After my first semester at Princeton University, I was excited to return home to Guam for winter break. However, instead of being happy to be back in what most people deem as a “tropical paradise,” I was reminded of something sobering: I am poor. Compared to the comforts provided at Princeton, the living conditions of my family seemed dismal. While some students complain about their dorm beds being too lumpy or the water pressure in the restrooms being too low, I was grateful for these things after having to sleep on the couch and floor for my entire life and to use a bucket to flush the toilets at home.
And my family is not the only one.
Many in Guam suffer from poverty and a lack of resources both at home and school. Last year, around 95 percent of students in Guam’s public high schools scored below the national average in the reading, writing, and math sections of the Stanford Achievement Test, Tenth Edition (SAT-10).
When I visited my old high school, I was instantly reminded about the difficulties I faced as a student. Constantly damaged facilities and scarce resources in the classroom were the norm at my school. The conditions to which the students are subjected are so poor that, recently, one of Guam’s senators Michael San Nicolas tried to set up a visit to the school accompanied by news media members to show that its conditions represent that of Guam’s prisons.
In addition to the inadequate infrastructure, my high school is indifferent toward academics. What frustrates me is that the students receive most of the blame for it. Attending an institution that does not possess the proper resources for academic achievement makes it difficult for students to care about striving for it.
My acceptance to Princeton was a rare incident at my school; some even called it a “miracle.” Although this was supposed to be a compliment for me, I barely took it as one. In fact, I became sadder the more people talked about it because that is exactly what it was: a form of “miracle.” And I hated that because I wanted to be able to say that many people who attended my school have gone to top colleges and universities and that I was just following in their footsteps. But that is not the case. Aside from one or two students in the past two decades, I was the only student accepted into a top school.
And that is unfair.
It is unfair because my high school has many students who have the potential to attend prestigious colleges and universities but lack the means to get there. Although I was able to do it, I could see why people would not want to go down that path because my college application process was extremely lonely and discouraging; none of my teachers and counselors were prepared to guide me through it, which forced me to do my own research on the entirety of the college application process.
I began to link these hardships to the things I have experienced during my time at Princeton. Last year, after the decision of the grand jury not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown, over 300 Princeton students engaged in a spontaneous protest on campus. As I participated in this protest, I thought of my family and friends back home because I wanted to see how my participation in this protest connected to them.
And I realized something important.
My participation in protests like these designed to combat the devaluation of black lives in America is more than an indication of my solidarity for the black community; it is also necessary in order to combat the issues on my island. How could I expect support for my people if I do not show my support for others?
As a U.S. unincorporated territory, Guam is both indirectly and directly at the clutches of American control. When laws change in America, Guam’s laws usually follow suit with those changes. For example, when the drinking age in America changed to twenty-one, Guam quickly reflected that change.
American control of Guam can most clearly be seen through the example of American military. A lack of resources and options strongly influences many people on Guam, especially those from low-income households, to join the military. Guam’s public high schools, which have a majority of poor students, require all students to take the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), “a multiple-aptitude battery that measures developed abilities and helps predict future academic and occupational success in the military.” However, tests such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, commonly known as the SAT, which help students get into U.S. colleges and universities, are ignored. This reflects America’s influence on Guam because the island is used for its strategic military position. Although there is nothing wrong with joining the military, people should not feel that joining is their only option.
Under Title 8 of the U.S. Code, the people of Guam are born as U.S. citizens. However, at times, they are not treated as such. Because of racial biases inflicting damage onto certain communities in America, as seen through the cases of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and others, there is a certain extent to which our statuses as American citizens is beneficial to our lives. Being an American citizen did not save Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice from police brutality. Similarly, the citizenship granted to the people of Guam only supports and protects them to a limited extent. The racial predominance that stems from the imperialistic idea that the American Anglo-Saxon supersedes other races continues to place limitations upon the people of Guam. Like many black people, as well as other people of color, in America, the people of Guam are not given the full range of opportunity that many white Americans are given.
And this needs to stop.
When I turned eighteen but could not vote for the U.S. President even though I was a U.S. citizen, I did not say anything. When I flew out to Princeton through Hawaii and did not receive meals because a flight to Guam is considered “domestic,” even though I was a U.S. citizen who could not vote for the President, I simply brought snacks from home onto the plane. When I heard that my island might undergo a military buildup, which would close off public land for military facilities, I did not question it. When one day I went to a place that I have been jogging at for years and saw that it was closed off by a gate for the military, I just went to another place.
Now, attending an institution like Princeton that has bred some of America’s greatest leaders, I have an implicit obligation to educate those around me about issues on my island. Instead of merely returning after getting my degree, I know that I have to stay in America to work my way into a system, which I am still trying to figure out, that was never built to support my people.
And I hope more of my people will be able to join me.
Matthew Taitano is a freshman at Princeton University from Guam. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org