What Being Underrepresented Means to Me

As a result of the national conversations surrounding race and education I feel compelled now to share my story of underrepresentation at Montana State University (MSU) and I would encourage my peers of all races to do the same. Particularly if something does not feel right. The institution that we call ‘higher education’ was created by affluent white individuals with the sole purpose of educating and propagating affluence in predominantly white communities of this country.

Therefore, I feel compelled now to speak up and speak out. This is an era for change. We live in a much more socially conscious time but we are still blind to many issues. We can only affect change when we all take a stand for what matters.

BORN TO LOSE

On May 7, 2016 I will be the first person in my family to earn a bachelor’s degree, a prize that was not easily attained. In inner-city Los Angeles where I grew up, success is measured by the amount of government public assistance one can collect (e.g., food stamps). The only male role models in my family were incarcerated through much of my upbringing. Consequently, at 19-years of age, a high school drop-out, I was confident that I had the tools necessary to succeed independently in the world. Inevitably, I immediately failed at this.

During the struggle for my degree, and the events leading up to my decision to pursue a degree, I recalled clearly that every time I was confronted with adversity I would question myself: Could I succeed? Did I deserve to? These questions kept me cycling through thoughts of unworthiness, and as a result I became homeless, alone and trapped.

After a year of living as a homeless person, I found a sense of accountability that allowed me to dig myself out of this cycle. In refusing to label myself as unworthy or incapable, I set my mind in motion towards the search for a greater possibility. Instead of conceding to my limitations, I was motivated by the ways in which I could learn, grow and thrive. I made a conscious decision to stand tall, change my life and face the world rather than live on my knees. Therefore, it only made sense that my next step would be to become the first person in my family to attend college, pursue a meaningful career, and to develop a profound legacy.

NOT LIVING UP TO INSTITUTIONAL STANDARDS

Without the various skills and resources that more affluent students tend to have we as minority or disadvantaged students are much more likely to drop out of school. In my experience, MSU like many institutions largely ignores the special challenges that first generation and minority students face when they arrive to campus. I have to come to realize that the ‘institution’, rather all institutions of higher education in general have no idea what to do with a non-traditional student, meaning those that perhaps did not finish high school, are first in their families to go to university, low-income, and identify as a member of a racial/ethnic/sexual minority. I have first-hand experience of feeling overlooked by the institution, because I identify as a member of all of the above mentioned groups.

There are several programs at MSU that are dedicated to the retention and success of its minority students. One might argue that I should feel grateful that these programs exist and I do indeed. However, my issue is that the institution fails to provide full and direct support to these programs, MSU does tend to match grant funds which provide valuable staff positions. My expertise in grant funding at state universities is severely limited, so I will digress here. However, this type of funding effectively sends a message that we as minority students only matter and are worthy of support when we are extraordinarily successful, the exception and not the rule.

If even once a grant is not awarded to MSU to support a program we would lose valuable programming that is essential to the recruitment, retention and success of the next generation of diverse scholars.

This country is having serious discussions about various inequities in society including education, sexual orientation, mass incarceration and race at the moment and I have seen several articles from faculty across the globe firing back at students calling us ‘whiny babies’ or ‘entitled’. Rather than engaging in name calling I propose that we channel our energies into sharing our individual experience and proposing real solutions.

 

Michael Ruiz

College of Letters & Science