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mercedes-owens
Photo from Mary Sadallah

When I consider my experience navigating an elite, predominantly white institution as a Black woman, two words come to mind: resilience and growth.

My perception of Blackness and my own Black identity was flawed before coming to Penn. I grew up listening to my grandmother tell stories of how she picked cotton for white people who are still residents and influential leaders in our town to this day. I listened to my mom tell stories of how she wanted to eventually leave our town, but felt as though something was chaining her to its center. In our tiny southern town of about 7,000 people, 85% percent of them are white. Throughout my childhood, I was exposed to very few examples of Black leaders and saw minimal recognition of their abilities or excellence. In high school, the lives of Black and brown students were not valued unless they fit the “good student” prototypes: athletic, smart, or active community members. This could be seen in the way teachers spoke about the opportunities that were available to students of color when compared to our white peers. This could be seen in the lack of diversity in our school’s faculty. There was very little encouragement or incentive for Black students to strive for anything more than high school graduation. Before coming to Penn, my Black identity was centered around defying the odds placed before me, as a woman of color raised by a single mother in a town that did not seem to mind being stuck in the past.

My background has continuously impacted the way I assess my ability to perform academically, mentally, and socially at Penn. One of the biggest takeaways from both my general Penn experience and my economics major is that no amount of education can eradicate the level of discrimination and systemic oppression that I will continue to experience as a result of my race and gender. I believe Penn could do more to support its students in combating the feelings of imposter syndrome, social isolation, and academic and lack of pre-professional preparation that often occupy the Black and first-generation, low-income student experiences. My own familiarity with these issues have only served to challenge the way I think and advocate on behalf of these aspects of my identity.

My first year at Penn introduced me to new ideas about myself, my history, and my culture. It was a complete learning experience. Through my interactions with Black Penn students and faculty, I was shocked to learn about the sheer quantity of Black history that was excluded from mine and my peers’ prior educational experiences. In social and academic settings, I learned from incredible leaders within the Black Penn community, whose diverse lived experiences and radical thinking provided me with a wealth of knowledge. To my disappointment, I also learned that racism and oppression is not at all unique to the South.

My time at Penn has primarily been centered on the intersection between my Black and FGLI identities. These identities lend themselves to an internal battle of guilt resulting from leaving my home and family behind to embrace the newfound privilege associated with attending a university like Penn. Initially, I struggled with imposter syndrome as one the few Black women in my economics courses. I struggled academically and mentally not only because I had never before experienced the kind of pressure and competition that seemingly coats the air at Penn, but also because many of my peers had been previously exposed to the material through private school educations. I realized that other students — white students, wealthy students, privileged students — did not ever think about these things.

Despite earning my place at Penn, these considerations led me to feel like a fraud. These interactions often highlighted the numerous disparities that exist between the Black Penn community and the rest of the university — systematic differences that put members of the Black and FGLI communities at an inherent disadvantage even at our elite university. But despite these struggles, I have been exposed to many inspiring examples of Black achievement. I have also come to a more concrete understanding that one should not need to be at an elite institution to be considered successful, though being here in and of itself should be recognized as an achievement.

The way I have chosen to use my experiences at Penn have only made me more secure in my identity, which extends beyond how people perceive me as a Black woman. This growth has allowed me to find spaces where I feel seen and heard and where I am able to share stories of struggle that only my Black peers will understand. I have been taught the importance of mental health and the prevalence of trauma within our community. I have been exposed to a variety of artists and podcast creators that center the various aspects of the Black experience. Most importantly, though, I have been blessed with strong, Black women throughout my life who serve as examples of excellence in its purest form. These women have taught me about the importance of solidifying and embracing my identity as a non-negotiable part of myself. I have become more motivated to share my experiences with others in large part because of the women who have been mentors, friends, and sources of strength and love throughout my life and these few years at Penn.

Without my mother and grandmother pushing me to constantly explore and expand my personal goals for what I wanted to accomplish, I would not be here today. From my decision to pursue an economics major to my role as the first popularly elected Black woman to serve as President of the Undergraduate Assembly, I have reflected upon the fact that I would not have had these opportunities without the countless acts of Black sacrifice and achievement that created space and forged a path for Black students like me to continue to build upon this legacy.

Black History Month is dedicated to the celebration of Black excellence; this must also include the resilience, beauty, and wisdom evident in Black culture and community. Every Black experience is unique, complex, and expansive beyond this day, moment, or century. Stories from students, faculty, and even administration demonstrate how advocacy continues to be a crucial component of our community’s existence. I myself have begun to deepen my understanding of what I deserve as a Black woman and what I can do for my Black community. The burden should not be ours alone to carry — history has shown that in order to make institutional and social change, we must come together to fight for it.

MERCEDES OWENS is a College senior studying economics from Lexington, Tenn. She is president of the Undergraduate Assembly and her email is mowens9@sas.upenn.edu.

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