Lifting as I Climb: Supporting Students of Color at a Predominately White Institution

we rise



At the end of every academic year, I like to sit down with 2-3 students of color with whom I’ve established a relationship during the course of the year. Most often, these are students who have not been in my classes but whom I know through other mediums. I have lunch with each of them to hear about their year and their summer plans. I do this for multiple reasons. First, I want the students to know that I truly do care about their experiences and am a source of support/guidance if they ever need me. Next, I do this because I am truly curious about what exactly students of color do on a campus where they are outnumbered 9:1 by their white classmates. What organizations and clubs are they a part of? How does it feel to be in classes where your voice represents an entire demographic? (though I can speak to that myself) How does it feel not being included on skiing, hiking, and camping trips, not because you are not invited, but because you do not share the interests of your classmates? Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I want to know what is [not] working for them. How can they be better supported socially, emotionally, and academically? How can I, as a junior faculty member, helps students of color succeed at our predominately white institution (PWI)?

Good news first: the wonderful upperclass students of color took it upon themselves to mentor freshmen students of color. This year, my institution had a record number of self-identified ethnic minorities, and in response, the upperclassmen mobilized to ensure these students did not feel the sense of abandonment and isolation they experienced in their freshmen year. Their attempts yielded mixed outcomes. Some freshmen responded very well to the concept of having a mentor. In fact, I know of one duo who were nearly inseparable all year despite the fact that one was a black senior from outside of Chicago and the other a freshman from Zambia by way of Houston. But I also know of another duo who did not click despite the multiple efforts of a black female upperclassmen from Chicago to engage a black female freshman from Louisiana.

In a way I was relieved to hear of the pushback some upperclassmen experienced from freshmen of color. I was relieved because I too experienced similar resistance and was baffled as to why some students, particularly women of color, were so reticent to accept my help. In an effort to understand the mind of an 18-year-old, I asked one of my mentees from last year why a particular student was so hostile to me. She looked at me and laughed and said “Do you really not know?”  I responded “No, I really don’t. She is so rude to me and I can’t figure out why.”  Pulling herself together, my mentee said “Because she’s threatened”.

I was stunned. It never occurred to me that at 27 years old, with skin the same color as hers, hair the same texture and style as hers, and family living in the same region as hers, that my student would be threatened by me. I pushed my mentee to expound and in the end, what she said makes perfect sense. Students of color do not want to underperform in front of those whom occupy similar social spaces.

Let me elaborate. Social Learning and Self-efficacy theories explain this best. We are most influenced–and motivated–by those whom we deem similar to ourselves. It follows then that we are also most threatened by those same people, who because of their physical appearance and family history, might have particular insight into our experience. In short, the opinions of in-group members matter much  more than the opinions of out-group members.

Yes, this could indeed be the case. I think group membership is especially salient in contexts when induction into a group seems unlikely. For example, when you are living in a state 1000 miles from home whose primary selling point is the great outdoors, and you’ve never left your home state or been outside after the street lights came on, finding like-minded people is a daunting task. So when you do, their acceptance of you is that much more important. There are no safety friends (or faculty) on whom to rely in case you are not chosen. There is no secondary (or primary in this case) historically black Greek fraternity or sorority in whose process you could participate. There are no sports teams whose rules are even remotely familiar to you (I am reminded of my first experiences learning about Crew upon matriculation at Dartmouth). There are no student organizations whose sociopolitical agenda is akin to your own. If you are not one of the dynamic people who can carve a space for themselves in any social group, it is all or nothing. So you [re]act out of fear. You aggressively assert yourself  in the hopes that this strategy will earn respect: the scholarly version of street credibility.

But street cred matters little in the halls of Academe. It does not earn you As, write you letters of recommendation, or even ensure friendships. What it does is make certain you don’t ask for help when needed. Or be open to advice from more knowledgeable others. Or be given the same opportunities to learn less defensive students obtain.

I wonder from whence this defensiveness originates. I know in the African-American community, pride is very much alive and well. It has been both a catalyst for political change and a barrier to educational advancement. It is one of the many things I admire about my community, but also one of the things that terrifies me about our future.

I am similarly scared for my students who wear their pride like a cloak of invisibility. They throw it on hoping that its presence will hide them from nosy faculty members known to ask too many questions. They huddle beneath it thinking themselves impervious to external threats of academic failure and social ostracism.

But this is not a fictional story and no one else’s sacrifice can save you.


