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What It’s Like To Be A College Student In D.C. Right Now

Inside campus life

When you attend college in Washington, D.C., you're automatically signing up for a crash course in the politics that consume this city. As an alum of American University, I personally experienced my fair share of debates, protests, and marches during my four years there. It was hard not to feel inspired to believe in something worth fighting for. At the same time, the pressure to know and act upon your purpose was incredibly overwhelming.

Anyone that spends their formative years in the nation's capital is aware of the pros and cons of living in this type of environment. It goes beyond adapting to an urban landscape that is so historically rich; you're challenged to open your horizons on pretty much everything you've ever been taught. For some, it's a natural period of development, while others find it difficult to change their stubbornly set ways. Either way, there will never not be a debate inside or outside the classroom throughout your time there.

There's so much more to D.C. than having the National Mall be your backyard, though. With everything happening in the capitol right now, specifically pertaining to the recent transfer of power, I was curious about what might be going on at some of the campuses in the district. While speaking with six students from American University (AU), Howard University (HU), and George Washington University (GW), I got the impression that, for the most part, none of them feel differently about the city itself, but they're definitely noticing a shift in the climate on campus.

Cassie Gharnit, a sophomore studying philosophy and public affairs with a minor in sustainability at GW, says that her campus was noticeably impacted by the results of the election.

"We're supposed to be the most politically active campus in the country so, before the election, there were a ton of students working on various campaigns and stuff. Everyone was really passionate about it, but I don't think anyone really expected Trump to win. It's a really overwhelmingly liberal campus. The night of [the election], everyone ran to the White House," she said. "It was just a really somber event. Even the next day walking around campus, it was a really gloomy day, and everyone looked like zombies."

Many of Gharnit's friends were hoping to work in public service after they graduated. Now, she says many of them think that "their dreams post-grad are pretty dead." Gharnit doesn't think that the lack of optimism in the atmosphere is solely based on GW's campus, though. She adds, "It's sort of like that around the country in a lot of places."

Bailey Edelstein, a student in the MA in New Media Photojournalism program at GW's Corcoran School of the Arts and Design and an undergraduate alum of AU, explained how attending college in D.C. has had a major impact on her knowledge of policy.

"When I first came to D.C., I was not versed in politics at all, but I was observant and my ears were open to current events and to keeping up with stories," she says. "There are definitely different elements of both being in school in one place and living in one place with the identity of student for six years that makes me want to start over and have a fresh clean slate somewhere else, but I would be lying if I didn't say that the new presidential administration, collectively, is not something that I want to be around to experience, especially in the first four years of the president's term."

Edelstein described her class the day after the election as a somber environment. There was so much anxiety in the room that the professor released everyone early because nobody was feeling productive after discussing the future and role of journalism in the state of a Donald Trump administration.

"There were just so many conversations around the city and within all of the journalistic-slash-storytelling communities that I'm involved in," she adds. "As an aspiring journalist-to-be, I feel as though I have a responsibility to understand completely both sides of every story and every political standpoint," she adds. 

Photo by Jessica Kourkounis/ Stringer

American University has been the home of hot controversies this past year. Back in September 2016, the campus was tasked with combatting race-motivated hate crimes when a few black students were attacked and harassed with bananas in the dorms. Jenna Caldwell, a sophomore at AU, originally came to the university with the intention to focus on international relations and communication. She was attracted to the campus' non-conservative demeanor. Now, she says that the liberal learning environment has transformed into a hostile place where students feel empowered to verbalize their crazy viewpoints without consequence.

"Going to AU now, I would say it's like a lot more nerve-racking than it was my freshman year because of the election. Recently, we learned about this concept called the 'spiral of silence;' it's basically about how people whose political views lie in the minority usually stay silent about their views," she says. "I feel like after the election, once Trump was voted into office by the electoral college, the vulgar and the brash things that he said in the media have become more dignified or acceptable to say. A lot of people think, 'If Trump can say this, I can say this.' And on a college campus where there is a diverse collection of people, it has become really problematic."

Calkidan Fisseha, a sophomore majoring in film and media arts with a minor in audio technology at AU, has been a resident of the area her entire life. Having that exposure has always made her politically conscious, but she didn't become socially aware until she attended the university. As she became more educated about the repercussions of certain issues and how people are affected by policies, she gained a better perspective.

It wasn't until after Fisseha joined WVAU, the student-run radio station, that she felt more connected to a community on campus outside of the academic settings. While there has been a lot of tension growing under the surface of the campus, Fisseha pointed out that it became worse after the election. 

"I definitely think there's a lot of fake activism on campus," she says. "All these people, they're like, 'Yeah, I'm down with the cause, it's all so cool,' and then when it gets down to the actual problems they're kind of blind to it and they don't see issues." 

