Escúchanos – Justine Bernacet

La Alianza, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and the Latinx Alumni Association are colaborating with The Observer on the

Courtesy of La Alianza

La Alianza, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and the Latinx Alumni Association are colaborating with The Observer on the “Escúchanos” series.

Justine Bernacet

Rather than appearing in a video, Case Western Reserve University alum Justine Bernacet wrote this piece for the Escúchanos series to share her experience as a Latina student. Escúchanos is a collection of narratives from Latinx/Hispanic students and alumni organized by La Alianza, Society for Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) and the Latinx Alumni Association.

My story at CWRU is one of mixed privilege and trauma; one of abundant success and just as abundant failure. I graduated in four years with above a 3.0 GPA, no student debt, decorated with both academic and volunteer awards for my contributions as a student leader. I walked away with an extensive resume, close friends and strong professional contacts. I was a white-passing, middle class, cisgender, able-bodied Latina student. I survived CWRU, not because I was brighter or more disciplined than others, but because I had the right combination of hard work, immense privilege and sheer luck. Many of the friends and student leaders I admired and learned from most at CWRU were much cleverer and more diligent than me, but never made it to the graduation stage with me. As I write my story, these are the students I remember most.

My freshman year, I nearly failed out of nursing school. I was placed on academic probation after my first semester, and then threatened with separation from the school and loss of scholarship at the end of my first year. CWRU threatened me with academic separation again my sophomore year, and then by my junior year, I had received an official notice of the university’s intent to have me separated from the school. I felt as though I had failed. I had studied diligently, gone to office hours and joined study groups, but I was still at risk of failing out of college. I entered college with the burden of knowing that my success and failure would determine the financial well-being of the family I left in New York; I couldn’t bear to tell them I had failed. Even worse, I couldn’t bear telling my mother that all of her sacrifices for me had been in vain. 

My academic dean informed me that I could appeal the decision to separate as well as appeal the decision to remove my scholarship. The appeals process, however, is brutal. It requires a vulnerability that can leave you utterly defeated. I had to write, in a formalized statement, all the incidents of trauma that had happened to me in the past three years to explain my “excessive truancy,” my poor completion of work and my various failing grades. I told them of the loss of a father figure I suffered during my freshman year. I shared the Title IX incident report I filed that same year after an encounter with a drunken fraternity brother during a campus party. I explained that by my sophomore year I was working two to three jobs for a total of 15-20 hours a week outside of school to provide for the people that I loved. I even submitted my grandfather’s obituary to document my difficult time during his passing. I had to give my dean the names of any counselors or campus staff I had sought help from as proof and documentation of my ongoing PTSD and anxiety. I wrote down these experiences in a formal document signed by me, then read aloud in a meeting I would not be present for to an “Academic Standing Board” made up of people I had never met. These faceless people exist in my mind as the people who learned the deepest parts of me, but whom I have still never met. Only by going through this test could I earn back my spot to stay at a university that had made it clear it did not want me.

Ultimately, I was able to stay, and I made it to graduation largely through the support and family I found within La Alianza, the Latinx organization. The students in this group gave me my first home, and I was unequivocally changed by knowing them. 

However, this, too, came with a new responsibility: The responsibility of a student activist. The reality of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) college students is that while many of us juggle personal, financial and familial responsibilities, we also face the burden of navigating a white dominated institution that was never made to serve us. BIPOC students are often so much more than just students on a college campus: we are your waitstaff, your cashiers, your office coordinators, your Teaching Assistants. We are student activists, community organizers, financial campaigners, mental health advocates. We take on roles we are never paid to fill. This is the BIPOC tax we pay.

In my freshman year, as a member of La Alianza, I stood in solidarity with Black and Brown student leaders who led the “We Belong Here” movement to advocate for the needs of Black and Brown students. 

In my sophomore year, student leaders and myself campaigned against CWRU’s transition from a need-blind admissions policy to a need-aware policy, fearing this would disproportionately affect low income students. That same year, I co-authored a letter denouncing the actions of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity after they had performed an alarmingly racist variety show skit, dressing up in sacred traditional Mexican clothing with fake mustaches and fake accents, all to make casual jokes about the threat of deportation and a southern border wall. 

