My grandmother used to tell me that “they can take your house, they can take your money, they can take your family, but they can’t take your education.” And now that I enter my last semester of college, nostalgic for something that hasn’t yet ended, I reflect on her words.
Last July my grandmother turned 90, her life colored with change and tainted by destruction. At her age she has a tendency to criticize more than she compliments, but this day was especially remarkable as she began to reflect on the beautiful memories that were to come from the events she expected to be present for—a granddaughter’s wedding, a trip to New York, a great-grandson’s birthday, and lastly my graduation. It was then that I realized these milestone moments served as a sort of motivation, that life had so much to hold, that “G-d willing” she’d be present to see them.
I understand that a woman, who had suffered great loss in the Holocaust, fled the Castro regime in Cuba, survived breast cancer, and had raised two children as a single working mother was bound to have been hardened by life’s experiences. Yet despite hardship, the success and happiness that she celebrated on her 90th she attributed to her education, teaching me that even when you have nothing, you have what you learned. Even as she escaped and survived persecution or disease, her education as a female college graduate gave her the tools to overcome adversity.
I can’t begin to describe how much I respect and honor my grandmother, as both my family and a college graduate. Her confidence and faith in an education is unwavering. In her eyes, while the institutions of higher learning may be flawed, they are not to be questioned. Maybe due to her past strife or her current day fortune, education holds a sort of respect that is earned and unquestioned.
There is one-stall women’s bathroom in the second floor of Weiser Hall covered in graffiti; messages of all sorts frame the interior walls. My grandmother would shudder at the sight—the vandalism would be seen as a sort of disrespect to the University and an aggressive expression of hostility toward education.
But to me, the dialogue and conversation covering the walls is inspiring. As I sit there with the echo of a sage woman who has lived and seen what I can only hope to understand or experience, I read these tags—some more prolific than other, some written in a thread-like manner, some rants and irrational frustrations, and some words of encouragement for facing the drudgery that comes with attending an institution for higher learning.
It is here, in the most unlikely of places, that I begin to recognize the weight of my education as I start to transition completely into adulthood. My grandmother has lead a life carrying the logic bestowed upon her, but her criticism came to halt as she confronted her educational past. I understand that she has spent her life battling, that her source of strength came from what she’d been taught.
However, the powerful nature of learning doesn’t stop at application, that’s where it begins. In the stall of Weiser Hall’s gendered bathroom, looking at the remarks and commentary surrounding me, I came to recognize that only through questioning, criticizing, and critically thinking will I really come to learning what I am taught.
The cultural complacency demonstrated—this is the education my grandmother, and people before us, without privilege or resources had endured, and as feminists in this new world, it is our duty to reject that. It, at times, may appear like vandalism or unwarranted, but with all due respect, my function as a student at this university is not to cover up its blemishes, it is to point them out for repair.
My grandmother is a fountain of insight and I love her dearly; she will forever be accredited for my never-ending desire to learn. Although she is so vital to my being, it is pertinent to acknowledge that her words don’t define me (or the many like me struggling to understand how to apply their degrees outside the confines of this school), they motivate me.
As President of this incredible organization, I have been so lucky to have the power and ability to vocalize what others before me, such as my Grandmother, may have not. Hence, I urge you to not simply accept the knowledge imparted upon you, but rather to challenge its significance and application during this time of shifting political climate, cultural adaptation, and social oppression. I hope that as feminists we can understand the vitality of our learning process at Michigan, embrace its benefits, while also using these same educational tools (or permanent markers) to critique and reshape it.
President, What the F Magazine