I will always remember my first day as a member of the largest class of incoming African-American freshmen in the history of the University of California at Berkeley. "Look around," our dormitory hall coordinator told a group of us in the tone of an older brother or sister. "In a few semesters, half of you won't be here."
Today, as I near the end of my undergraduate career, I find myself searching for the faces of those students who filled the room with me four years ago. Only a projected 53 of the 439 African-American students who entered Cal in 1987 will graduate this May. Another 200 or more will continue in pursuit of their diplomas for another year or two, maybe three.
As for the missing faces? They couldn't "cut it," the university would have us believe.
I know personally, however, that economics is a pivotal factor in African-American retention rates. A couple who paired up during the first weeks of freshmen year come to mind. Call them Joe and Jane.
Throughout our first year, if you saw Jane coming, you knew Joe couldn't be far behind and vice versa. Everyone pegged them for marriage by sophomore year. By sophomore year, however, Jane was no longer on campus. Her financial aid had been cut, and nothing short of full-time work would supplement the cost of her schooling. She withdrew to "work for a semester" and has yet to return.
If economic strains forced some of us out, the incessant questioning of our intellectual competence on campus chipped away at our confidence. More than once I have considered transferring to one of the nation's black colleges just to be in an atmosphere where the color of my skin would determine neither teacher's nor student's perception of my academic abilities.
Ironically, as I entered Cal, my concerns were far from race-related. They were similar to those of Denise Huxtable, the character on "The Cosby Show," when she went off to college: How could I maintain good grades, make friends, adjust to living with my new roommate all at the same time?
I underestimated the matter-of-fact advice of an aunt that I should familiarize myself with places where black students study and socialize because "there wouldn't be a lot of blacks" on campus. Back in 1987 as I stood waiting in the long line for my room assignment, I watched a sea of black and brown and yellow faces approach the dormitory, flanked on either side by parents, aunts and uncles. My mother and sister stood with me that day, a mirror image of so many other families there.
But the sense of familiarity vanished quickly. In my classes, where there were only a few black students, I soon learned that white students were less than eager to pair up with me for study groups or review sessions. Inevitably I would be left to form my own group.
On the other hand, on the all-female floor of the dormitory where I lived, young white women constantly bombarded me with questions they felt I should answer just because I was black. I became the encyclopedia on every African-American from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Lena Horne. If someone black said it, I should know about it.
In the bathroom, I would look up from brushing my teeth or washing my face only to make direct eye contact with one or two girls who didn't really understand the magic of the mirror: If you can watch me, I can probably see you watching me. Ultimately, I found that I could not be comfortable outside of a group of my own African-American peers.
Today, with more than half of its undergraduate population made up of people of color, Berkeley is celebrated as being a "minority majority" school. Yet African-American enrollment is lower now than it was the year I entered. In the fall of 1990 Berkeley admitted fewer than half the number of black students who entered with me. In view of the projected hikes in tuition and cuts in enrollment, that figure may drop even further.
This sharp decline in UC-Berkeley's African-American admissions rate is deeply disturbing. But it reinforces my determination to attain my diploma in the face of adversity.
I know that I am part of a great ancestry of struggle and change, of African-American people who imagined the brightness of my own future. I draw strength from the vision of my predecessors, ** loved ones and mentors. They assure me that I am not alone in my endeavors or achievements, that I am part of a larger "we."
Lillian Broadhouse is a senior at the University of California at Berkeley. She wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.