'I, Too, Am Harvard': A Mantra For Recognition Becomes An Anthem

Tired of people suggesting they don't belong at Harvard, black students at the elite college began a campaign called "I, Too, Am Harvard." It's gone viral, sparking debate at other schools, as well.

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You might expect students at one of the world's top universities to have occasional moments of doubt about their studies. But at Harvard, some minority students say they feel discomfort that has nothing to do with academics. It has to do with being black on an overwhelmingly white campus. A new photo montage about being black at Harvard has gone viral. NPR's Tovia Smith reports it is giving new momentum to an old issue.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: W.E.B. Du Bois felt that as a student in the late 1800s, he said he was in Harvard but not of Harvard. More than a century later, many black Harvard students say they still feel the same way.

ABIGAIL MERIAM: We've been made to feel like we don't deserve to be here, and our place here is questioned. Oh, well, you know, you got in because you're black.

SMITH: Junior Abigail Meriam says it's often the little things like people constantly touching her big curly hair.

MERIAM: Things like that, like, oh, my gosh, like complete strangers.

KIMIKO MATSUDA-LAWRENCE: Strangers.

MERIAM: It's, like, what exactly am I? Am I a novelty?

SMITH: Harvard sophomore Kimiko Matsuda-Lawrence nods. Anyone who's black at this elite university, she says, has had those moments.

MATSUDA-LAWRENCE: You know, being locked out of the dorm and people being scared to let them back in because they don't think that they're Harvard student, or some, you know, drunk person in the yard asking me, can you read, you know?

SMITH: One comment might be easy to shrug off. But junior Tsega Tamene says it's constant.

TSEGA TAMENE: They aren't just slips by innocent people. They are symptoms of a larger nationwide disease. And so you have to address them.

SMITH: It's why Matsuda-Lawrence started collecting the comments, from the idiotic to the insulting, and created a photo montage that immediately went viral.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I, too, am Harvard.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I, too, am Harvard.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I, too, am Harvard.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I, too, am Harvard.

SMITH: That was followed by a live performance on campus of stories that Matsuda-Lawrence says really resonated with students watching.

MATSUDA-LAWRENCE: The whole theater goes, mm-hm, and snaps. You know, everyone was like moaning and snapping like just - like I've been there. I felt that way. So I feel like that, mm, we're hearing that, like, around the world.

SMITH: Indeed, in just one week, the campaign inspired copycats all the way to - I, too, am Oxford. And other students who've been trying to get heard like at University of Michigan or UCLA are suddenly getting a second wind.

EEAN BOLES: Well, yeah, that's incredible.

SMITH: UCLA law student Eean Boles says a video posted last month by his black law students association suddenly spiked this week to three times the hits. The video shows the emotional toll of what he calls the alarmingly low number of black students - just 33 out of 1,100. It's hardly a new issue but Bowles says new pressure from social media is why UCLA administrators are now moving to address it.

BOLES: It does put a little bit more of a fire under them to make some changes and to be more quick with their responses.

MATSUDA-LAWRENCE: Without millions of people seeing these photos are Harvard, of all places, we couldn't have gotten in the room with the administration because, like, everybody is watching Harvard and saying, like, get your act together, you know?

SMITH: Harvard's Matsuda-Lawrence says, administrators who weren't answering her before have now agreed to talk.

DONALD PFISTER: What the students are doing is pointing out to us that perhaps we need to work even harder and that's what we plan to do.

SMITH: Harvard's interim dean, Donald Pfister, says social media is a game-changer.

PFISTER: I think we see that everywhere, from Egypt to Syria.

MEREDITH CLARK: There's also a certain degree of public shaming.

SMITH: Meredith Clark is studying Black Twitter, or minority use of social media, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She says the viral posts can also be an effective way to nudge students' attitudes by holding up a kind of mirror.

CLARK: It's not shame for the purpose of marginalizing, it's shame for the purpose of getting a person to think twice about whatever it was they were doing or saying.

SMITH: Students say they've already accomplished that by getting the conversation going at Harvard and beyond in a way it wasn't before. Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.

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