I’m one of the few and the proud from my neighborhood to accomplish the feat of “getting out.”*
If you are poor and went to Stanford, I don’t need to explain what that means, but it has a particular meaning. Getting out means leaving the neighborhood and escaping poverty. It means that you assimilate into the middle or upper class and it’s a very American dream. The fact that I went to Stanford matters.
I know it matters because I know how I was treated before I went to Stanford. Everything from the way clerks in stores to the way my doctors treat me are impacted by my having gone to Stanford. My intelligence didn’t change, but it’s the ultimate “get out of jail free” card with everyone with authority and power. I know that the only reason I can write and be heard is because of the school I went to. I know that my healthcare is better when I go to the doctors in my Stanford gear.
I watched several family members die because of substandard health care. When my cousin killed himself the summer before I entered Stanford, the therapist at Stanford told me that it was expected given his demographic information, as if demographics made it easier to mourn the death of someone I cared about, as if his life was worth less.
Because I have two Stanford degrees, I can promise you that if I died tomorrow people would make a huge deal out of it. No one would have cared outside the individuals who loved me when I was 15.
I am grateful I went to Stanford but I encountered so much bigotry there, directed at me, directed at my friends, directed at my family. It doesn’t mean I don’t love my Stanford friends, but there was a painful cultural exchange that had to occur and one of the more common commentaries I encountered was the idea that I probably should hate the neighborhood and people I came from, I don’t.
And my story isn’t one of those typical stories. I didn’t have a single mom who sacrificed a bunch and kept me sheltered. I grew up in the drug house and was the black sheep. There are no parades waiting for me back home, but like a lot of kids in my situation, I had really good friends and community elders that kept me alive.
People who sacrificed so I could do the thing they knew they couldn’t. People whose love was imperfect but incredibly real.
My childhood was hard, but I’ve known the kind of love that is forged in blood and sweat and hard labor. I know that kind of love that makes you say with the utmost sincerity that you would die for someone. I would. There are people in my life that I love enough to take a bullet for, so taking the heat at Stanford felt like a completely fair burden. How else could I possibly repay the love I have known?
But to be clear, this is a burden that people who come from communities like mine and make the transition to elite institutions often have to take on. Our 20s aren’t really any easier, either. While most of my friends have had parental and institutional backing, those of us from unstable and poor backgrounds are still trying to “get our shit together.”
Friendly reminder: No one gets rich in a vacuum.
You never really leave. You just carry that part of you everywhere. Balancing the two is hard and a testament to how divided our country is, but I am both. I was born both. I lived as both no matter where I was. Someday I will die as both. I can no sooner let go of that piece of me than I can give back my years at Stanford. I can only move forward, as a complex and a deeply loved and loving human being.**