Upon meeting white men for the first time, I am consistently reminded that Northwestern University is a very good school. The interaction usually goes something like this:
Me: Hi, I’m Dr. Ebony Utley.
White man: It’s nice to meet you. Where did you go to school?
Me: Northwestern University
White man: In Evanston?
White man: That’s a very good school.
It happens all the time. Northwestern’s reputation is certainly not news. It’s been a good school since the late 1800s. The surprising fact must be that Northwestern accepted and graduated someone like me.
As a little girl, I dreamed of attending Northwestern. My parents had friends who lived nearby. They took me to campus when I was in high school. I fell in love. Indiana University, however, threw the money at me as a Herman B. Wells Scholar, and I accepted the full-tuition scholarship without even applying to Northwestern as an undergraduate. But when it came time for graduate school, I set my sights on Northwestern. I studied with Indiana professors who had graduated from Northwestern. I made sure mentors introduced me to the major players there. I talked with current students. I wrote like a madwoman to show myself approved. And I got accepted.
The way I got accepted should have been my first clue that my stint there would be challenging. I received an email from Northwestern about acquiring parking passes for the fall. I thought, “Did I get in?” No acceptance letter had come to the house. No one answered the phones at Northwestern when I called. For weeks, I was unsure whether I had really been accepted. About the same time that I received notice that I would be a Jacob K. Javits fellow with a full ride to graduate school the coveted Northwestern acceptance arrived. I flew to Chicago where I promptly received my second harbinger. No one met me at the airport. I found my own way to campus and the department offices where I was again ignored. It was as if they didn’t know I was coming even though they had arranged the visit. A graduate student took pity on me, gave me a tour, and took me to dinner. Because Northwestern was my dream, I signed the acceptance letter anyway. I became the youngest black woman to enter their MA/PHD program.
It became clear that my white male professors had never seen the likes of me. Not only was I a 22-year-old with a penchant for wearing tube tops and blue eyeshadow to class, I wanted to write about racism and hip hop. It was all kinds of outrageous, and they let me know it by telling me that I didn’t belong, their other students were smarter, or I didn’t know how to do real research. During my public master’s defense, my advisor insisted on calling me Tiffany. When he left the university, I went an entire year without an advisor or a committee. I went from office to office in and out of my department asking people to serve on a committee for a dissertation about gangsta rap and God. Everyone said no. I wrote by myself for a year until a faculty member on sabbatical took pity on me and became my advisor pretty much in name only. The night that I finally successfully defended my dissertation, I broke down in heaving sobs before the celebration was over.
Getting the PhD had cost me my physical and emotional health. I spent the first week of classes in the hospital and had been sick ever since. Lots of pain, lots of tests, lots of prescriptions, lots of erroneous diagnoses. In retrospect, all of my ailments were exacerbated by stress. I got so used to feeling badly that it became the new normal. It was like I had held my breath for five years, and all I had were two degrees and a validation complex that I didn’t deserve to be where I was, and I wasn’t worth paying attention to.
The most important lesson I took from Northwestern was the importance of unlearning the desire to be validated by outsiders. I was graduated knowing how important it would be for me to be the young, cool, accessible, and accepting black woman I did not have the opportunity to study with. No matter how many people feel the need to remind me that Northwestern is a very good school, I know now that the good that matters most, is what’s good for me.