Yoshiko Harden flunked out of the University of Washington. Twice. At nineteen, she was so beaten down from the strain of being a biracial first-generation college student that despite her intelligence, she found herself unable to return to school. Even her family had written her off as a lost cause. Three years later, however, Harden graduated from the University of California, San Diego with not one, but two degrees—one in Women’s Studies, and one in Communications—before going on to receive a Master’s degree in Education from Seattle University.
On Oct. 11, 2012, Harden, now the Vice President for Diversity at Bellevue College, delivered the keynote address at the TRiO Student Support Services (TRiO) Fall Academic Awards.
TRiO is an on-campus organization at BC that provides support for low-income, disabled and first-generation college students earning their Associate’s Degree. Students accepted into TRiO regularly meet one-on-one with an advisor, and opportunities for extra tutoring and invitations to special events are abundant.
At the beginning of her speech, Harden talked about the way her first college class set the tone for the rest of her experience at UW. Her professor asked, “Have you realized yet that you’re the least important person on campus?” Looking back, Harden acknowledged that he was probably trying to make a joke, but as she looked around at her classmates and realized that she was the only African-American in a class of five hundred, she wasn’t laughing. “I internalized this,” said Harden, “and as I went about my first year [of college], I found that that message was threaded throughout my whole experience there.”
Harden spoke of overhearing offhand racist comments at restaurants. She spoke of being told she was “too white” for her black friends and “too black” for her white friends. She spoke of her own acute awareness of African-American stereotypes and how she carefully monitored her behavior in fear of being written off. As Harden recounted her struggles through college, many of the TRiO students nodded along with her, as though reliving shared experiences.
Harden, along with Barbara Brodsky, the Director of TRiO, and the rest of the TRiO staff work tirelessly to provide a positive environment where disadvantaged students are able to flourish. At the Academic Awards ceremony, both women spoke passionately and eloquently about TRiO, leaving no doubt in mind that they cared deeply for the students they supported. They were absolutely dedicated to ensuring that TRiO students never felt like the least important person on campus. Just one look at the Academic Awards program confirms the success of the organization; over 120 students were commended for maintaining a 2.5 cumulative grade point average, with 27 of those students achieving a perfect 4.0 GPA.
At the conclusion of her speech, Brodsky said, “You hear a lot about TRiO being a family. We are here to support each other and celebrate our successes. We are a family.” After every student was honored for his or her amazing academic achievements, it was impossible to disagree.