An Open Letter to My Little Sister in College

Remember when we wanted to join the circus? We spent countless hours watching trapeze artists when we were little, so when we came home we would play as if we were acrobats. You would lay your belly down on my feet as I lay on my back, feet crouched in the air. Once settled, I would lift you into the air and hold your hands so you didn't fall. When we were feeling bolder, we would tentatively let go of each other's hands. I would watch you soaring over me and try my hardest to protect you.

Now, I understand I'm not Mom and Dad -- I haven't had, nor do I understand, the experience of raising and caring-for a child. But I do understand feeling uncontrollable pride when you have succeeded at things I know you have given your all to. I have cried and felt devastated knowing you have felt pain or rejection. So as I had before, when you were preparing to go off to college, I tried to do my best to protect you; I told you about leaving your drink exposed at a party; about walking home alone; about wearing a jacket even though it "doesn't feel that cold". But now, as you are settling into your first months of college, there are some things I realized I wouldn't be able to protect you from or explain to you without you having experienced some of college first.  

Race. When you are sent to a campus in which young adults with varying backgrounds and ethnicities are expected to live, learn and interact in a small, elite bubble, the community will begin to fragmentize along different lines. One of those lines will be race. Although you and I have grappled with race for much of our lives as black girls raised in a predominantly white space, in college, you are forced to really look at and analyze how you and your peers are different as a result of race. I started questioning where my place was and how I could navigate a space that was not originally created for people who looked like me. I started to question why even though I was a hardworking student in this elite institution, I still could not seem to shake the stereotypes prescribed against me. I also started to question how I could position myself and find myself within this new black community that was open to me. I have learned that you will always have to work ten times as hard and be ten times as dedicated to your work to prove to others that you are as qualified and as talented as your non-black peers.  I quickly came to realize in college that it doesn't matter if you are a professor or a Nobel laureate, my blackness will always be considered in how people define me. This all understandably, is a hard thing to come to terms with. It is hard being black on a college campus. But if you do one thing for me, let it be this-speak up. Never forget the value of your voice. In the learning environment that you inhabit, educate. It is absolutely necessary and important that your voice be heard, and that you be part of the burgeoning class of minorities who are staged, poised, and ready to take over the world.  So you are going to need to be brave. And you are going to need to be bold. Because being a woman of color requires strength in ways you don't even know existed.

Friends. One of the great opportunities of college is the ability to expose yourself to great minds-along with that, comes exposure to some of the greatest, and most intelligent, friends. However, finding your solid group of people who will support you and love you throughout your college experience is hard. Even as a senior now in college, writing this to you, I can tell you that it still feels as if my friend group is moving and changing. You will find your friend group changing as the semester goes by. That's fine. Let it happen. You are supposed to be growing into a new person. Do not become stagnant and allow yourself to settle into a group that either does not reflect your best self or reflect who you are growing to be. Let friends come, let some friends go, and hold on to the ones who are genuine people who look out for your true happiness and well-being.  

Image. I want to remind you of one thing: you are a gorgeous human being. Unfortunately, part of your self-image can become tied up in what men think of you, especially in college. The black female body is something that throughout history has been hyper-sexualized and diminished. Please do not let the forces of a history of wholly unrepresentative European beauty standards hold you back from expressing your creativity and femininity through how you dress or carry yourself. Even though mom and dad always told us we were their beautiful little queens, only you can uphold that for yourself. Hold yourself high, and hold your standards higher. You deserve the best because you are the best, and the sooner you let that resonate with you, the sooner you will find you are truly a queen, and love yourself.  

Failure and Mistakes. Although it might be unconventional to celebrate failure, I think it is important to acknowledge that failure is a commonplace and wonderful experience in college. When you fail, you are tested to see who you truly are as a person. Failure breeds resilience. Failure breeds introspection. Failure forces you to look at yourself and see if you can face a lot of hardships when they come your way. You will fail. You might have already failed. And that is perfectly ok. The purpose of college isn't to have gotten there and know everything. You are taking a huge step into the world and as a result, there is no way you would or should be able to have it together all of the time.  I realize that as you now have settled into your classes, you can start to feel the pressure of perfectionism establishing itself over the classroom, and slowly, you will talk less and less about how hard a class is or how difficult things are. Speak up to me, speak up to others. College is hard. And sometimes you cry. And sometimes you get upset. And sometimes you feel as if there is no way you can recover from something. But if you can accept that you can pick yourself up and maybe put back together some of the pieces, you will make it through.  

You've got this.


Your Sister

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