I drafted my list of colleges and confidently walked into the office of my vice principal.
“What schools are you looking into?” he asked.
“Duke, Spelman, Georgetown,” I replied, feeling a little anxious reading my list aloud.
His response to me: “I think you should stick to applying to state schools like Binghamton,” as if I had no chance of getting into any of these elite schools.
I stared at him with a blank face. The confidence I felt was replaced with doubt.
I went to school in the poorest congressional district in the nation. As a result, I think my school had very low standards for my peers and me. My high school boasted about their gradation rate of 80 percent or higher, but the fact of the matter was that those who went on to college struggled. My high school aimed for us to apply only to community and state schools. It didn’t matter to my vice principal that I was a high-achieving and top performing student. I had to assume all he saw was this little black girl with dreams too big to attain. I wanted to prove him wrong.
It was a 14-hour bus ride to Atlanta, Georgia, on the Greyhound. My family dropped me off at the Greyhound station near 42nd Street. I shared hugs with everyone as we said our final goodbyes. Tears began to roll down my mother’s face. She couldn’t afford to join me on the trip.
When I arrived at Spelman, I saw everyone with their families helping them settle in and assisting with dorm decorations. Meanwhile, I struggled to bring my one piece of luggage to the third floor of my freshman dorm, Abby Rockefeller Hall.
As I unpacked by myself and fixed up the room that my family would most likely never get to see, I broke down in tears. Filled with a mixture of resentment and sadness, I called my mother and explained to her how I felt. She told me that everything was going to be okay. Her voice was comforting, but loneliness plagued me.
Following move-in day was the official Parting Ceremony on Spelman’s Oval. The ceremony is a ritual that allows families to participate in a rich Spelman tradition, expressing their final best wishes to their new Spelmanite.
As I walked to the Oval, I heard the dramatic sounds of African drums and saw dancers moving to the rhythm. As the reverend guided a prayer, families formed circles with their Spelman daughter in the center. I looked around with my head held high. There was no parent, family member, or friend to circle around me. I was an outlier.
My parents—both immigrants from Gambia—didn’t go to college. Neither of them were given the opportunity to pursue an education. They couldn’t help me in this uncharted territory.
Through casual conversations and intimate class discussions, I began to learn more about my peers and their backgrounds. Many of my peers at Spelman had gone to private schools and boarding schools, and came from families ranging from middle class to upper middle class. Some of my friends kindly invited me to their homes to meet their families, where I learned about their upbringings. During their childhood and adolescent years, their parents provided countless enrichment activities, putting them in piano lessons and dance school. They played rugby; they were a part of rowing teams; they spent summer breaks at Martha’s Vineyard. Many were a part of elite organizations like Jack & Jill and had a strong family legacy rooted in black Greek life.
I admired this and hope to one day create this legacy for my family.
Of course, not every girl from Spelman was like Whitley Gilbert from the show A Different World. We all came from diverse backgrounds and had our own struggles.
However, I couldn’t relate to anyone. Despite the fact that I was a black woman at a black women’s college, I did not fit in. I could see and feel the class division.
During the fall semester of my sophomore year, I learned there was going to be an event about education equity. I was excited to attend. At the event, the organizers asked for ten volunteers, and I raised my hand, oblivious to the exercise they would have us take part in. The other nine volunteers and I stood in a line side-to-side at the front of the crowd, as if we were about to race. It was called a Privilege Walk.
If either of your parents graduated from college, take one step forward.
*I stood still as many of my peers took a step forward.*
If you grew up in an urban setting, take one step backward.
*I nervously took one step back, almost at the edge of the stage now.*
After a series of statements, it was revealed to everyone that I was this poor black girl with immigrant parents from the South Bronx who had fewer than 50 books in her house.
As I stood in the very back of the line that illustrated the spectrum ranging from privilege to non-privilege, in front of an audience of 60 people, I felt the stinging pain of not belonging.
In class, I often held my tongue when professors or students asked questions that I knew the answers to. Battling the urge and burning sensation to say something, the answer on the tip of my tongue:
“Say it Bintou! SAY IT,” I told myself. But I didn’t say anything.
