Being an African-American student at Penn — that is, a student that is a descendant of Africans that were enslaved in the United States — is both exhilarating and exhausting. Although I'm sure many would agree, I am also sure that it may not make sense to others. I take pride in being a student at Penn, especially as a person who grew up in a severely underfunded public school system. I now have all the opportunities that I could only dream of a few years ago. There is a diverse range of programs and electives not found at other institutions and a vibrant campus life with hundreds of student organizations. Since Penn is a predominantly white institution, I didn’t expect to see a substantial number of Black students on campus. However, what I didn't expect was to rarely meet other African American.
One of the first events I attended as a first year undergraduate was hosted by some of Penn’s Black organizations. I was able to meet and befriend many other Black students, but I also noticed that many of the Black students at Penn were either first- or second-generation African and Caribbean immigrants. I remember having a conversation months later with a friend, one of the only three African-American students I knew at Penn, and asking how many African-American students he knew himself. He replied, “Literally three, and you are one of them.”
It was at this moment that I realized that African Americans are significantly underrepresented at Penn and many other elite institutions, which demonstrates the failure of affirmative action to ensure better representation for African-American students in collegiate spaces. Although African Americans were the intended beneficiaries of affirmative action, there are only a small number of African-American students attending universities like Penn. According to The Guardian, more than 40 percent of Black students in the Ivy League come from immigrant families. However, only roughly 21 percent of Black people are immigrants or are children of Black immigrants out of the 47.2 million Black people in the U.S.
Affirmative action was supposed to be a solution to rectify the inequalities suffered by Black people as a result of racial discrimination. Even today, the aftermath of such discrimination can be seen when you examine the enrollment disparities at many institutions. According to The New York Times, the first-year enrollment of Black and Hispanic students hasn’t really changed since the 1980s. Although Black students make up 15 percent of college-age Americans, we make up only 9 percent of first years at Ivy League schools. Black students are still grossly underrepresented and it becomes worse if you are African American.
This is what makes the organization Descendants of Afro Americans at Penn so important.
From what I have experienced, although Penn’s Black organizations welcome all Black students, many of the Black organizations at Penn are also African-dominated. Of course, getting to connect with people throughout the African diaspora has been an invaluable experience for me. I have learned about languages I didn't know existed, and I have been able to explore various types of food, art, and music. But I noticed that even within Penn’s Black spaces, which are already quite small, I am almost always the only African-American person present. Being a college student is stressful: You have a surplus of responsibilities, the weight of academic and financial pressures, and likely more. To feel culturally secluded on top of all of that can be quite overwhelming. It is important for Penn to recognize that African American students must have a space to embrace their heritage and to connect with people who share their culture.
KIYAH AKINS is a College sophomore studying biology from Philadelphia. Her email is email@example.com.