Senior Reflections: Institutional Change is Still Needed, but Progress Has Been Made

Osama Syed ’19

Photo by Sarah Woods ’21

I was very underwhelmed the day I found out I was admitted to Davidson. I knew little about the school and hadn’t expected to go here. It was the last QuestBridge partner school I applied to. However, the opportunity to get a high-quality education was something that had truly seemed out of reach prior to that moment, so I intended to make use of it. Fast-forward to my first year here: I was impressed by the school and the people, I found the intellectual curiosity amongst students and professors to be inviting, I found the campus to be beautiful. I found the chance to live a new life to be exciting. Most of these feelings have remained the same. 

While engaging with various parts of campus, be it as a low-income student with the financial aid office, as a Muslim student with the Chaplain’s Office, or as Student Body Vice President with general administration, I found the institution as a whole generally supports and truly cares for students. My involvements in groups and programs have led me to pursue a career related to higher education and student affairs, and I’m now a Student Affairs Fellow. That means I study and engage in matters such as student concerns, administrative response, demographic changes and their consequences, and so on. 

At Davidson, many issues revolve around communication and understanding from students and administration or, really, any other part of campus. I don’t think this is inherently a “bad” thing; it’s just the nature of these processes and places. For example, students typically are unaware of behind-the-scenes action because they either aren’t paying attention or don’t know all the gears involved in running a higher education institution. This isn’t anyone’s fault. Many students come into Davidson with the mindset of engaging with professors, literature, the arts, sports, etc., and aren’t concerned with the school’s investments, trustees, the history of slavery at the school, and meal plan pricing. These last few matters come up while students are here. 

Another issue is this atmosphere of staying busy and being productive. Many students feel pressured to be hyper-involved and showcase their busy-ness, which  is problematic. In part, students burn themselves out. Some feel Davidson hasn’t evolved enough to incorporate its liberal arts values into its education while preparing students for the next step, or rather life beyond here, but I beg to differ. For example, this place does push for people of various viewpoints and backgrounds to speak, be admitted, teach, and be engaged; this is what liberal arts is. According to the school website, “The primary purpose of Davidson College is to assist students in developing humane instincts and disciplined and creative minds for lives of leadership and service.” This school does pretty well in living out its purpose. Service is ingrained in most groups and organizations here. We have so many critical thinkers that want to work towards a more equitable society. It is all truly impressive. At the same time, students should realize they don’t have to make it seem like they need to be doing something productive all the time or that they need to work towards a so-called “prestigious” career. It’s perfectly fine to be a student here and be doing something such as working at a coffee shop. 

I’ve been at Summit since August and I found most people running it to be alumni who incorporate the values they learned here into community engagement and intentional business. It’s been amazing to see how happy you can be with something like that after going to “a top-ranked college.” I myself was in the trap of thinking I needed to be doing something “big” after college because it felt like that was what needed to happen. But it’s an impossible task trying to exert unbearable amounts of energy into becoming another workaholic doing things that our overwhelmingly capitalist society has established gives you value. And if you start treating others like they’re a commodity, you’ve already delved deep into that world. At some point or another, you’ll realize that it wasn’t the “things” that made you or someone valuable; it was the character, thoughtfulness, and other similar attributes. These are the values this place tries to instill. 

Going back to general attentiveness and progress, I want to shed light on the typically short attention span and, at times, misdirected frustration of our student activism. It’s one thing to be critical and to benefit the school and future students; it’s another to be critical and then not really follow up. Students love having freedom of expression and the ability to be legitimate leaders on campus, but then they also expect the administration to fix issues that aren’t really in their job description. These are pretty re-occurring phenomena here. 

Part of it is because it’s a four-year institution and students aren’t here long enough to really see the changes or find reason to invest time to see things through. The other part is getting bogged down in academics again. It’s understandable that students focus on academics; it is the main reason most of us are here. But to be loud without legitimate action is a cop-out. I’m all for institutional change, but it requires constant effort. 

On that note, I understand that it can feel like not enough things are changing or going the way you want. I understand that it took way too long to seriously acknowledge our slavery background. I understand that (it feels like) most white students don’t know enough about the everyday occurrences of racism. I understand that most people here come from money and don’t know much about financial insecurity. I understand most heterosexual and/or cisgender people have very limited knowledge of many matters relating to those identifying as LGBTQ+. 

But perhaps we expect too much from each other. Most of us are 18- to 22-year-olds trying to develop and become “good” people, but we may not recognize that constantly being an ally for every cause is difficult and, quite frankly, impossible. Perhaps you didn’t notice all the things that really did change, or perhaps some things are taking longer to happen than you thought. You were probably inspired by someone else and even inspired someone else to continue the work you started.

I’ve seen cotton plants removed from this campus, renovations and additions to areas for minority students, programs begun for inclusive pedagogy within STEM, orientation become completely restructured to be more cognizant of the school’s and local area’s history and prominence, and the Africana department expand (and score the G.O.A.T. himself, Dr. Garry Bertholf), all within the time I came here in August 2015 to now. These things matter so much. They’re not ends in-and-of themselves, but they are progress. We can’t forget that. 

We need the energy to continue improving upon what we’ve built, while recognizing what has happened before and what is currently happening. 

To the younger students: you’ll likely go through a series of changes on how you feel about this place and that some things are just not up to your standards; that’s a good thing and it’s through that energy that we move forward. But realize it’s taken a lot of effort to get even here. 

To my fellow seniors: we’ve worked so hard and improved so many things. Thank you! 

To the Davidson College community at large: thank you for the support you’ve given me. I’ve been incredibly fortunate to come to this place and get to know so many of you and so many who came before. I’m grateful to have spent the last few years here but I’m ready to move on… Come see me at Summit before I go! 

Osama Syed ’19 is a political science major from Wichita, Kansas. Contact him at ossyed@davidson.edu. 

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