For the past year, New York based photographer Jonah Markowitz documented Tarvaris Sanders, a struggling teen from the South Side of Chicago who earned a full academic scholarship to Connecticut College. His photographic essay, Three Bags Full, which was featured on The Chronicle of Higher Education where Sanders was interviewed by Lawrence Biemiller, follows Sanders as he transitions into college life and the social, academic and cultural challenges he faces. Markowitz describes those challenges in the following essay:
At fifteen years old, Tavaris Sanders vowed to change his life while in the cell of a juvenile detention center. Four years later, he completed his freshman year at Connecticut College.
Adversity is nothing new to Tavaris. However, the challenges he faces at an affluent prestigious liberal arts school, are so different than the issues he faced at a group home on the South Side of Chicago. Tavaris’s high school was 6% white when he graduated with honors. The dominant culture at Connecticut College (roughly 4% black) is completely alien to him.
College was not even on his radar in high school. A mentor of his, Kim Michelson, persuaded him to apply. After visiting Connecticut College, Tavaris was convinced. He applied early decision, was accepted, and given almost a full scholarship.
When Tavaris arrived for his freshman year in September of 2014, it was nothing like when he visited over the summer. He was devastated. He couldn’t relate to the students around him. “When I talked, they never understood what I was saying. It irritated me. I know I can’t speak proper English right now, but I’m trying. It’s more like they was making fun of me, you know?” Sanders said in his interview with Biemiller.
In class he described feeling the eyes of fellow students bore into him when race entered a classroom debate; as though he could represent an entire race rich with individual identities, diverging opinions and socioeconomic backgrounds. Lonely and depressed, he fantasized about simply walking off campus.
Generally conversations about diversity on college campuses are driven by statistics, and the humanity in those statistics is often overlooked. Is it enough that students of color are admitted? Is the college responsible for ensuring that all students are supported? Or is the onus on the individuals to conform? Should colleges be making intentional efforts to incorporate different cultures and life experiences? Or is that something that is more authentically done by students themselves? I found myself asking the question: could Tavaris be himself and still do well at Connecticut College?
Slowly over the course of his freshman year, Tavaris found his foothold. He made friends with upperclassmen who could relate. They have been able to guide and help him with his coursework in a way that Tavaris can accept. His passion for dance has given a creative outlet in which he excels. Through dance, he found an interest in Africana Studies. Although he still doesn’t feel entirely comfortable, he now understands what Connecticut College can help him accomplish. In the interview with Biemiller Sanders stated, “I’m trying to figure out what particular thing I’m going to do to help my people. I wanna help people because people helped me throughout my whole life.”