by Kristen Barrett
Sometimes chasing your childhood dreams exposes you to some mind-rattling realities. You dream of writing a young adult novel only to learn about the competitive world of publishing. You dream of pursuing a Hollywood acting career only to learn about the “casting couch.” You dream of attending a prestigious United Kingdom university only to learn about its paucity of black students.
I distinctly remember the first time my mother mentioned the Rhodes Scholarship to me, a bright-eyed eighth grader in love with Jane Austen. In those days, I daydreamed about the British countryside and imagined myself studying Chaucer at one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the world.
Fast forward to my matriculation as a Jefferson Scholar at the University of Virginia. I set my sights on a more immediate goal: attending the UVA in Oxford Summer Program. The Jefferson Scholar Foundation pays for every scholar to participate in one study abroad program the summer before their junior year, and from the moment I heard about UVA in Oxford, I knew that would be the program for me. Luckily, the head professor accepted me into the program, and I arrived at University College on July 1 filled to the brim with excitement.
Approaching the other UVA students, I noticed something immediately. I was the only black student in the program. A familiar feeling churned in my stomach. An engulfing self-awareness that can easily morph into a feeling of empowerment or isolation, responsibility or burden, opportunity or affliction. From this moment, I knew that depending on my attitude I would either feel like a representative of black excellence the program needs or merely a cultural outsider.
This feeling became all too familiar to me in high school. Growing up in my 90 percent white all girls school, I carried this awareness with me every day. Almost always, it would empower me to embrace my racial identity and to explore the joy of pursuing interracial relationships. But sometimes, on those low energy days, it would bury me in insecurity.
When dreaming of Oxford as an eighth grader, I never considered how white such an institution would be. Considering Oxford’s undergraduate numbers, only 2 percent of undergraduate students are black, and some of the colleges go years without accepting more than two black students. I did not consider how the United Kingdom’s identity politics vastly differ from the United States’ or that racism toward blacks exists on both sides of the pond. I did not ask myself: what affects my happiness more, the prestige of the institution or the ethnic makeup of the student body and faculty?
This quandary and its accompanying feeling hung over my head during my first few days at University College. It pushed to the forefront of my mind when I saw that all of the program’s professors were white men. It left a bad taste in my mouth when I noticed the only black people in University College were the ones who served us tea. It caused me to question my place in the program.
The story could end there, but it doesn’t. After receiving some motivational words from my best friend back home, I gave myself an ultimatum. I could waste precious energy worrying over whether I belonged or I could claim my deserved space in the program myself. I chose the latter.
For the rest of my time in the program, I chose empowerment, responsibility, and opportunity over isolation, burden, and affliction. I embraced my status as “the black girl,” and I ran with it. This was one black girl no one was about to forget. I incorporated race relations into my political discussions with my friends; I made allusions to black romantic comedies like The Best Man; and most importantly, I expressed all my idiosyncrasies that come along with me — whether they were stereotypically “black” or not. I was not the spokesperson for my race, but I was the spokesperson for Kristen Rochelle Barrett.
This outlook immediately improved my experience at University College. With my insecurity held at bay, I delved deeply into my course on politics of the European Union, frolicked gleefully around Oxfordshire with my new friends, and to no one’s surprise found that my dream university lived up to all of my expectations. The scholarly college town with Harry Potter style cafeterias and boutique store-lined streets won my heart.
Oxford taught me a lesson in self-confidence. What I like is what I like. Given my love for nineteenth century transatlantic literature, it is highly likely that I will end up in a graduate program with very few black scholars. My experience in Oxford reassured me that I can not only survive but also thrive in such an environment. I do not need to be surrounded with people similar to me in race, religion, gender, etc. in order to flourish as a person. As long as I have a support system of dutiful friends and family, I will blaze trails.
Kristen Barrett is a rising third year at the University of Virginia, where she is pursuing a major in English and a minor in Drama. Her hometown is Nashville, TN. Her favorite black intellectuals are Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, and her parents. She is passionate about encouraging black girls to pursue higher education, and she wants to attend graduate school herself in order to study depictions of people of African descent in transatlantic nineteenth-century English literature. Only God knows what the future holds, but she is ready for the #BlackGirlMagic!