This essay is part of the Student Agenda Essay Series, where students are sharing the pillars of the National Student Agenda that resonate most, and why they take action.
Jaylen, pictured here, is a sophomore at Columbia University.
It was when classes ended and even more students spilled from the buildings that they chose to strike. White hoods came like snowfall, came like ash, came like hate. I recall very little, but what I do remember was running. I ran for the gates, but they were blocked by burning crosses. I ran for the dorm rooms, but they were locked. In the chaos, I remember with debilitating clarity another student calling to us: “Let’s just pretend to be on their side!”
I looked at him, skin as white as the hoods they donned, and I looked down at myself, an obvious blemish, something to be washed away. There was nowhere for me to hide and no way for me to blend in. The storm would roll in and I, like my ancestors, would be swept away.
They had been closing in when I woke up, teeth clenched and sweaty. It was a terrible nightmare, but not the first of its kind. What had made it so terrible was how I wasn’t so sure it was far from the truth. In 1924, white students burned a cross to protest the presence of a Black student, they did so in front of Furnald, a freshman dorm across from where I had lived just a few months ago.
School has never been a safe place for me… or people like me. For a long time, I thought this was something I would shed in college. After all, I had gone to Olympic High School in Charlotte, predominantly people of color and absolutely overpoliced. We had always been at risk of search and shut down, whether for practice or for a gun. I was used to metal detectors, to proving I was a student with no malicious intentions, to prove I was something more.
Today, I feel the violence and dominance of my over-policed campus at Columbia University. In the weeks and months following the start of the Israel-Hamas war, my campus has been shut down more times than I can count. Too often, I would have to show my ID card just to even get through the front gates. I had to dodge over fifty police officers who made their homes on our front lawns, on our sidewalks, and even inside our buildings. Myself and my peers are still constantly overpoliced, we are still proving we are something more.
For me to be more though, schools must be more too. The solution is not to put men with guns on our campuses. It is not to dump money into metal detectors. True improvement and true safety mean addressing the root of the issues. There needs to be more mental health support for students, whose fear and the stresses of our world can infect their very dreams. The Student Agenda is so important to me because of its understanding of that sentiment. It reads: “Students deserve safe schools where they can thrive, and where their safety and well-being is invested in and put ahead of any political motivations.”
My dreams, my future, who I am, and who I can be, all of that is powerful on its own.