This post is part of a series of college students who identify as a person of color and/or with the LGBTQIA+ community, sharing their experience attending a predominantly white institution (PWI).
Deonte is an African-American graduate student in southeast Nebraska. Jason is an African-American undergraduate student at a university in Lincoln.
As an African-American, what has been great about your college experience?
Deonte: I have built lifelong relationships as a result of being a student athlete on campus. I got the chance to meet people from many different countries and states; college is about making connections with people outside of your comfort zone.
Jason: College opened my eyes to many different possibilities. As a person coming from a poverty background, I was paying for my own tuition freshman year. But eventually I got more scholarships and college became more affordable!
Describe the support or challenges you’ve faced from your family as a college student.
Deonte: I’m only able to make it home for the holidays during the school year. I have missed birthday parties, graduations, and even some funerals while being a dedicated college student. But my family knows that this is my life, and I must make sacrifices to get where I want to go. I’m glad they understand it from that perspective.
Jason: Well, if you happen to be from a poor background, your family will be of very little financial support, but that’s okay. They can provide other forms of support. My family pushes me to succeed and work hard. They’re counting on me, so they keep me going.
Tell us about a challenge that you have encountered as a college student.
Deonte: I felt high expectations from my family. I’m the first one in my immediate family to graduate with a four-year degree, and having all that weight on me pushed me the point where I couldn’t fail, or they would be disappointed in me. That added a lot of stress on top of being a student athlete, so it made it ten times harder. One day I was talking to an old coach and mentor, and he told me that it is okay to fail in life, as long as you don’t give up. No one has the same path, and not everyone will complete college in four years, but don’t let that discourage you. You just have to keep pushing and you will get there when it is your time. Having that conversation with him led me to think that no matter how long it took, my family would be proud of me regardless of when I actually received the degree.
Jason: In one of my classes (full of white people), we were reading a textbook about cultural practices. This book was trying to explain the harmful effects of racial stereotyping. It started, “Suppose you were an African American…”. I thought to myself, “Well that’s pretty easy considering I am one.” More importantly, I thought about how that hypothetical scenario was meant for a white person. It was a book written for white people, and I’m in a school that was originally MADE for white people and caters more to them than to Black people.
I took this serious issue to the department chair, and when I explained this, all she said was, “I’m sorry.” No promise to do better, no promise to remove the curriculum, no promise to make the environment more inclusive. White people are full of good intentions, and usually they are willing to try to make your experience at a PWI less uncomfortable. But this story isn’t all bad. I talked with another professor who was much better at consoling my issue. Some people will understand, some won’t, and that’s just how it is! It’s not a good system, and it needs to change, but that’s just where we currently are in society.
Have you recognized any differences between your high school and college experience as it relates to diversity?
Deonte: I went to a predominantly Hispanic high school. This gave me the knowledge at an early age to see that not everyone is the same or comes from the same place. That early experience in high school gave me the courage to go away to any school I wanted, and I happened to choose a predominantly white institution.
Jason: You go to college to receive an education – on everything. So, you become more aware of diversity. In high school, you might not question diversity or even acknowledge it. As we get older, the differences between racialized experiences actually becomes vaster. It’s important to understand that our differences must be acknowledged. I believe there’s probably the same amount of diversity as my small-town high school; I am just more aware of it now. I am more aware of micro aggressions, good intentions, lack of diversity, and the nuances of the struggles faced by people of color.
What on-campus support systems exist for underrepresented students or students that have diverse backgrounds? What has been helpful to you personally?
Deonte: I attended a “Black Student Union” group on campus. This was for African American students on campus who needed help or felt that they did not fit in. This group was formed to openly talk about the problems that African Americans encounter, and ways to make changes on campus. I also received support from my teammates who were upperclassmen, or had lived in the area, so that helped a lot.
Jason: As for challenges, if you are an African American who really values the importance of diversity (which I am), you will not have as much support or community around campus. You will confront a lot of issues that no one will be able to help you with. If you are in need of resources and are afforded some support, you will notice that the resources are often underfunded and departments for diversity are underfunded. My college has shown me several times that they aren’t willing to accommodate for a lot of differences that students might have. So, if you need special attention, PWI’s are not the best at creating equitable classrooms for students. Very little has been helpful in regards to my race, but that’s just the truth of it. A majority of white people might not completely understand what people from diverse backgrounds need in order to feel welcomed. This is just a flaw that my PWI has and might not be reflective of all PWIs.
What advice do you have for younger students who do not identify with the majority population as they prepare to go to college?
Deonte: For younger students who do not identify with the majority of the population: be 100% true to yourself and the person you are. If you do that, then the people who are supposed to be in your life will come in due time.
Jason: PWIs are not meant for people with diverse intersecting identities who rely heavily on community. This is the case for every group of people who face oppression, like people of color, immigrants, or otherly-abled people. Even people who struggle with mental illnesses will struggle in a space where they refuse (or are unable to) accommodate your differences. I would advise incoming students to not exert your energy into educating oppressors; that will drain your energy. If you attend a PWI, focus on you and your success.