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.

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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.

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