It’s been a while since I’ve posted a Forthcoming Q&A. So for those who may not know, it’s a series where people volunteer information about the ways they’ve been/become successful. Recently, I talked to Daniza Tazabekova who just completed her first year at Middlebury College. She is from Brooklyn, New York and attended James Madison High School (which, fun fact, is also where RBG and Bernie Sanders went).
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Tell us about Middlebury! What has the experience been like for you?
I definitely feel the culture shock or just awkward [here] as someone who’s not white at a predominantly white school, especially as a first-generation student from a low income community because so many of the white students here have such a similar upbringing, that I feel like all my experiences with white upper-class people here are the same. When I do meet a white student and happen to have a conversation with them where they’re not like assuming something about me or saying some kind of weird kind of backhanded comment it’s either because they’re first-generation or low income.
Middlebury also has a very intense sports culture. It’s really difficult to meet white students that aren’t like the others because they walk around and sit at lunch with their sports teams. And––I’ve experienced this––when I walk up to a person I know who’s on a team and sitting with them, literally the entire team just stares until the interaction is over.
I definitely think the fact that Middlebury is called the “skinniest college in America” has something to do with it. There’s such a weird food and eating culture here [combined] with a very strong athletic culture. It can be super isolating for a student of color.
I think Middlebury has gone a very long way in helping students––kind of equalizing the system. They’re in their eighth year of doing the First@Midd orientation program where they invite FGLI students to come to campus two weeks early, to have us immerse ourselves in the community. They provide us with a lot of resources and tutoring and mentoring. And as a participant of that program myself, I can definitely say that, like that stuff is necessary. When I hear about schools like Emerson and Williams not going as far to support the first-generation experience, I’m kind sad because I also wanted to go to those schools. I think about what would have happened if I had gone to Amherst––they gave a lot of financial aid, but I wouldn’t have been as supported as a first-generation student. I don’t think that disparity should exist in college.
Was First@Midd one of the reasons you chose Middlebury, or did you find out about it later?
So it actually came up later, after I had committed. They told me when they wanted me to get to campus and move in, and they were like, “Oh, by the way, you indicated that you were a first-generation student. We actually have a program that allows you to come two weeks early. If you would like to join, we’ll let you move in earlier. It doesn’t affect your financial aid or anything. And we totally understand if you can’t do it, if you want to spend more time with your family, but this is an option.”
At first, I was thinking that since I was coming from New York City, I would be going far––like a six to seven hour drive––from home. I might want to spend more time with my family, but I was like, “this is an experience I probably shouldn’t miss because this is stuff that just can’t be made up in the future.” So I was like, “Okay, like I would totally let’s do this”
After completing the program, I think Middlebury shouldn’t just make this optional. This should be mandatory for first-generation students, because this experience was one of the happiest times I’ve had at Middlebury. It’s definitely worth it because you get so much support. Coming to college for the first time, it’s scary. You learn a lot about yourself, but you also don’t know a lot about yourself.
The school should do more advertising [of the program] in the admissions process itself. This shouldn’t really be an after the matter thing, because I do know there are students that actively seek out schools that support freshmen first-generation students, but I saw no promotion about programs like First@Midd when I was applying to Middlebury.
Did you feel supported in high school applying to college? What was that process like?
Yeah, honestly, I had a great high school experience. My high school was set up kind of like the Harry Potter house system, where you can be placed into a house according to your specific academic interests.
I was in the law house, which is the biggest house. I was on the competitive teams: moot court, mock trial, We the People. We won the city championship twice. We won the state championship for We the People once, and I was captain of these teams for at least two years. So I was really just grateful to have that experience because it prepares you for some hardcore college stuff. And it definitely inspired my interest in litigation and constitutional litigation.
But it can become extremely competitive. I think Madison was definitely toxically competitive. Madison had a ranking system based on GPA. I was either ranked like 18 or 19, and it was pretty clear that the people who were in the top 50 were all really close because we were often in the same classes. You can imagine it was literally hell during admission season at Madison because we were all applying to the same schools. We were either doing supplements together or we were just super closeted about what schools we were applying to because everyone around us was competition. The school itself offered so many resources to help you get through the college application experience. Overall I think they were really supportive of students, especially first gen students who wanted to go to college.
Thanks for sharing about that. I had a really different high school experience, so that’s a whole different world to me. Given that you did have solid academic training and a lot of support going into college from Madison, what challenges do you think you still faced at Middlebury because you’re a first-generation low-income student?
While I did receive a really rigorous academic training at my high school, I definitely think it pales in comparison to students here that have gone to private schools and specialized schools. Not having gone to those schools created challenges for me because I’m still in these classes with these students, and I’m compared to these students by my professors.
As academia really is a huge world, but it’s a small world if everybody knows, a friend of a friend or a colleague of a colleague. So there have been instances where my professors will cite scholars that they know in higher education, and I’ll have a peer sitting next to me like, “I know that guy!”
I’m a political science and English major, and so many of my peers come into these classes having read these books, because they have the time to read them, leisurely. Like, I have heard of Walden by Thoreau, but I never had the time to read it because I always had so much going on. But my peers are like “Oh, in my family, we love this book. We all read it together.”
