By Abby Weingarten
Cabrini Austin ’16 graduated from New College in mid-May—at the end of a spring semester plagued by a pandemic and at the onset of a major civil rights movement.
Right before the campus was evacuated due to COVID-19 concerns, Austin had finished co-organizing one of the most impressive Black History Month (BHM) celebrations the College had ever seen. Austin and their colleagues compiled programming for February that brought in speakers, musicians and poets from all over the world. It was one of the proudest times in Austin’s young life, and what they learned about the past greatly influenced their perspective on the present.
“I truly think we’re at a turning point in history right now,” said Austin, who is currently living with family in Wellington, Florida, watching protests rage worldwide. “People are tired and angry. Going online every day is just a reminder of the nightmare we’re constantly living in, and it really makes things hard.”
Ten days after Austin earned a bachelor’s degree in social science, the unlawful murder of George Floyd in Minnesota spawned uprisings about police brutality and systemic racism. Austin, who had been championing tolerance for years, was entering the professional world as a black individual in an era of major economic chaos and racial tension.
“Right now, with everything that’s happening, I’m just at home really trying to be with my family and heal,” said Austin, who plans to attend graduate school in the fall of 2021. “I eventually want to work on the front lines—in medicine—to help heal people. Because we’re just going to be needing more and more of that.”
While studying at New College, Austin was involved in multiple medical projects—from an internship at Moolchand Hospital in India in 2018, to a summer public health scholar program with Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York City in 2019.
For the latter program (which was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Office of Minority Health and Health Equity), Austin worked in the College’s Office of Diversity and Multicultural Affairs. Austin also interned at WE ACT for Environmental Justice in West Harlem, working to build healthy environments for people of color and/or low-income residents. And Austin wrote a senior thesis entitled The Fight for Hózhó: The Survival of Diné Ethnomedical Lifeways Within the Nuclear Landscape.
“I owe everything, all of my experience at New College, to Professor Zabriskie. She was my main faculty sponsor for BHM, and just being able to work with her and learn from her was wonderful,” Austin said. “She just gave me the space to learn more about myself and my people. Being in a predominantly white institution, it’s important to make space for yourself.”
Austin knew, from the moment of arriving at New College orientation, that there would be challenges on campus.
“I thought, it was very clear that nobody was going to relate to me in the ways that they related to me back home. So I said to myself, ‘Just keep your head down, do your schoolwork and you’ll be fine.’ I really felt like a fish out of water,” Austin said. “But as time went on, all the people of color kind of found each other, which was really beautiful.”
And Austin found Zabriskie.
“She served as a very stable pillar of blackness for me. Just having someone I could learn black feminism from as a black woman was super important,” Austin said. “Having her there showed me, ‘OK this is what being a black person in academia looks like. This is the future I could potentially have. And I could still be as vibrant and amazing as her.’”
Austin’s own vibrancy became evident in their on- and off-campus leadership. Austin was the New College Student Alliance (NCSA) vice president of diversity and inclusion from 2018 to 2019, and the executive co-chair of the West Florida Chapter for the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice. Austin was also a 2019 intern at Sarasota’s Multicultural Health Institute, where they worked with the Newtown Health Disparities and Environmental Collaborative and assisted with the local Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. week of service events.
During BHM, Austin was a panelist and moderator for New College’s New Schools of Black Thought Symposium: Systemic Injustice and the Meaning of Citizenship in America’s Democracy, an all-day event in Sudakoff Conference Center that highlighted problems with the American justice system and how it disproportionally affects black people.
Today, Austin has big hopes for the future—planning to work toward a Master of Public Health (MPH) degree at Columbia University and to ultimately become a physician assistant.
But right now, Austin is working on healing, taking a break from activism and academia to spend quality time at home with family.
“Just taking care of yourself in these moments of great trauma,” Austin said, “is the best that any of us can be doing.”
Abby Weingarten is the editor/writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing.