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Race, class, and belonging
by Angel B. Perez '98

Skidmore College saved my life. It took a chance on me and offered me admission with an understanding that I would receive intense academic training the summer prior to my freshman year. So in June of 1994 I arrived in Saratoga Springs to spend a summer with the Higher Education Opportunity Program. Hours earlier, I had left the South Bronx with the few clothes that I owned and a prayer my mother imparted. My family had no money, yet I was headed to a $33,000-a-year college. I was one of maybe thirty students of color on campus, and certainly one of the poorest. I felt scared, alone, and destined for failure. How was I going to survive in the world of the elite, wealthy, and white?

Arroz con habichuelas was not on the menu in the dining hall, salsa and merengue weren’t on the DJ’s play list during campus parties, and the Number 2 subway line, my only known mode of transportation in New York City, was suddenly replaced by BMWs, Audis, and Land Rovers. The gun-infested, gang-ridden streets of my ’hood were replaced with lush woods, small boutiques, and trendy restaurants. I left a dilapidated housing project and entered the world of suite-style residence halls. I might as well have arrived in another country.

Today I work at Pitzer College, one of the most selective liberal-arts colleges in America. Each day I am struck by the irony that in 1994 I might not have been admitted here; my combined SAT scores barely matched the average Pitzer applicant’s score on one section of the exam. But now I travel to high schools across the country in search of the best and brightest to educate as tomorrow’s politicians, business leaders, and social thinkers.

When I go back to the South Bronx I enjoy reconnecting with my friends in the projects, but they speak differently to me. Recently one of them introduced me by saying, “This is Angel. He used to live here, but he’s not one of us anymore—he’s one of them.” And in Puerto Rico, where I was born, my cousins call me the family member from aya fuera (out there). My parents recently moved back to Puerto Rico, where, for now, they live in the rural mountains with no running water. I am flying around the country recruiting the wealthy, while my parents live in a shack.

I have worked in higher education for nine years now. I stay in this business because I truly believe that education fosters transformational experiences for students of all socioeconomic backgrounds. I also know that once underrepresented students are exposed to higher education, they too will struggle with identity creation and reshaping: Which reality truly belongs to you—the one behind you or the one you face ahead?

Each time I attend a reception with a college president, or chair a national committee meeting, or present at a professional conference, I can’t help but wonder if I am going to be found out. Will they think I’m a fraud? Will they know I grew up dodging bullets and struggling to learn English? Do they know I stood in line every summer for free cheese and peanut butter? Do they realize the blue suit I wear and the fancy colleges on my résumé are not who I truly am? Or are they? And how do I balance two worlds where neither belongs to me?