Columbia – I take it Personally

Updated: Jul 21, 2019

Students ask me about my decision to attend Columbia University daily. I believe the truth is too simple to comprehend. Not, because it’s some far reaching ideal. Simply because it’s simple.

My parents said I told them I wanted to be a journalist when I was four years old. I don’t remember the conversation. But, they both tell the same accurate account. I believe them. Although, I must admit – at first, I was skeptical. I honestly said that at four. From that moment, my parents helped me center my life around journalism.

If I said, “I don't want want to write x, y and z.”

My parents would reply, “You said you want to be a journalist. That’s what journalists do.”

I remember thinking, “Dang, do journalist do everything?”

Because they always found ways to relate anything I didn't feel like doing to what I dreamed of being. My parents are from the school of do as I say not as I do. So hey, I’d do it.

I longed to find out more about journalism. As I matured, I longed to master the craft. Before there was high speed internet there was dial up. My father used to allow me to use the internet, but it was in Ann Frank rations. In the 90’s data packages were vastly different and the internet can open a world of mischief.

I used my time researching and dreaming. I suppose not much has changed. I read about many advocates of education. I noticed many advocates of education would seek to attend the most prestigious colleges. That’s when I discovered Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From that point on, it was personal to me.

I decided to post my personal essay – because I want my students to understand sometimes it’s not as much about the craft as you think. Sometimes you just need to make the dream your reality. After eight years of local news, I knew it was time to scratch the itch and go for Columbia. It's the only place I applied.

I said, "If I get in I will go."

I got in – so, I went.



[Personal Essay for CJS; written December 2013]

I grew up in small town, White America. I'm a god-fearing, country girl, with city girl flare, who has a huge heart and an old soul. Often times, I jokingly say, "I didn't know I was Black until I attended FAMU." Honestly, it's partly true. With all of that said, I know those things do not truly define me, however, they do compliment my being. To be defined is to be able to be explained. My being is an unexplainable work in progress.

The establishment of me, Kalisha Deanna Whitman began at 9:26, in the morning on January 15, 1985. It was a Tuesday. Alabama was going through its version of a snow storm. There was ice on the roads and a white blanket on the ground, but it was not cold enough to keep me out.

My parents were ready for me. Although they have never told me, I am sure they were nervous – because I was another mouth to feed. They already had a toddler. Times were hard. I have never heard them mention the trials that came with welcoming a baby into the world. I suppose dwelling on it did not matter. I was coming ready or not. After, several hours of labor they welcomed their 9 pound 1 ounce bundle of joy into the world. My mom was sedated. My father was anxious. My sibling was, at home, patiently waiting.

Twenty-eight years later, I look back fondly on my upbringing. I always thought we were rich. I didn't realize how financially stressed my parents were until one day in my young adult life – when my mother showed me the IRS break down of her salary over the years. I was shocked and amazed. At that moment, I understood how much they sacrificed.

The phrases I remember my mother saying the most was, "Can't, never could." Those words have stuck with me my entire life. If I ever said, “I can’t do it.” I knew there would be repercussions. My mother always wanted her children to see their potential and to go after it. The lack of – was never an acceptable excuse to her. If I wanted it; she wanted me to find a legitimate way to have it. I know that having a dream reality starts with me believing in myself.

My father always told me, "If you live in this house it's expected of you to make good grades." Expectations were outlined early. When I was a toddler, I was expected to clean up my toys. As I grew older, I was expected to take care of household chores. Now, I have expectations of myself. I know that my race is between me and no one else. Each day I strive to be better than I was the day before through my flaws. I know I will make mistakes. I enjoy striving for perfection although I know it is an unattainable goal. The act of trying, for me, is sometimes greater than succeeding.

Growing up in Alabama I know what it means to try and not be given a fair chance. I know what it means to succeed and be told you didn’t. My sweet home Alabama is known for the Civil Rights Movement. We are known as a state rooted in hatred. I have seen “the good, the bad and the ugly.” I am thankful for beautifully humanistic trio. I did not experience the same wrath as my mother. Fifty years she was slapped by a white male student in her junior high school classroom because she answered a question. I do not know the trials of my father who remembers colored bathrooms and water fountains. Yet, I too have encountered instances of racism throughout my life.

When I was in kindergarten I came home one day and asked my mother, “What is a light one?” She asked what I was referring to. I told her another student at school looked at me and said, “She’s a light one.” I do not remember what my mother’s response was. I do remember at that moment realizing people made differences. In my family skin tone was never a focus. We were family. However, the world made it a focus.

Even on the campus of my beloved Florida A&M University, there were differences. My southern drawl, my pigment, were all things that stood out and people made references to it, even in what they considered light-hearted conversation. But it was still a topic of conversation even on a historically black college campus.

Society has helped me see rights and wrongs. The nurturing doctrines of my parents have equipped me for societal perceptions. They were the first images of life that I remember. The ability to be able to inquire without them thinking I was rudely questioning allowed me to flourish as a person. To see people as I would want them to see me - through a judgmental-less lens that can capture beauty in all forms through a scope that can not only zoom for a closer look, but can capture people in awe awaiting the next glance.

Living with me helps me accept who I am as a being. I am a person who is in constant evolution. I go through phases. Growth, for me comes in stages. I try to take the best of me and incorporate it in my routine, and I try to work on the parts that are lacking.

Who am I as a person...I am a work in progress. If given the opportunity to broaden my view through the prestigious institution that is Columbia University, I will be even closer to the explanation to begin to define me. My definition will not include a period.

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