High school seniors weighing their options for college consider a variety of factors: academic prestige, financial aid, extra and co-curricular activities, athletics, research opportunities, and the quality of on-campus living and amenities. Location is amongst these factors in a predominantly student-centric sense, giving way to questions about the nature of the social scene and the security of the area for young adults. Rarely amongst these geographical considerations is the larger, political question of what effects non-native college populations have on the local community.
I first visited Tulane University in the fall of 2018 and instantly fell in love. New Orleans was thrumming with life, offering a much-needed change of pace from the slow comfort of my Midwestern childhood. I furiously finished my application on the plane ride home and received notice of my acceptance just over a month later. I arrived back on campus in August of 2019 eager, green, and deeply unaware of the wake-up call headed my way.
While New Orleans is singular in its beauty, it is also riddled with inequity. Social stratification is reinforced through zoning, which often corresponds to which areas will sustain the most damage in the event of an environmental disaster. Nestled in a wealthy and predominantly white area Uptown, the Tulane bubble offers a fundamentally two-dimensional picture of the city.
As of 2017, the median family income of a Tulane student was $180,700, with 69% of the student body resting in the top 20% of America financially. Additionally, the student body is 70% white in a 60% black city. All of this to say, Tulane’s campus offers a security blanket, a shield penetrable only to the deadly potholes across the city.
The most obvious example of this would be Carnival season, specifically the week from Nyx Wednesday to Fat Tuesday. Families flock to the streets to celebrate this historically Catholic holiday, which has become a facet of New Orleanian culture. The various krewes, parades, and balls reflect a long history of racial segregation and black New Orleanians’ quest for reclamation of space, and furthermore, joy. The holiday was first celebrated stateside in the 17th century and quickly became a place for colonial centers to hold onto diminishing imagery of monarchy and qualify their power. Black Krewes, the first of which being Zulu, emerged in the early 20th century as a means of reclamation of space and power. The holiday is one of debauchery, yes, but more than that, its contemporary iterations seek to validate identity and community.
Unfortunately, a Tulanian Mardi Gras forgets this. As guests in this city, it is of the utmost importance that we behave as such, taking steps to understand the broader implications of the holiday. It is not merely a few days off from school and an excuse for a bender, but a chance to celebrate life on the periphery and meditate on what this city has so graciously (and in some instances, forcibly) offered us. The difference between appropriation and engagement hinges on cultural humility, which refers to the process of examining one’s own environment and ethics to understand how these factors inform our notions of those different from ourselves.
The fault is not simply on behalf of individual actors, but a reflection of institutional ignorance. Tulane boasts a college curriculum founded on principles of service but makes little to no effort to prepare their freshman class for the sociopolitical tensions surrounding them. Learning about the city’s history requires a concentrated effort, whether that be via a student’s coursework or initiative taken in their own personal time. A large portion of the school’s marketing rests on the allure of its location, but there is no public consideration of the ethics of implanting coastal upper-middle-class teenagers into a place so heavily divided by income and access.
Institutions across the nation, particularly those that are privatized, draw thousands of students on the cusp of adulthood to foreign environments every fall. Their migration is further complicated by their relative financial privilege and the ethically questionable practice of introducing them into environments heavily divided by income and access. Campuses are a hotbed of social and academic life, but an entire community with its own nuances and concerns exists outside this bubble. Beyond the comfort of dining halls and dormitories, there lies a world of opportunity and growth. If you are to claim a city and its corresponding university, you must commit yourself to loving it wholly.