Each year, I spent weeks and hours interviewing and recording students about their experiences on campus to create short films for events such as La Fiesta and Gala Latina to showcase Latinx students on campus. I volunteered with Cleveland Latinx organizations such as HOLA and Esperanza, Inc. 

By my senior year, I became La Alianza president, and with the help of my executive board, we organized the first ever DACA protest on campus to fight for students at CWRU and broadly who were recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. We raised money to start an Emergency Fund, a fund that would allow us to financially assist at-need students who struggled with meeting basic needs, such as food, clothing, school books and other basic necessities. That year, we raised about $6,000 for the Diego Barrera Bayona scholarship. We named this scholarship after Diego Barrera Bayona, a CWRU student and close friend who passed away tragically in 2016. We raised an additional $5,000 to bring a Latinx guest poet to campus and an additional $5,000 to send over 20 students to both the annual Hispanic of American Colleges and Universities (HACU) Conference and the United States of Hispanic Leadership Institute (USHLI) Conference. The resources and supports we were lacking, we demanded and created for ourselves. 

It is on us as BIPOC students and alumni to carve spaces for ourselves at our university and to remind not only our white peers and professors that we belong there, but to remind ourselves, too. My hope was that I could contribute to building a school and a home where students like me would not have to face the same instances of racism or the same barriers to success that my peers and I did. I felt this immense pressure to do well, not just for my family or myself, but because I was always acutely aware that my success and the work I did for my community could potentially break down barriers and build a path for generations that came after me. In fact, I attribute my own success largely to the tireless work of much more talented and exceptional Black and Brown women that came before me. Women of color have always been the heroes that history neglects. These women include women like Diana Acosta, my mentor and the president of La Alianza my sophomore year, who pushed me to get involved and who supported every idea and initiative I proposed. Destinee Henton, president of the African American Society and a pivotal leader in the We Belong Here Movement, an unapologetic Black student leader who modeled for me what being proud in your own skin meant, who reminded me that I did, too, belong here at CWRU. There were women like Makela Hayford, a relentless warrior and student leader far superior than me in every way. Previous president and vice president for the African American Society, leader of the “We Belong Here” movement, and my best friend, Makela is currently a law student at CWRU and the president of the Black Law Student Association (BLSA). She was and still is at the forefront of every campus issue that affected BIPOC students. She openly challenged campus norms and confronted administrators, she grounded every conversation with the lens of the needs of BIPOC students, and she taught me that failure is never permanent. Finally, there are women like the powerful women that made up nearly my entire executive board during my time as president of La Alianza. It was truly because of exceptional women like Elsa Vera, Esmeralda Terrazas, Monserrath Salas, Katherine Latoff, Sofia Mira and Ambar Solis that we were able to achieve all that we did. 

As I reflect on my time at CWRU, I am proud of all that we as student leaders were able to accomplish. But I ask myself, and I now ask CWRU, to consider: What was the cost? What was the cost to BIPOC students to take on the responsibility of diversity officer and student? How many BIPOC students are forced to choose between their mental health and their activism? How many BIPOC students flunked out as a result of not being able to keep up with their social, academic, financial and familial demands? How many BIPOC students are traumatized by incidents of racism, homophobia, sexism, etc. on campus? How many BIPOC students graduate with a poor academic transcript, and therefore, lower job prospects as a result of taking on additional responsibilities? How many BIPOC students graduate with higher student debt? How many BIPOC students graduate with declining mental health? How many BIPOC students never graduate? 

What is the cost of being BIPOC at CWRU?

My story at CWRU is one of mixed privilege and trauma; one of abundant success and just as abundant failure. I graduated in four years with above a 3.0 GPA, no student debt, decorated with both academic and volunteer awards for my contributions as a student leader. I walked away with an extensive resume, close friends and strong professional contacts. I am a white-passing, middle class, cisgender, able-bodied Latina alumnus. I survived CWRU, but not because I was brighter or more disciplined than others, but because I had the right combination of hard work, immense privilege and sheer luck. Many of the friends and student leaders I admired and learned from most at CWRU were much cleverer and more diligent than I, but never made it to the graduation stage with me. As I write my story, these are the students I remember, and these are the students I ask CWRU to remember, too.