I worried that I might use the wrong preposition because that would make me sound unintelligent. English wasn’t my first language—my mother’s native tongue, Mandinka, was. Plus, I felt it was safer to be quiet because I didn’t want to get judgmental looks from my peers, who eloquently spoke with good diction.
Most importantly were times I suffered because I was homesick. No visitors came on family weekend. In fact, my family’s first time visiting Spelman College was on graduation day.
In a way, Spelman showed me all the things I was missing in my life.
I did some research and found that many first gen students who couldn’t sustain themselves left Spelman. During my sophomore year, I began to ask myself questions like: Why doesn’t Spelman have resources dedicated to first generation college students who are at risk?
I spoke with Dr. Spence, a professor in the sociology department, and she encouraged me to start an initiative under the Social Justice Fellows Program.
That evening I excitedly returned to my dorm and drafted ideas and the mission in my journal.
Spelman 1st Generation Program
“Scratch that. That’s too generic.” I thought to myself. Filled with the blues of sophomore year and imposter syndrome, I didn’t follow through.
Instead I did something on a much smaller scale, but it was still impactful. During winter break back home in the Bronx, I organized a First Gen College Panel for high school students at my old high school. I invited current college students from various institutions to have a conversation with the high schoolers about their experience and what to expect.
I was surprised to find that students did not want the conversation to end. They were filled with so many questions, excitement, and curiosity about college life. They reminded me so much of myself at their age.
The following year, I connected with the Dean of Student Affairs at Spelman and talked about my concerns regarding the challenges first gen students face. She took some notes and instructed me to contact the new Vice President of Student Affairs, who was also a first gen student. I also spoke to Schuyla Goodson, a Spelman alum, and brainstormed ways to support first gen students. I was happy to bring the conversation about first generation college students to the forefront of Spelman’s campus and give it a face.
During my senior year, Spelman collaborated with Ford and founded the Ford First Generation Program. This program targets first generation college students before they enter and provides them with resources to successfully matriculate at Spelman.
Although my experience as a first generation college student was challenging, Spelman has given me so much. It has given me lifelong sisters and an extended family who watched over me. It has given me professors who have welcomed me into their humble abodes for long chats, wisdom and prayer. It has provided me with the opportunity to travel abroad for the first time to Brazil and immerse myself in Afro-Brazilian culture.
Spelman gave me the language, confidence, and style I needed to navigate this world. It has centered my blackgirlhood in their curriculum and drilled in me the importance of giving back. Where else would I have studied the work of powerful women such as Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, and Angela Davis or learned about Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paolo Freire?
My advice to first generation college students is simple: build connections, find your community, utilize campus resources and ask for help.
That question you were so afraid to ask in class?
No worries. Visit the professor’s office hours and establish a relationship.
I promise you do not have to suffer alone.
Finding mentors is also extremely important. I was fortunate to have a mentor that was so invested in my future from the very moment I met her as a naive sixth grader–LJ has stuck with me from sixth grade till this day.
My success is the collective effort of a community of people and mentors who believed in my potential. People who saw the light in me when I couldn’t see it in myself. My bus ticket was purchased by my former mentor, Peter. My dorm supplies and white dress for my inaugural ceremony was purchased by my mentor LJ and my Spelman sister, Leslie. My dorm necessities were donations from my doctor and his generous network.
At times you will question if you belong. Don’t, because you do. You are worthy. As Nipsey Hussle said, “The game will test you, but never fold. Stay ten toes down. It’s not on you. It’s in you, and what’s in you, they can never take away.”
Remember that you’re a trailblazer.
My biggest accomplishment wasn’t graduating Spelman with fancy honors and accolades. It was setting a foundation for my younger sisters. It was breaking generational curses—female genital mutilation, early arranged marriage, no chance of education—that plagued the women in my family. Both of my younger sisters are actively enrolled in college now. Fatou is a third year at Wittenberg University and Adam got accepted at Temple and Howard University and is currently aiming to apply to Syracuse University. This is my biggest accomplishment.
You got this.
About the author...
Bintou Bakusa Jobarteh [Jay-bah-tay] is a native of the South Bronx by way of Gambia. She graduated in May 2019 from Spelman College with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. She is a proud first-generation college graduate. She is passionate about social justice and advocating for the basic needs of others in her hometown and school communities.