I met with the Faculty of Color Caucus today and expressed my concern that our students of color were not receiving the support they needed to be successful. And with 40 more students of color in the incoming freshmen class, this problem is sure to deepen as well as widen. A senior (faculty) woman of color stated her befuddlement that in all her years at the college, rarely have students of color even taken her classes, nonetheless come to her for guidance. I responded: so we go to them.

And we will. We have a plan. We are committed to their success. I just hope they are as well.


Education is the New Black!

new blackEducation is indeed the new black. It’s the thing to talk about (except if you’re running for President. Then, you NEVER bring it up). All the cool kids are doing it. Why aren’t you? You can throw around phrases like educational disparities, unequal funding, right to learn, and teacher quality. It’s really fun. I promise you. I get to do it all day.

Because of the close knit relationship between education and politics, educational discourse has becoming increasingly dramatic. We used to research intellectual development and gender identity. Now, we research the achievement gap and the war on boys. Everything in education is ‘the most pressing concern’, yielding a narrative entitled: Education is the Civil Rights Issue of the 21st Century.

*rolls eyes*

Education is indeed a civil right but is not an issue in and of itself. The absence of this right is the issue.  And it is not a new issue in the 21st century. It was not new in the 20th century. Or the 19th century. Historically, education has been THE civil right denied to a marginalized, oppressed, ignored, blamed group. No, it is not the issue that is new; it is only the ostracized party that changes.

Any 5th grader can identify at least two groups historically denied the right to education: women and slaves. An 8th grader would likely add immigrants to that list. In 1896, we decided separate but equal was a good way to ensure inequality in opportunities to learn between races. In 1954 we changed our minds. In 1965, the federal government added poor families to the list of educationally underserved groups. In 2004, they added students with disabilities. In 2008, President Obama added not-native English speakers to the list. In 2012, President Obama was more specific in his language, adding children of immigrants to the list.

Yes, education as a problem to be solved is socially, politically, and economically evident throughout our history. Its emergence on the scene as a 21st century concern is frustrating and laughable to those of us entrenched in the ‘issue’ on a daily basis, be it as parents of school-aged children, teachers or administrators in almost any public school, or as an academic designing, implementing, and evaluating theoretically-based interventions to bandage this multi-systemic problem.

In fact, such histrionics in education are political propaganda to mask the reality of the problems that support and sustain unequal and inequitable learning opportunities. If you really want to have a discussion about education as a civil right, let’s talk about how low-income, ethnic minority, non-native English speaking, gifted and talented, physically disabled, learning disabled, developmentally delayed, rural, urban, and students from non-traditional families do not even have access to safe school buildings, competent and qualified teachers, textbooks,  advanced courses, extracurricular activities, or even healthy school lunches. If they don’t have access to these things, they certainly don’t have the opportunity to take advantage of them. If we want to talk about rights, where is the war on discriminatory, biased, and privileged social systems whose mere presence undermines our children’s right to learn? Where is the analysis of educational policies whose esoteric verbiage masks the fact that this policy is designed to maintain segregated schools? Where is our outrage at the causes of income, race, and gender-based achievement gaps? There is none. We are too focused on problematizing education and the people working to make it better.

Labeling education a new civil right issue is an attempt to juxtapose the fight for ‘equal education’ with the battles fought by women, people of color, immigrants, and the LGBTQ communities for the right to vote; the right to send their children to safe schools; the right to fair wages and safe housing; the right to love and family; the right to be granted access to the privileges inherent to those with fair skin, family money, Christian values, heterosexual behaviors, and full use of their body.

This is an unfair comparison. Sectors of our society have made public the problems they have with not being able to vote without proper identification; with school gun violence and bullying; with unequal pay for women, with the banning of gay marriage. But we have not voiced our opposition to the largest civic system in our society. We have not become advocates for our children. We have not campaigned our politicians or conducted a march on Washington or enacted our hard-earned right to vote in local school board elections. We’ve not enlisted churches, community organizations, or even educational institutions to help us fight against educational injustices. No, we’ve done nothing but assign labels. We’ve labeled students at-risk, underprivileged, hard-to-reach. We’ve labeled teachers not qualified, incompetent. We’ve labeled schools failing and underperforming. We’ve framed education through a deficit lens as a problem to be solved, not an opportunity to be provided.

Until we move from problem-posing toward skepticism, perspective taking, and systemic thinking, our education system will indeed remain an issue, and never a civil right.