Everyone says that college becomes the most influential time of your life; you can experience the world in a different way, grow as a person and everything changes.
Before college, I felt confident, as every naive high schooler does, that I did not apply to this rule.
When I enrolled at the University of Maryland, I saw my next few years very clearly: get in, get my education, put some fun experiences with friends in the books and get out. Personal growth? I didn’t feel like I needed it; I felt pretty well-developed from the ups and downs of high school.
With my first semester, all my expectations about college changed, I came away with one clear lesson; I wasn’t as woke as I thought I was, and I had a lot to learn about life.
During my high school years, I felt fairly personally developed, especially when it came to understanding the importance of diversity.
I recognized that I became the product of two cultures; my early years were spent in Atlanta, Georgia and I lived a fairly white suburban life. I never considered diversity as something missing from my life before. After spending my more formative years in Poolesville, Maryland, my perspective completely changed. For the first time in my life, I became immersed in a diverse culture: I met people of different races, religious beliefs, and walks of life. Diversity suddenly became a huge part of what I loved about Maryland. It made me realize the limitations of my world view.
The transition of cultures became symbolic to me.
As a child, I participated in a uniform culture that I never chose to expand beyond, but as I grew up I joined a more diverse culture that I could fully embrace. I think this experience helped me have a critical eye that shapes the way I see the world; my friends and I could debate about our different opinions while recognizing our different backgrounds, but also split a coffee at our favorite cafe while complaining about the paper we had to turn in.
While Poolesville does not have the most diverse population as a very small, predominantly white town, my high school’s magnet program brought in students from all over the county. My high school hailed its diversity, which permeated my friend group. With my diverse friend group, knowledge of the news and the important issues, I felt 100 percent sure I was the wokest I could be.
After being a UMD student for a couple of weeks, I realized I had no idea what diversity really looked like. The quick immersion into a vastly different culture forced me to reconcile that my so-called woke-ness did not transcend all the things I didn’t know.
The culture shift I experienced didn’t necessarily bother me, but I did have a lot of introspective moments.
For the first time, I went to a meeting and numbered among one of the only white people there. I would stand with a group of friends and they would use words I didn’t know. I started dating a boy from a completely different culture than me. All of these things were opportunities I would never experience in Poolesville, and challenged my knowledge of the world, causing me to really grow as a person.
Luckily, my friends have been willing to walk alongside me through processing the complex issues of race and culture. Our society’s complicated relationship with racial issues and the integration of respect and recognizing cultural differences has to reconcile with living in the present and just being a person. This became the biggest lesson I learned from my first semester – of course, there’s a needed emphasis on being respectful and knowledgeable of other cultures.
I needed to shift my focus from people’s perceptions to learning — after all, that’s what college is all about.
Understanding race, diversity, and my place in the conversation can feel like a life-long process, as college kindly taught me. Yet I’m excited to learn because it helps me understand the friends I care for so dearly and the world. I’m not as woke as I thought I was, and honestly, I’m okay with that because learning has become more important than seeming woke.