Edwidge Danticat: What I Really Learned in College


The award-winning Haitian-born author recalls Barnard in the Eighties, when she commuted to school from her home in Brooklyn

I grew up in East Flatbush, and my family rarely if ever went into the city. I didn’t know the Upper West Side at all. The way I heard about Barnard was that there was a recruiter who came to my high school, Clara Barton High School, and it just clicked. It was a women’s college, and I knew my parents would like that. It was small, and I was super shy, so I thought, “I’m going to fit in there.” I remember at orientation singing, “I am woman, hear me roar!” with a group of Barnard women. I thought, “Oh my gosh, I’m not just joining college, I’m joining a sisterhood!”

But it was hard. I had only been in the country for six years at that point, and I thought everybody knew everything — more than I did, anyway. I was also going home every day, back to Brooklyn, living in these two worlds at the same time. I would finish my class on Jane Eyre and then get back on the subway. My commute was an hour and twenty minutes, so I did a lot of work on the train. But because I was a commuter, living at home, whatever the textbook college experience was, I didn’t feel like I was really having it. But I was getting a great education. My first year, I wanted to dip into so many things. I signed up for a singing class; I was taking swimming. I was that kind of student: I had a hunger to get it all in. So much of that experience — the people, the environment — was new to me. At the library, you could watch these VHS copies of BBC versions of Brontë novels; I remember binge-watching, before it existed, those things. It was very nerdy of me, but as long as I was physically on the campus, I really tried to use every second I was there. I wanted to do everything.