Dear class speakers,

We are senior Bennies who feel the need to address our experiences at CSB/SJU before commencement, as we know certain people will talk about community and the great experience as a Bennie family. They will reference making their best friends here, enjoying all the community activities and being changed by these wonderful institutions.

We want you to know about our experiences as first-generation college students, as that is bound to go unrecognized in the Bennie experience. We want you to realize the intersectionality of what it means to be a Bennie.

Our struggle as students of color is similar because of our constant if not daily experiences of micro-aggressions on campus.

From day one, Orientation wasn’t the fun everyone made it seem. Not one other Latino student was in my group and no one seemed to understand my urban upbringing. I found myself at a loss and unable to find that connection so many first years seek out during that first weekend on campus. Most people avoided saying my name or pronouncing it incorrectly, and I knew I wasn’t where I belonged.

It was a comment by one boy in my Orientation group that stung me. After saying something during dinner, he softly sang the lyrics to the song “America” from West Side Story. When I asked him why he referenced that, he said it was because they used improper English in the movie, and I had also just done so.

I was angry and embarrassed, certain I hadn’t made any mistakes with my English. It was something I was always conscious of. I told him that I hadn’t made a mistake, and I was Mexican not Puerto Rican. My “friends” later told me I should apologize for chastising his generalizations.

My first semester in college I struggled as a first generation college student from the inner-city. My identity as a Mexican-American woman also shaped the way I navigated my first semester. I often felt the pressures of being a poor student on campus. Getting a ride home to Minneapolis during school breaks proved to be a challenge. I felt a disconnect with my three roommates who all came from two-parent households. I struggled to find a place of belonging by reaching out to my roommates and friends, but no one understood and they didn’t really listen. I even sought out counseling at St. John’s and did not find comfort. Nothing seemed to help.

During my second semester, students of various backgrounds organized a protest to demonstrate our frustrations with the micro-aggression we all faced daily. The administration and student body did not respond the way we wanted/needed them to.

Flash forward to my two semesters abroad, and during each trip, student of color (myself included) still felt isolated, even in these countries which were not majority white. It turns out the the study abroad programs at CSB/SJU are catered towards the middle class white experience. I struggled with being seen as a “real” American as well as trying to get my peers from CSB/SJU to understand the legacy of colonialism, American influence, and racial bias. It often resulted in me feeling isolated and silenced.

Not to mention, many Bennies on our campuses are a couple of hours away driving distance. When there are issues going on in our campuses, many are able to retreat to the comfort of their home with family. On the other hand, students who can’t go home, we have to stay on campus and deal with the situations at hand. We do not have the luxury to just walk away.

Not to mention the holidays when many out-of-state and international students are left struggling to figure what they will do for their food situation as campus is closed.

As a rising senior, I worked as an Orientation Coordinator. During the process of organizing orientation, I felt ignored and silenced by administration, who refused to see the importance of educating incoming first years on racial bias, white privilege and intercultural awareness.

I advocated for my cause and did all the outreach and research, but still it seemed like those in positions of powers struggled to see my need and desire for an effective speaker on race and intercultural awareness.

During my senior year, I have participated in yet another protest by students who feel the same as those from three years ago. Some things have changed, but much remains the same: the hostile and isolating environment at CSB/SJU for marginalized students. It was on the class of 2017 page on Facebook that I truly understood what being silenced and attacked felt like. My peers criticized me for sharing my opinion and flagged several posts of mine as inappropriate. I was pushed aside and told that the class page wasn’t the appropriate place to tackle difficult subjects like white privilege and micro-aggressions.

As a graduating senior, I feel unheard and silenced by my peers and the administration. I also feel ignored. I feel as if my very real experience has been written off as unimportant.

I am a Bennie but I did not have the typical CSB experience. I never felt completely accepted nor comfortable. I ask my fellow senior Bennies, did you do your best to welcome all others? Did you really listen? To me, this is not the picture perfect community that everyone likes to brag about. We pick the voices we want to be heard and silence those who object and ask for change.

For commencement, we want the speech to be inclusive of everyone’s experience on these campuses, and to not gloss over the struggle that many of us have gone through the past four years. Not everyone will reminisce of CSB/SJU the same way.

Yariset Rodriguez and Elizabeth Rojas, CSB seniors
[email protected][email protected]