Paula Martinez, a double major in women's, gender, and sexuality studies and studio art at AU, spent the day after the election with her friends at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. Even in a space like that, the atmosphere was grim. In comparison to what she noticed on campus, Martinez noted that the reactions were mostly sad—even from Trump supporters. She further elaborated on the problem with students taking stances on issues without considering the full context:

"I think it's harder when the school is so liberal, but a lot of the people come from an upper middle-class background and don't take that into consideration a lot when making points and arguments; they don't really understand privilege," she says. "It's just kind of hard to help people who aren't willing to see multiple perspectives navigate." 

Martinez thinks that "it's important to be critical of our president no matter who they are," but the shift in attitudes toward our 45th president is huge. Fisseha pointed out how someone like Trump holding the most powerful position in this country has granted people a legitimate backing to promote hate and prejudice. She adds, "I am thankful that we're in D.C. [because] 96 percent of people voted for Hillary, but people from different backgrounds all come together on college campuses, so it doesn't give you the real D.C.... It's like this hybrid world."

Over the past year, Caldwell has noticed a large divide on AU's campus as well. It has made her feel like she's constantly on guard and has to defend herself in all contexts from her race to her gender in class. Caldwell recalls how her roommate, a Muslim student, was once verbally attacked by someone on campus because of her appearance. The day following the election results, some students at AU chose to express their outrage by participating in a "Not My President" protest. During the demonstration, an American flag was set in flames outside the quad. The action took a turn for the worst when a faculty member charged at one of the students—a woman of color—in possession of the flag. 

"I definitely believe in safe spaces and all of that, but I feel as if people have become less considerate of what they're saying and I just often find myself having to become like a stereotypical angry black woman in the classroom," she adds. "Overall, I really feel like people are not scared of what the future holds for them, but I feel they're scared of each other."

Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/ Stringer

Autumn Dalton has had a completely different experience as a junior at Howard University, one of the few remaining historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the country. Dalton is majoring in journalism with a minor in graphic design and is a member of a service organization called the National Council of Negro Women.

"Being in the culture of Howard, you see how sometimes we can come together for things—like when Mike Brown was killed, they put up the Pan-African flag in replacement of the American flag on campus. That was just a moment of solidarity that I will always remember."

Even though her campus is an entirely black community, Dalton vividly recalls how the atmosphere changed when Trump won. She was with other students in the lounge of her dorm—which is located in a gentrified part of the Shaw neighborhood—watching the results on television, frightened by what was about to happen. It felt like a dark cloud cast itself over campus the following day, and some professors even canceled class. While Dalton describes it as a little depressing, she emphasized that she and her peers are not in a state of defeat.

"It was an interesting thing that happened, but at the same time, I think, the resilient students who are like, 'We're gonna rise up no matter what, this doesn't mean anything, we can still persevere, we can still rise up,' they still have their presence on campus. I think that's really important, that they are trying to lift us up as well," she says. "We need to do something about it, we need to figure out what we can and cannot do now."

Martinez has a similar outlook on the urgency of moving forward amidst a period of so much uncertainty. "It really bums me out to see the presidential election shake up people's futures so much. People see their realities as so bleak now," she says. "I feel like so many people I know have been saying things like, 'This is so many setbacks that it's hard to look into my future with anything.'"

If anything, Martinez is more concerned about her student loans, though. She adds, "It's really disheartening to feel like I don't have control over my future and like my future is looming over me. I'll dread the day that I graduate because then I pay however fucking much for the next 80 years. People don't really understand how harsh student loans are." 

Despite these obstacles, Martinez wants to remain optimistic about what's to come. "I like to think that someday I'll have a job where I can sustain myself and not have to do sex work and I can work in a field that I enjoy and I'll have a president who isn't a racist and my college will understand that their rates are increasingly making it an alienating space."

Edelstein advises current undergraduate students in D.C. to become politically invested and involved on "all sides of our political landscape." She adds:

Everyone needs to engage in acceptance and open-mindedness. There are no two sides here in politics these days, so without understanding people—your neighbor, your roommate, your anyone—or giving them the time of day, we're not going anywhere. Keep calm, be observant, read all the news, watch all the news if that's what you're into. If not, don't make an opinion until you're educated about it. I can't even hold opinions about certain subjects in the political scene because I haven't read up enough and I don't know what I feel. I know that I don't have the right to feel anything until I've educated myself about it and talked to friends who have perspectives different than the other friends I talk to.

Edelstein also suggests students make things social media topics for the right reasons. "Don't feel cool if you're at a Trump rally or protest or a supporter, don't feel cool just because you [can put on social media that] you're there. Feel cool because you're being an active citizen," she says. "Don't just do it because your friends are doing it—have a motivation and have real conviction. Don't just have a conviction because your parents or your best friends like or don't like someone—research."