The first time I wore a Cornell sweatshirt was the week I graduated from the university.
It was an extraordinarily expensive gift from my brother. He had traveled to visit me at college for the first time, to see me accept my diploma.
He kept saying, “I can’t believe you did this, in this place, by yourself. You came all the way here. I didn’t even have a picture of it in my mind.”
I shared this story on Twitter this spring. I was in a reflective mood that Easter Sunday morning, uncharacteristically uncaffeinated and ready to be deterred from my morning routine. I had a feeling that this day, this particular anniversary of my father’s suicide, was going to be significantly different for me than it had ever been.
For the previous 34 years, I’d consistently wanted to spend the day alone; I had things to remember, very specific things to forget, insistent narratives and images that, since I was 14 years old, I’d had to negotiate and battle in the quiet so that I could stay even, so that I could hold at bay what nevertheless can still rush me in a wave, can catch me at any point in an undertow.
But this particular year, as a result of some key therapeutic milestones and having recently been forced to engage in various other personal battles for my safety and health, I was differently fortified, ready to feel the loss of my father differently. I was ready to maybe even speak or write about the hurt of it directly. Maybe.
What would my brother have felt if I had mentioned to him then how my college journey had started? What would my father have felt, that proud man who worked so hard to mask his shame at our poverty, who knew our homeowner’s insurance would pay off the house we were losing to foreclosure once we could prove his death?
I had arrived alone on campus in Ithaca, New York, with $30 and one suitcase. Other students were moving in with their families, carrying rugs and lamps and word-processors, warm-enough coats and boots and bedsheets, mirrors and shampoo and robes, and so much decor with Cornell branding.
At the home I’d left in Albuquerque, there was no working phone, so I couldn’t even call my mom to tell her about it all.
That morning, hurt and honesty flew out of me into a thread that held together secrets and silences, shaped them into declarations that I knew enough to know weren’t mine, alone.
My words took on the reflection of some parts of some lives, the articulation of so many painful and invisible pieces of what some college students and university community members experience. Close to 11,000 people tapped hearts to recognize the first tweet of the thread in the 48 hours following my post; more than 1,000 people retweeted it, and my Twitter follower count went from close to 600 to over 3,500.
What overwhelmed me, besides the buzzing of my phone that Sunday, is what the buzzing meant, what these new interlocutors signaled. Thousands of people were touching my words because they felt them deeply, and many recognized them as utterances and images that made what they hid or endured—or, perhaps more difficult at times, what they couldn’t hide—as students who grew up in socioeconomic impoverishment, who attended elite schools as (still) poor students.
The day I moved into that dorm, I rushed to the Statler Hotel to interview for a job working at the front desk.
When I arrived, the person who greeted me looked my brownness up and down. I’d been bagging groceries and putting them in trunks all summer, so I was that “desert-toasted” color, a phrase I used easily, comfortably for myself but that I would bristle at if someone else uttered.
She told me, “That position isn’t open anymore.”
“But I haven’t interviewed yet,” I said, my Chicana accent probably as pronounced as my brown skin.
“That position isn’t open anymore,” she repeated.
“I have to work,” I insisted. “This is what my work-study paperwork said. To come here. For my interview.”
She told me to take the elevator, maybe make a turn or two until I found a door, and knock on it.
It was the housekeeping office. They gave me a job.
And so I wore the uniform that Ithaca townspeople wore, and alongside them cleaned the rooms that the Ivy-League parent-shoppers and alumni and sports fans slept in after they bought Cornell gear and took my classmates, my peers, their children out to brunch.
To be clear, there is no shame in service work. I learned a lot from my housekeeping coworkers while I was at the Statler; they were impressively skilled professionals. And we all made beds and scrubbed toilets and folded washcloths into seashell shapes for guests who could afford Cornell sweatshirts for their loved ones and themselves from day one of their time in Ithaca. My brother bought mine for me on my next-to-last day there.
What happened in between that first day of college and my graduation day? Some generous, insightful, committed professors—and programs for the benefit of “underrepresented” students and faculty members—found me, saw me, invested time and showed real interest in what I was already capable of and what hadn’t yet emerged.
Dr. Reeve Parker, chair of Cornell’s English Department during my freshman year, said wonderfully empowering and encouraging things about my writing. He quite literally changed my life when he encouraged me to apply to the Mellon Minority Undergraduate Fellowship Program, a community that supported my summer research as an undergraduate and remains a significant part of my extended family to this day. Along with a very small handful of some beautifully loving friends, Drs. Harryette Mullen, Sunn Shelley Wong, Biodun Jeyifo, Gary Okihiro, James Turner, and Stephanie Vaughn pulled me through a depression they knew about and a violent relationship about which they knew nothing, and they supported me as I transitioned from struggling academically to thriving.
After that, I went to graduate school, earned my Ph.D., taught at The Ohio State University, and now I teach within and chair a truly remarkable department—Women’s and Gender Studies—with wonderful colleagues at the University of Michigan.
Every single success and every moment that I might not have survived (but did) is and was due in great part to a faculty member—either an instructor of mine, or a colleague—who knows that the university is still not for me. I am not delusional about my success and my privileges, but how many Chicana faculty members do you think I see in a day or year at the University of Michigan? How many have you ever seen? For how many of the almost 11,000 people who read my tweet were my words the first they’ve read from someone born and raised poor in Albuquerque? Not as many as those who have been subjected to some kind of erasure or abuse, or both, during college. And none of this is acceptable. The erasures and abuses come in so many forms.
What I mean to say is: As educators, faculty members and administrators, we need to know what our students and colleagues have in common with one another, what they have in common with us, and even more importantly, what they do not. There is no one “college experience,” and if there is, it is an experience that too often lies to itself about the possibility of it being uniform, inspiring, welcoming, even survivable.
Some students take their $65 college sweatshirts for granted. Others can’t imagine owning one.
Some people who work in higher ed know this, and some don’t. I shared my own story online in response to another professor’s tweet critiquing people for posting selfies featuring their college T-shirts. The comment read to me as both a personal diminishment and simplification of so many complexities that affect students and university community members far beyond just me.
The response to my own Twitter message brought me many new friends. It also brought many affirmations that I’m not alone, and most importantly, it confirmed that I and those who share some of my experiences and commitments in higher education have urgent work to do on behalf of those who are or feel alone.
My ask, here, is that to the degree that we can, we give grace and thoughtfulness to our community members, that we commit to knowing that there are truths that our institutions don’t look for and simply cannot hold, and that we think creatively about how to resource ourselves and those who care about these facts to hold them, flag them, insist on them as both the symbols and the material of what the university has yet to change about itself, its logics and operations.
But we can’t wait for this, even as we work for it. We must extend care and accept care. Genuine, thoughtful, respectful, attentive, proactive and responsive care is a truly radical thing in our spaces. This is both a terribly upsetting and hopeful thing to engage.
Two days after I posted my thread, I was leaving my classroom when a student, a young woman, asked me: “Are you Dr. Tapia?”
“Yes,” I said.
“I read your Twitter thread,” she said. “Thank you. I cried. I really felt it.”
“Thank you so much for telling me,” I said. “That means a lot. What’s your name?”
“It’s really great to meet you, Luisa. Find me. Well, you did. Feel free to find me here. Really.”
“Thank you so much.”
“You’re so welcome. I look forward to seeing you.”