What Mentor Programs Did (and Didn’t) Do For Me

When I applied to Pomona College, I checked off “Hispanic/Latino” as my ethnicity for all of those questions that probe us about our racial identities. The summer before my first year, I got a letter from Chicano/Latino Student Affairs (CLSA) inviting me to a retreat for $35. I thought, “A retreat? For Latinos? I don’t get it.” I grew up in the Bronx, NY and went to high school in Harlem, where blacks and Latinos comprise the vast majority of the people you see. Since I was constantly around people who looked like me, my 17-year-old self didn’t really see the value in sitting in a cabin for two days with a group of Latinos.

Then I actually came to Pomona. I never handed in the $35 to participate in the retreat, and I started to regret it. I was one of the only underrepresented people of color on my floor. None of my friends were from low-income communities. I started to lose it: I needed to surround myself with people like me as soon as possible.

However, a few weeks into my first year at Pomona, I began to realize that CLSA was not at all what I had imagined. In fact I didn’t even know what the word “Chicano” meant until someone from CLSA explained it to me. My parents are from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean—an area with a completely different culture from Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. I found CLSA to be largely Chicano- and male-oriented. As a group we talked a lot about Mexican-American issues and some students even used Mexican Spanish slang with each other that I didn’t understand. Once again, I felt like an outsider, except this time I was an outsider among other Latinos.

After a couple of years at Pomona, I thought about becoming more active at events through the Office of Black Student Affairs (OBSA). I figured, “I grew up in the Bronx, where blacks and Latinos work together and suffer together. My mother is of Afro-indigenous descent. Maybe I can find something for me at OBSA.” But while I found OBSA to be a lot more open and welcoming than I had expected, I quickly realized that it was not quite for me. The space had not been created for me, after all. Now that I am in my senior year, I do enjoy many of their events, especially the lunches. For some reason though, I constantly feel that because I am not black I’m infringing upon their space without meaning to do so.

I have absolutely nothing personal against CLSA, OBSA, or any other mentor programs and resource centers at the Claremont Colleges. They are all wonderful and valuable for many students; without them, so many of us women, queers, people of color, etc. would feel lost. However, just because I checked “Hispanic/Latino” on my college application does not automatically mean that CLSA is the perfect match for me. It wasn’t. Same for all of the other folks that get kind of thrown into these organizations without necessarily knowing what they want for themselves. Honestly, I’m a senior and I’m still relatively confused about being a woman of color and a Latina at Pomona College, what it all means, and what I should be doing with myself to make my life better. For now, I’m checking out the newly revived Claremont Colleges Caribbean Students’ Organization, a group for students to discuss and celebrate Caribbean heritage and culture. I don’t know what I will learn or where it will take me, but that’s all part of the journey.

As a low-income woman of color at Pomona College, my comfort, sanity, and happiness are rarely guaranteed on this campus. The best thing about our abundance of mentor programs and resource centers is that I can navigate a lot of them whenever I want to try and find more and more people that I can relate to. Not every group is right for every student—as I found out for myself—but I would strongly encourage you, readers, to step out of your comfort zones and find whatever group or activity truly makes you happy to be here. For me, at least, the search has made a huge difference.

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