Mayed: This is indeed a war zone, not a university

Sahibzada Mayed, Op-Ed Contributor

To all of the students who barely make it through the cracks, holding on for dear life:

“… you are enough 

your work is enough

you are needed

your work is sacred

you are here

and i am grateful.”

-adrienne maree brown

I am in an abusive relationship with the University. I am constantly put in situations that violate my personhood and dismiss my humanity. I am continuously taught that my self-worth is attached to what and how much I can produce. I am repeatedly reminded that I should be doing “more.” 

That AND is in our DNA.

Sleeping fewer hours at night, skipping meals and working relentlessly without breaks are all applauded. The core of our existence is to grind, never coming to a halt. Over time, even machines wear out — gears jam. Our bodies continue to weather, accumulating the pain and traumas inflicted upon them.  

My intentions for writing are not to get back at the University, nor are they out of spite or revenge. I am not writing out of anger or rage, although all of these feelings and emotions are present. I am writing from a place of radical love, to express solidarity with everyone who has been harmed by the carceral logics and oppressive practices of Northwestern as an institution. To the folks who have been systemically neglected and drawn to the margins: this is a love letter to you.

To the Canada Goose-ers, this is certainly an unfamiliar tale. To the othered, this will more than likely make you cry. Probably reignite a fire burning inside you, bold and fierce. Possibly make you angry, spiraling into a rage of wanting to tear everything down. Potentially overwhelm you with grief and hopelessness.

Oftentimes, I experience an uneasy feeling of estrangement, imposter syndrome. After all, you cannot belong in a system that isn’t designed for you. I wish I could quit, drop out and escape this pit of despair. Yet, as cycles of abuse go, I feel compelled to carry on with my toxic relationship with NU. It seems impossible to imagine an alternative reality, for I have been made to believe this is the only means of success. “This is something you have to get through. Just suck it up and try to make the most of it.” This is the result of having normalized oppression.

Surviving trauma becomes a rite of passage.

Nearly four years ago, Gabrielle Bienasz published “This is a University, not a war zone — so why do we have to die before Northwestern changes the rules?” I would amend that statement by saying this is indeed a war zone, not a university. Why? One insufferable truth: the system is not broken — it is designed to break us.

The University, founded and maintained in the occupation of Indigenous lands, has time and again employed brutal tactics to terrorize its Black, brown and Indigenous students in attempts to silence their voices. The blatant disregard for our humanity is inexcusable.

In the past three years, I have seen my peers brutalized at the hands of police in riot gear. I have watched multiple friends end up in psychiatric wards due to chronic stress and burnout, coupled with a lack of adequate mental health support services. I have even been involuntarily hospitalized, which was orchestrated by Counseling and Psychological Services and Northwestern Medicine Student Health Service.

Author Bettina Love has come to know this as the “educational survival complex.” This is a system “in which students are left learning to merely survive, learning how schools mimic the world they live in, thus making schools a training site for a life of exhaustion.” Navigating survival at a predominantly white institution like NU sucks the life out of us. The cost of higher education is far greater than the absurd amount we pay in tuition dollars. Let us not forget the traumas inflicted upon our bodyminds. What is the real achievement, graduating with a four-year degree or making it out alive?

I wholeheartedly commend the work of student activists to disrupt institutional forms of violence by imagining life-giving and liberating possibilities. I applaud their efforts to speak truth to power and make their voices heard and felt. This is merely a testament to the resolve of students to engage in liberatory dreaming and future building. 

Audre Lorde reminds us that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” In other words, we cannot rely on settler-colonial institutions — they don’t keep us safe. Abolition is our path to freedom. 

Sahibzada Mayed is a McCormick senior. They can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.