in many ways from Cambridge as an East Asian woman.

The crevices of these hallowed halls are filled with superstitious, inaccessible, and indecipherable traditions that have historic value, yes, but perhaps MP David Lammy's article forces us to interrogate: to what extent have such norms actively excluded and propagated existing systems of domination?

Before Cambridge, I spent four years in California where my CV says I majored in French and minored in medieval atudies at Pomona College – but what my CV doesn't say, and the most important thing that Pomona College taught me, was this: sit down, shut up, and listen.

When I first arrived at Pomona, fresh from a top international school in Hong Kong, the campus showed no sympathy for my foreign, elite, and conservative upbringing that never discussed queerness, politics, or abortion. I tried to express, "It's not like this where I'm from," but beyond a few pats on the back, the campus structurally did not care about or invite my voice to be part of the conversation.

Being (meaningfully) involved at Pomona was synonymous with engaging in campus politics, which are integrally tied to American narratives and systems of oppression – ones that I was hopelessly illiterate and unaware of.

So I sat down, shut up, and listened to these narratives in hopes of finding a space at Pomona.

In the fall of 2014, my second year, the advent of Black Lives Matter coincided with the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, a widespread, 79-day peaceful protest with over one million participants. I was paralyzed by my inability to participate in either movement because of my status as an international student: stripped of political agency as a removed agent in both contexts.

I had no place or peace to find words to articulate my thoughts. Instead, I sat down, shut up, and listened, as I felt myself become a stranger to my city, my university, and increasingly, myself.

Not until the end of senior year (earlier this calendar year) did I seriously consider the idea that I actually didn’t enjoy myself at Pomona. I began to recognize and process this pain of self-alienation (a special thank you to my therapist).

I think it took a while to come to terms with this reality because it was too heavy a task to acknowledge that the most important, independent, and extremely expensive choice that I had made for myself, university, was much less than ideal. It was much easier to hide behind the defense of good weather.

But now I'm at Cambridge, and have been essentially given a second opportunity to redo my undergrad, the helping hands of hindsight and comparison are unraveling the true value of my liberal arts education.

My self-alienation must be understood in tandem with the empowerment and emancipation that many of my low-income, LGBTQIA+, womxn/non-binary classmates of color experienced for the first time at Pomona.

In elite spaces of higher education, it is typically the elite who feel most comfortable. However, the discomfort I as a privileged person felt, is a testament to Pomona’s efforts to improve inclusivity for marginalized students. Because Pomona redirects resources from powerful donors to holistically empower underrepresented students, both the administration and students of privilege are continually challenged to reconsider how our previous, elite lifestyles actively exclude and oppress.

It can only ever be this way: the process by which minorities increasingly access elite spaces necessitates that those with power systematically recognize, remove, and redistribute their sources of their power. They must actively invite discomfort into their own lives and make space for those whose subjugation has historically and systematically served to propagate their powers.

While there is still so much work to be done in Claremont, I do believe that Oxbridge has much to learn from the culture of radical inclusivity at American liberal arts colleges. That I thrive and feel relatively comfortable here indicates that Cambridge is a place suited for people like myself: those who come from spaces of power and have been told their whole life to continue taking up those spaces "because they deserve it."

The natural corollary is that students from underrepresented backgrounds are alienated and excluded at Oxbridge. If we hope to achieve higher levels of diversity and inclusivity at Oxbridge, it must begin with an honest acknowledgment of our privileges to enable marginalized community members to occupy the same space. Especially directed at my predominantly East Asian upper and middle-class community: would you join me in considering when to make space or take space?

Jessica Tan graduated from Pomona College in 2017.