“It’s not easy being Black in America.”
If you grew up in a Black household, you’ve probably heard various forms of this statement from your parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, great-great grandparents, etc. However when we leave home for our university, our family is not there to support or reassure us every single day. This is where it gets tough.
Being Black at a Predominately White Institution (PWI) can be a culture shock and a challenge especially if you are a first-year or sophomore still trying to find your footing. I grew up in mostly white school settings from elementary till now and here’s a little secret… it never gets easier! While it may never get easier to be Black in these settings, you’ll eventually learn how to navigate within these spaces and soon master it for your own personal endeavors.
So in recognition of it being Black History Month, I decided to make a survival guide to being Black at a Predominately White Institution:
1. Connect with Black Alumni.
This is crucial in my opinion. I’ve met so many Black alumni from Denison that I am in contact with on a regular basis. These alumni have most likely experienced situations you are currently facing, so they are a very valuable source. In my experience, these alums have given me advice that has helped me persevere through some of my toughest times at Denison.
2. Don’t isolate yourself.
While it may be easier to communicate with people who look like you or grew up in the same community as you, it is necessary to step out of your comfort zone. Diversify your actions around campus. This will help you network and be able to get those jobs and experience you’ll need in the real world. Or simply make a friend that you never thought you would interact with. You can still lead a cultural organization and participate in other parts of campus. You don’t have to lose yourself when doing this, just don’t isolate yourself.
3. Reach out to identity organizations.
Take advantage of multicultural organizations that your campus offers. If they don’t have what you’re looking, then make your own. All it take is a trip to campus organizations You’d be surprised how many others will follow or support you. It’s always good to know you aren’t alone.
4. Never settle for less.
Never let someone make you believe that you should settle for less. I remember in high school I didn’t do too well on a math exam, innocently, I approached my teacher and asked her how could I improve my grade. She replies to me with a startled look on her face, “Oh I thought a C was good for you.” As if being the only Black person in the class didn’t already make me feel secluded, my teacher assumed I was happy with average work. This is one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned through all the white institutions I have attended whether it was applying to a highly competitive job or striving for the grade you deserve. It’s easy for us to feel less than or not as smart as other students. Always set your goals high.
5. Communicate with professors of color.
There are bound to be a handful of professors of color who can be a resource to you. While you may feel underrepresented on your campus, there’s definitely much less of them, than there are of you. So trust me, they will understand if you need to talk through frustrations or need a source of motivation. Professors of color do have an important role, in which they can help retain diversity on PWI’s. I recently read an article published by Vaughn Calhoun called, “I’m a Black professor at a PWI and that matters.” He talks about how he encountered a Black student who believed he wasn’t as smart as his white counterparts, after giving the student a long motivational speech, the professor realized it’s beneficial for students of color to interact with professors of color on their campuses.
While you don’t have to follow all of these suggestions, I truly believe abiding by a few of them will make your time at a PWI like Denison enjoyable but more importantly beneficial.
Happy Black History Month!