My 17th birthday is one that I'll never forget. My friends threw me a surprise birthday party, I belted "Dancing Queen" countlessly and spent the rest of the day with family. Those weren't the most memorable parts, however. What was most unforgettable was the fact that white supremacists marched on the grounds of a school that was merely an hour and a half away from where I lived.
I vividly remember talking to my friend a day later about the event. I remember her telling me how much she had wanted to go to the University of Virginia but could no longer get herself to even consider applying anymore.
I was a rising senior at the time and like most other rising seniors, I started to make a list of the schools I was going to apply to. I toured UVA Spring of that year and absolutely loved it. As I walked through the school, I imagined myself at every corner; walking to class, eating at the dining hall with friends, and studying during the AM's at the library. That fantasy was distorted after I saw videos of torch-bearing white men yelling phrases like "the Jews will not replace us." It was distorted after I saw a video of David Duke, the former grand wizard of the KKK, say that the event was "one step towards getting America back."
Despite feeling terrified of the news, I knew that I couldn't decide whether I should still apply to the school-based solely off of one event. I thought of who I am. A Muslim, an immigrant, and a person of color. I thought of how angry I feel when people take one event and use it as a generalization for a whole group. Taking this into consideration, I understood that the white supremacists that marched that day didn't represent what UVA stood for. I understood that the majority of the student body didn't share the views of those people.
I come from one of the most diverse high schools in the nation. My classes were filled with people from all over the world, each with unique stories and vibrant ideas to share. That diversity, however, was not reflected in the pool of applicants to UVA from my school that year. I was one of the few minorities that I know of that applied to UVA. As I asked my friends why they didn't choose to apply, all of their answers shared the idea that they would never feel comfortable going there after what happened.
I understood their fear, but I viewed choosing to attend UVA as an opportunity; an opportunity in which I can share my experiences and story. I viewed UVA as a place in which I could find those who shared my beliefs and those who would challenge my ideas. I viewed it as a place in which I can bring about change.
Although what happened at UVA that day was over a year ago, it is not lost on me that incidents that spew hatred and racism are still happening today in colleges around the country. The incidents that occurred at Columbia University and Boston College over the past month have made students feel afraid and unwelcomed. It is both incredibly infuriating and heartbreaking to see how audacious and blatant those who want to spread hate have become.
However, when events like these happen, we get to make a choice. We can either decide to read that article or watch that video and quickly decide not to apply to those schools, or, we can see what we can do to stop it from happening again. The truth is, no matter where you choose to attend, you will inevitably face people who will make you feel upset or somehow inferior to them. And, you can choose to walk away from those people and sometimes, you even should. But, you can decide to stand right where you are and try. Because if nothing changes, nothing changes.