11 Ways to survive a PWI as a black student
August 04, 2016 at 7:01 am
They say college is the best four years of your life, but that token of wisdom doesn’t tell the whole story. Sure, college can be fun. I don’t deny that. College can also be lonely, scary and just plain hard. The bad parts can become exacerbated when you feel that few people share your experience. Going from Atlanta to a predominantly white institution (PWI) was a culture shock, to say the least.
Hopefully, with these 11 tips, you can avoid my experience.
1. Find a new support system
Almost every college in the U.S. has a black student solidarity group. If you can’t find one, make one. Really. Not only do most of these groups hold meetings where its members can discuss both issues on campus and in the world, but they also host cultural awareness and appreciation events. My campus has many of these groups but unfortunately, I didn’t take advantage of them as I should have. Learn from me and take part in the community they offer.
2. Don’t forget the support system back home
Don’t be afraid to look back home for help. During my first semester, I thought I had to be a self-sufficient, responsible adult, so I put off calling my parents even when I wanted to. My second semester, I got with the program. Often just hearing a voice from home helped me remember that a world existed outside of campus.
3. Find a mentor
My college has a formal mentoring program based on certain identities (black, Latinx, LGBTQ, etc.). But if your school doesn’t have a formal program, never fear. Just find an upperclassman who seems cool and ask if they’ll show you the ropes. Older students are usually eager to help younger students avoid the mistakes they once made. My mentor helped me realize that I wasn’t alone in my feelings and experiences. Yours will too.
4. Find the black alumni network
If you are unable to find the right student mentor, find a way to reach out to alumni. You can learn a lot from speaking to people who have been there and done that. Plus, they want to help out! They’ve been in your shoes and know what you’re going through. Alumni can also be an excellent resource for dipping your toes into the professional world.
5. Become a mentor
Maybe you haven’t quite figured college out, but chances are you have life experiences down pat. Mentoring a younger student shows them that with a little planning and hard work, their dreams can become reality. Of course, they’ll have to fight for their achievements, but seeing someone who’s already there can make the impossible a reality.
6. Don’t be afraid to call out injustices as they happen
As much as I hate to say it, sometimes you will be the token black voice. At my small liberal arts college, it’s easy to find myself the only black person in the classroom. When sensitive topics arise, don’t be afraid to speak up. You came to college to learn, but you also came to teach. It’s almost trite when people say they learned more outside of the classroom than inside, but they say it because it’s true. Because of your history, your upbringing, and your status in society, you offer a unique perspective on the world. Don’t be afraid to share it. You might encounter some pushback, but it’s all worth it if you open just one mind.
7. But be patient while people learn
It’s hard to be understanding when others think you’re a one-person petting zoo, but try to have patience. In my experience, most people really are trying to learn. That doesn’t mean you should be a doormat, however. If someone is unwilling to listen to your point of view, feel free to call them out on it.
8. Consider Greek life
There are nine historically black fraternities and sororities part of the National Pan-Hellenic Council. They’re known as the “Divine Nine.” Greek organizations can often be places of sisterhood or brotherhood, charity, and fun. The traditions and rituals of Greek life can foster bonds that last lifetimes. If there isn’t a chapter of your desired organization at your school, see if there’s a citywide chapter. There’s no need to stick just to campus when seeking out the support you need!
9. Volunteer with the local NAACP chapter
Sometimes it can be soothing and inspiring to work on causes you care about. Why not volunteer with the NAACP? You can find volunteer opportunities through your local chapter here.
10. Host forums on black issues
Sometimes in the wake of breaking news, schools hold forums so students can discuss their thoughts and opinions. Some schools don’t. If your school is one of the latter, why not host a forum yourself? It could be something as simple as finding an empty classroom and setting up a discussion or partnering with one or more of the groups on campus to hold a campus-wide forum. Silence never helps the matter, but opening up a dialogue might. College students have an illustrious history of social activism that has gotten results in the past.
11. Start your own black student network
Why stop at joining one organization? When you create a coalition, you increase the visibility and the power of all black students on campus. Also, a black student network has the potential to be more professionally minded than the black student organization, though that depends on the dynamics of the organizations at your school.
Whether you’re an undergrad or a grad student, as a minority attending a PWI, sometimes you feel as if you’re speaking a different language. There’s no need to submit to the whims of the systems already in place. Create the college experience that you want to have. If you forge a solid support system and remember to lift others up as you climb the ladder of success, your years on campus will be a blast.