And I was like damn…my mom can’t speak English. We cannot read Walden together. We can’t read anything together, and I have to translate everything for her––which is not her fault. But it’s so mind-boggling. I can’t be mad at someone because their parents went to college or they’re upper class, but I definitely think Middlebury could do more to mitigate that and not conceal it. I hate when institutions try to erase history. They should just embrace it and try to move forward. I really feel like I have to play catch up all the time. Like I have to read Walden now. It wasn’t required for the class, but I did because everyone around me did.
In addition to that, there are also practical matters, like the cost of books that’s not covered in financial aid. A lot of my poli-sci/English classes assign like 10-15 books per semester, and I’m expected to buy them. Coming from a low income background, I just can’t buy every book that’s assigned in class, so I buy the ones that have really specific editions that I can’t find, but I will always try to find them online if I can.
I have to bring in my laptop and use my laptop to read and have my eyes glued to that screen all day when my peers can afford to buy their books because the library also doesn’t have that many copies for us to like, rent out for half the class. For the most part I think my struggle has just been comparing my background to my peers’ backgrounds, and then feeling like I was just at a disadvantage, and I always have to play catch up with them.
How do you think a professor, for example, could make it better? What would it look like for that situation to become better?
I acknowledge that professors literally can’t do anything to fix that gap between what second and third gen students from upper class families know and what FGLI students know. But at the end of the day, what all these students share in common is that they want a good grade, so I think what could be done to mitigate this pressure on students is for the professor to have a more nuanced way of grading students, which would take into account their academic backgrounds.
I have some professors that make a note specifically on the syllabus that they don’t want any names or identifying factors on papers and finals and midterms because they want to grade every student equally. I understand holding everyone to equal standards in terms of the material taught in class, but I feel like there’s an argument to be made for stuff like affirmative action to make it an equal playing field. In institutions where you have so many students from different academic backgrounds, you need to have a race conscious, socio economic conscious or academic conscious way of approaching grades. So maybe that means not having just our ID numbers on the paper. Maybe that means having our names actually on the paper so that when the professor grades my essay, they’ll say okay, this is Daniza. I know her background, I know what I need to expect.
I’ve only had professors that are attached to this ideal of equality in grading, and while I support equality and grading, I think I support egalitarianism in grading even more.
That’s a really interesting idea. I haven’t really thought about that. Or maybe just grading each student against their own work throughout the semester––evaluating based on your growth in the class. They say college admissions is holistic. They ask for all this information about your background, your high school, etc before you get there, but so often, it feels like once you step onto campus, they want to pretend like everyone’s the same. It’s like…you kept my background in mind when you were choosing to admit me, why would you not keep that in mind now that I’m here?
What’s the biggest difference between your expectations of what college would be like and the reality?
I didn’t expect coming into college was how difficult it would be to manage academics with my personal life or even like academics with extracurriculars. Obviously I expected it to be really academically rigorous, but I find it increasingly difficult to manage my personal time and my homework/study time. It’s a little saddening to say that literally, I’ll wake up, I’ll go to class, I’ll eat and then whatever the entire rest of my day is just studying.
It wasn’t like that in high school. Yes, I was up at all hours of the night doing work but all my friends were immersed in the same AP classes that I was. We were in there together. But now more or less I’m on my own. Part of it is self induced because I’m the only first year in my group of friends to have declared already and already declared as a double major. But considering that we all have different tracks, it’s just not feasible for us to study together.
So the social life has been kind of disappointing here. Not that, like in itself, is disappointing, but it’s not the most accessible to students like me who have to play catch up, or just for students who are super dedicated to their study.
I expected it to be really fun and super easy to just immerse myself in the culture, but it’s been really hard honestly. But I’ve heard from a lot of upperclassmen that it does get way better when your housing gets better, and you’re placed into social houses.
If you could go back and give yourself as like a senior in high school, just fresh off admissions day when you’ve gotten decisions but haven’t decided yet where to go, what advice would you give to a senior in high school now or to yourself as a senior in high school?
I would tell myself not to pursue or commit to a school just to escape. I know that a lot of high school students apply to colleges out of state because they want to leave their homes, be independent and escape really bad family situations.
But I’d urge them to really consider how far they’re actually willing to go. And to recognize that like that physical distance between you and family, is really healthy, because you finally get a sense of independence but you can also really get homesick, and if you’re a first-generation low income, flights home are expensive and really difficult.
And I’d also tell myself not to go to a school and ignore the racial demographics thinking that I can just stick it out. I knew how white Middlebury was, and I knew about the skinny culture, the diet culture here going into it. But I told myself I was like, No, I can stick it out. There’s some POC there, I’ll be fine. I’ll make the most of it. And it’s been really difficult sticking to that.
It’s hard not to think about academics alone, but you should definitely put some weight on how the racial demographics of that school are going to make you feel. We don’t have to put ourselves in these situations. We can go to good schools and have big student of color populations without having to sacrifice some mental health days or some happiness just to make it out here.
Daniza’s interview is part of a series called Forthcoming, an interview series where people reflect on their educational/extracurricular experiences. If you’d like to be interviewed for Forthcoming, please fill out the form at the bottom of this post. If you have questions or suggestions for future interviews, please get in touch here!