Segregation and the intraracial divide

Choosing the University of Pennsylvania: Integrated versus Segregated

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Choosing the University of Pennsylvania: Integrated versus Segregated

In this section, I examine the various factors that influenced black students’ decision to enroll at the University of Pennsylvania. There was a strong consensus that the University’s top-notch academic reputation and attractive financial aid packages lured them there over their other choices. However, the interview and survey data both suggest that residential and school segregation affected students’ decision to enroll at the University of Pennsylvania over other elite schools. The majority of black respondents attended schools were they were had typically been a numerical minority. They were used to being in classes and having friends that did not look like them and often could not relate to what they went through as a black person on a daily basis; they reported instances of routine discrimination and felt ostracized by their white and black peers. Always only one of a handful of black students in their honors or advanced placement classes, they were isolated from the majority of their same-race peers who took lower-level classes.

Moreover, over one-third of black interview respondents (and, 40% of survey respondents) grew up in overwhelmingly white suburban neighborhoods where they were typically one of a select few people of color on their block or in the town. As they articulated in their commentaries, they felt estranged from a black peer group and desperately wanted to make same-race friends. The University of Pennsylvania was an attractive option: its high academic standards coupled with the widely circulated reputation of being the “black Ivy” or the “Ghetto Ivy” located in a majority black area of West Philadelphia as well as the existence of the Du Bois College House, a campus residence designed to celebrate black heritage and culture, struck a chord. Additionally, they explained that their black high school peers had often questioned their racial authenticity because they came from higher class backgrounds and were not always proficient in certain black cultural styles and behaviors. Students from integrated backgrounds thus saw college as a fresh start where they could meet other high-achieving blacks who they shared much in common with. Fitting in and being accepted by a black peer group at college was of greatest priority from students who lived in a predominately white neighborhood and went to integrated schools.

Conversely, respondents from predominately black and Latino neighborhoods and schools had similar reasons for attending the University of Pennsylvania but their initial expectations of college life were different. Like their integrated peers, they were attracted to the University’s top academic ranking and generous financial aid. There was a compelling desire to keep their immediate social circle exclusively black because this was what was most familiar and safe. For this reason, they too, perceived the University’s urban location as important. There was also a common assumption that their other blacks would think and interact just like them—they would have the same cultural repertoire and racial understandings based on their shared skin color. Students from both integrated and segregated backgrounds were surprised and dismayed by the fact that making black friends was not as easy as they thought it would be and that finding their niche would be difficult.

I asked respondents to rank their top three reasons for enrolling at the University of Pennsylvania over their other top choices. Over and over again, students cited the academic reputation of the university, its urban location, and the perceived existence of a strong black presence on campus. Financial aid was an important factor that often tipped the scales as they compared the pros and cons of choosing the University of Pennsylvania over other schools. For students from predominately white backgrounds, the prospective of attending an Ivy League university where they could finally socialize with a critical mass of same-race peers was tantalizing.

Nia, a junior at the time of her interview, recalled why she decided to go to the University of Pennsylvania.

Interviewer: What were the three biggest factors that contributed to your decision to enroll at Penn?

Nia: I had heard a lot about Penn being very diverse…[that] definitely played a big factor…So, I would say academics, prestige, or whatever you want to call it, just how well I thought it was gonna benefit me academically, that would be number one, economics would be number two, in terms of how much money I was going to get and racial diversity would be number three…

Nia was from a wealthy suburb just outside of Washington, DC. She had attended the same private all-girls day school from the 5th through 12th grades. High school had been difficult for Nia because the few black girls she was friendly with did not consider her to be “black enough” because she didn’t speak slang and came from an affluent household. She recalled: “…like when I was in middle school, people used to tell me that I spoke like a white girl, like just because I went to a predominantly white school my entire life, and my parents aren’t poor…” Nia was excited to come to the University of Pennsylvania and make black friends. She stated: … “I really wanted to make black friends…I was excited to find out I had a black roommate freshman year.”

Sandra chose the University over the other Ivies she got accepted to in part because she liked its urban location.

Interviewer: So what are the primary factors that actually, do you think, if you could sum it up, convinced you to apply to Penn?

Sandra: To apply? Really like probably because it was an inner-city school. That’s probably it.

Interviewer: Why, why would it be so important that it’s an inner-city school?

Sandra: Just to have like, like it’s an inner-city school so you can be involved with the community and stuff like that.
Sandra was from a suburban area of Los Angeles where she attended one of the most elite private schools in the country. Several top colleges competed for her because of her strong academic record and swimming abilities. Sandra had felt quite lonely in high school because she had few friends. She felt that she had had little in common with her “very wealthy white” peers.

…like I had maybe one friend and then most of the people on the swim team were people who I knew from my club swimming. So that’s how I knew them. And they were the people I generally hung out with but we weren’t really friends, we just hung out, you know. So I really didn’t have very, like good friends at that school.

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