W&L has not been and will never be home for me

Andrea Rojas

Washington and Lee University has not been and will never be home for me.

“What is the undergrad experience like at Washington and Lee?” That was the question. Simple and sweet. For many of my classmates, this question allows them to reminisce about parties, hanging in the dorms with friends past quiet hours, or even all-nighters spent doing who knows what. For me, and unfortunately, for many students of color at Washington and Lee, it’s filled with awkward conversations with professors, back-handed comments from classmates, and restless nights spent wondering if I’m only here to help with numbers.   

The online forum organized and facilitated by the Office of Inclusion and Engagement on June 4, 2020, was a place for students to come together and discuss “the recent murders of George Floyd, David McAtee, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery and the rising outcry for accountability and justice.” I signed up, thinking I would join the zoom call and listen to what Dean T’s and my classmates’ thoughts on the issue. In other words, I was going to sit and listen. Simple and sweet. However, being asked, “What is the undergrad experience like at Washington and Lee?”  did not sit right with me as two white students summarized the Washington and Lee  undergraduate experience. Their words did not reflect my experience in the slightest.  

In reality, my experience as a Washington and Lee student has not been, and will never be the same as that of a white student. Due to my brown skin and Chicana identity, I have been met with awkward glances, troubling stares, and overall uneasiness since arriving in August. As a student of color, I have had to tackle being invisible and on-display all the time. I am invisible because I am not represented in our student government bodies, administration, and overall faculty. The University’s success stories, promotional material, and history only paint one image– and it’s an image that students of color are not a part of. Every day, Washington and Lee  reminds us that we are not ‘traditional Washington and Lee students,’ but tokens and accidental brushstrokes on the University’s eurocentric painting.  

However, I am always on display. Due to the overwhelming white majority, I have found myself being the only non-white individual in classes, dorms, dining halls, and outside on the Colonnade. When race, immigration, and/or  anything that has to do with my identity is mentioned, all eyes immediately pierce my soul; students and professors wait eagerly for my input as if I am the expert on all things brown. I came to Washington and Lee University to learn and be like any other American college student. However, it seems as though I have to teach both professors and students alike about how to interact with a student of color as if we are not like them. I’ve had professors eagerly label me as their “minority representative” with the hopes that I will do their job in teaching my white classmates on how to tolerate my presence. When I have acted on this unwanted responsibility, I have had professors lash out of me and call me ‘racist’ or ‘obsessed with race.’ I’ve had professors assume my citizenship status (or in their minds, lack of) and even question my English language ability.  

And it was this awful but honest truth that I admitted to almost  180 students on a Thursday night Zoom call. As I said my truth, the pain that I’ve held in since August quivered in my voice and tears threatened to spill on camera. Anxiety overtook my body as I sat and waited for Dean T or anyone to respond to what I said. Was it my place to share all of this? Am I solely an abnormality in the overall W&L experience? These thoughts plagued my mind. Before I could turn off my camera and cry behind a black screen, my phone screen lit up with text messages, emails, and direct messages from friends, acquaintances, and strangers, white and non-white alike. Positivity, encouragement and shared trauma took up my screen. The call continued, and other students of color shared their experiences at W&Lmany braver than me. After two hours of pained, but much-needed discussion, the call ended, and everyone called it a night. However, one thing was clear: Washington and Lee University has never been and may never be “home” for me. President Will Dudley’s email is evidence of that. 

Dudley’s email, similar to that of the two students who answered the question above, only painted one image of Washington and Lee.  The University named after a slave owner and a Confederate general is far from being “​a national model for liberal arts education in the 21st century” nor is it preparing students for “a global and diverse society.”  To be a student of color at Washington and Lee is to feel like an outsider at your own alma mater.  When Robert E. Lee laid the foundation for W&L’s beloved Williams School of Commerce, Economics, and Politics, its highly acclaimed journalism department and celebrated Honor system, Lee did not think a student like myself, a non-white non-male student, would ever attend the school.  The school was never built for students like myself and President Dudley’s email reminded me of that.  Although he meant well, President Dudley reminded me that students of color do not have a place in W&L’s history, present and possibly future.