How College Can Help You Radicalize & REALize
Blonde white girls in their staple red uni sweater, plain black leggings and white air forces flood the streets as they all line up to enter bars and coffee shops. The next morning you’ll bump into another hundred of them similarly dressed, on your way to class on a cold fall morning. Like I always do, with my embarrassingly consistent high self-esteem, I would take OOTD snaps before class. Freshman year me, clad in all-rainbow: striped sweaters I brought from Malaysia (some I bought during my exciting first trip to an American Forever 21 Chain, before I learned how evil fast fashion can be), rainbow socks from Sunway Pyramid’s Monki store, a bright coloured choker and my multicoloured floral backpack. From on top of Bascom Hill, one could spot me walking out of my apartment, a freshman-year brown hijabi “international student” dressed like a circus clown (pretend you are reading this as my subconscious). But the thing is I loved it. I felt brand new attending an American college 9000 miles away from home, the fresh smell of freedom from oppressive institutions that would quickly assault me for wearing a hijab above my chest and not waist-level. Despite the overwhelming whiteness of the academic space I just walked into, it did not feel like much of a big deal, as I had a premature conception of freedom of self-identification and self-actualization without knowing that months to come, I will be hit by a staggering feeling of alienation and confusion.
Since this is an essay submission that aims to share my honest American college experience, I would like to note that this is specifically catered to the Malaysian youngins aspiring to learn and unlearn. My experience is rather political, or at least I think of it that way. Existing in a white space and retaining your identity is political. Leaving your home country and pursuing your life of choice is political. How UW-Madison played its role in this journey was allowing me to double major in Gender Studies alongside my sponsor-assigned major, Economics. The professors in the Gender Studies department were terrific! Here, in this tiny gender studies classroom made up of 70% white girls, 25% black and hispanic girls and 5% non-Americans (rarely any cis-men) , my professor would let me speak my truth. At times,when the discussion is too Eurocentric and white-liberal, I would assert my presence and provide an international and multicultural perspective to whatever is being discussed, be it reproductive justice, freedom of speech, and sex education. Because sometimes they need it. They need to hear what you have to say about things outside the Western world and the Western narrative. The academia, although its mission is to provide an intersectional and global discussion of humanities, may sometimes not include your stories. Here, you might feel politically excluded, but never feel discouraged to share your culture, the good and the bad.
Making friends was hard, for me. Thankfully I was roommates with my Malaysian friends who had the same halal-haram ratio as me, so life wasn’t that bad. Outside of my small Malaysian bubble, I did not know who to befriend. I just did not quite feel a connection with random straight white classmates I conversed with. And soon enough I was making friends through music/art events and the queer community of Madison. The East side of town is my favourite. That’s where you find the neighbourhood that supports Bernie Sanders and socialism, LGBTQ rights, the Black Lives Matter movement, and also has a great thrift store (my favourite place in Madison). I realized that you don’t necessarily need to find a sense of belonging on campus since there is a larger and more lively community outside the university. Here I met students of other smaller colleges and residents from East Madison, some through dating apps and some at BLM/Queer events. Some are white, some aren’t. Some cis, some are non-binary. Some atheists, some are Christians who will listen respectfully to your stories of religious trauma and then give you a hug if you start crying. Some you may have a crush on, some you might become best friends with for one whole summer and either one dips and you stop seeing them again. It’s a never-ending cycle of meeting someone new, making art with them by the lakes (there are so many artsy people here I am in love), listening to Charli XCX or other hyperpop music and ending the day by going thrifting.
At this moment right now that I am typing out this essay, I am in the middle of my first semester of my third year in the middle of the coronavirus outbreak. This is a game changer to my uni and adulthood life. The election is four days away and the tensions are high. All my American friends are depressed (it is normalized and destigmatized here, help & resources are available) and anxious of what the future looks like. Donald Trump almost kicked us international students out of the country a few months ago and he is not making the country any better. This semester alone I am taking 3 gender studies classes which assign a lot of critical readings on the harms of American capitalism. I could see these theories on the subordination of the working class, poverty and hunger translate into real life everytime I step out of my apartment building right next to State Street and see old and recently homeless folks (who lost housing due to Covid-19) begging for warm meals in the middle of a 0 degrees Celcius fall morning. I feel the same agony as I go to work as a part-time student employee in the kitchen of a residence dining hall where the friendly Mexican full time workers constantly express their fear of losing their jobs due to the incompetency and selfishness of the government and establishment, especially at dealing with the country’s health and economic Covid-19 response.
I apologize if this essay that was supposed to enlighten you on the midwestern campus experience happens to give you feelings of sadness, but I promise you this was intentional. I would like to let you know that there is a lot to learn here (more than what your degree can provide), even if you spend your four years in a country with a broken system. Grassroots organizations such as LinkMadison (a local BLM movement), ReparationsThrift (food & clothing donors), and other NGOs radicalized me and taught me that I should go out and feed the homeless a couple days a week, even though it is against the law to provide them home-cooked meals. F*ck the police, ACAB. These are words spray-painted all over town and it is exactly what makes the people in my community inspiring. The country leaders might be horrible, but I have faith and respect in the people I’ve watched lead demonstrations after the death of George Floyd, the young girls I befriended who I watched show compassion to black homeless men, and my trans and non-binary friends who become the resistance just by choosing to exist as who they are. Here I am allowed freedom of conscience, I finally felt like I can think outside of what is conventional. My artistic endeavours flourished, I have completed several paintings on my journey of self-discovery. There are so many things to unlearn and here is a non-exhaustive list to name a few: capitalism, theism, anti-blackness & racism, heteronormativity and the gender binary, prison and police establishment, and mental health stigma. America and specifically Madison is a place to experience political activism first hand and to be involved in the many levels and ways that are available and accessible to you.
Honestly I do not know where I am going with this but I hope this may give you some courage to come here ( if you have the support and resources) (and also if you see yourself getting down this same path of learning and unlearning) as this college campus may have something for you to help you flourish and become a friend of the anti-establishment and help change the world. Malaysia is not too different, and I do think we need more of us to come home from abroad and help our local community in the many ways that we can. If you are an ideological outcast just like me, I hope this essay reaches you. If UW-Madison is not an option, I’m sure there are many other colleges in the US that can provide a similar experience! Remember, it is not the college per se, but also the community that surrounds it that matters.
Info about author: The author is studying Economics & Gender Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.