Don’t Believe the Hype: College Years Were the Worst Years of My Life

group of african american college students closeupI am 31-years-old and I just found my people. They weren’t at my high school. They weren’t at my undergrad institution. They were all waiting for me in Chicago, at grad school. I’m so glad I finally found them.

Everyone told me that high school was going to be great. They said that, in high school, you make some of the most lasting friendships of your life. When that didn’t work out for me and I began to lament that fact that I had lost out on my one opportunity for lifelong friendship, the story changed. Then it became, “Oh no, it’s actually college. That’s where you find all the like-minded people. Go to college. Meet some Black people. They will be your best friends forever.” Sadly, that never happened either. My undergraduate college years were some of the worst years of my life in the friendship department. I’m just glad I survived them, turned 30, and finally found all the Black unicorns in the United States.

When I got to undergrad, I was probably a year behind most of my peers educationally and immeasurably lagging economically. I was adept at hiding my class and ashamed about it so most people never knew.

I had just recently become homeless when first my mother and then my father put me out in high school. I was sexually assaulted in high school and forced to confront adulthood in ways that I hadn’t been prepared for. When I got ready to leave for school, I was relieved to be leaving the Bay Area never to return. Everything I owned was in two suitcases after months of me pawning my video games, CDs, and other possessions to have spending money and food to eat. Needless to say, I wasn’t the average Black student at the very elite, very competitive, predominantly White University of Southern California.

I was the “ghetto” kid. My financial aid visits, phone calls, and letters took up countless hours throughout my preparation for school. I wore Jordan’s and Ecko Unlimited while many of my peers shopped at Abercrombie and Nordstrom. Many of them had cars and elaborate send offs. They would wear fancy dresses and shoes to campus events. I’d do my best but they made it clear on several occasions that my efforts weren’t up to snuff.

I remember one specific occasion when our entire floor went to an upscale campus barbecue. It was just days after move-in on the all Black student floor freshman year. All the girls got glammed up. All the boys put on cologne. I put on a hat, red turtleneck, and my only pair of dress pants. These were the nicest clothes I owned at the time.

One boy, he was the shortest guy on our floor and arguably the most annoying, walked down the line of girls as if he were Kiki Sheppard at Showtime at the Apollo judging all of us with applause from the audience. He commented on how beautiful each girl looked, noting their summery dresses and nice heels. When he got to me, he said, “and here’s….this…” Then he lowered his head and laughed. Of course all the boys did too.

I walked back to the dorm early, offended that he felt the need to draw attention to me in that way but more so embarrassed that everyone else co-signed.

After trying desperately to fit in for a few months, I just gave up. I started hanging out with the outcasts and awkward kids in the dorms and recused myself from mainstream Black life at school. I became angry and resentful toward them. And, rather than make any effort to contort myself to their narrow standards of Blackness, I rebelled as hard as I could.

For five years, I was reminded over and over again that I wasn’t like everyone else. The Black students on campus had an uncanny ability of letting you know you were disposable even before really getting to know you. New classes of Black students would come in and avoid me like the plague. When I approached them about it, they made it clear that they had “heard about me.” All it took was a few people to decide they didn’t like me for pretty much the entire Black community at USC to rail against me. Yeah, it was that bad.

I remember being made fun of because I didn’t know what the big spoon was for in my pasta bowl. I was called “sexual” and a ho for having condoms in my room that I would give out to promote safe sex amongst my peers. My mannerisms, diction, and word choice were mocked because they weren’t upper crust enough. Oddly, these people still expected me to hang around in their company.

Don’t let the smooth taste fool you; some of the most successful, most attractive, most jovial looking cliques of Black bourgie people started as exclusive gangs of bullies and mean guys/girls. This is a byproduct of the pervasiveness of respectability politics in the Black community and the social conditioning we all experience which tells us we are better than “other” people. It has been ten years and these people still block me on social media platforms that didn’t even exist when we were in school. Petty Labelle, amirite?

Now, I see that most of them have what I was told I would find in college. They spend time together and have formed close bonds with one another. Some have gotten married and had kids. While my husband and I met at school, we haven’t seen most of those people since graduation. Frankly, we aren’t even remotely interested.

Recently, I was checking text messages and emails when I realized the bonds that I have formed since college are some of the strongest bonds I have had in my life. I have more close girl and guy friends than I have hours in the day. I genuinely enjoy catching up and spending time with folks in my contacts and in my various friends lists. I have a full roster of fantastic, affirming, loving, compassionate people who I get to do life with now. And, the only one I was close to in college is the one I married.

So, I guess that’s the silver lining here. It took some time but I came out of college with a best friend who became my husband, a clearer vision of the diversity of Blackness in the United States, and a hunger to have lasting, true friendships with non-shallow, non-materialistic, non-patriarchal, woke ass individuals. Lucky for me, I found them.

If you, like me, weren’t so lucky finding your unicorns in high school or college, don’t fret. They’re out there. But, just like searching through the melons at the grocery store, you might have to do some pretty vigorous inspecting, pick the wrong fruit, and shop at a few stores before you find them.

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Jenn M. Jackson

Jenn M. Jackson, PhD is a co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Water Cooler Convos. She is a native of Oakland, CA. Jenn is a radical Black feminist scholar who believes none of us are free until all of us are free.