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Six Students on How to Get Through College as a PoC

"My advice: Think about the end game and how good it’ll feel once you graduate and get a good degree. Either way, shit on ‘em, sis."

by Salma Haidrani
Sep 26 2018, 5:00pm

Photo by Yasmine Akim

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Being a freshman comes with some unique pitfalls, from the struggles of changing your major to toying with blowing your entire loan on Domino's pizza or expanding your Secret Life of Pets toy collection. For people of color, it can also often mark the first time navigating almost exclusively "white" spaces, and subsequently being exposed to more micro-aggressions than usual.

Recent research found that more than half of UK students have witnessed racism in college. Meanwhile, racist incidents at British universities have risen by more than 60 percent. In one particularly vile incident, a group of male students were filmed chanting "we hate the blacks" and "sign the Brexit papers" at Nottingham Trent University back in March.

As universities have historically handled racist incidents fairly poorly—unless their reputations are at risk—it's no wonder that surviving (and thriving) on campus can be a minefield for PoC students. Consider the prospective students who took matters into their own hands and withdrew their applications in droves following the racism row at Exeter University earlier this year. Or the fact that black students are significantly more likely to quit than their white peers.

With the first few weeks of classes now firmly underway, I spoke to six current and former PoC students about how their time in college has affected their personal identities; how they navigated "othering"; and asked for the advice they would give themselves if they could do it all again.

Alex, 21

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Photo courtesy of Alex.

College is sold as this magical time in our lives, and I know there are certain things I wish were different. On my first day—I think even before meeting each other—we attended a safety briefing. Halfway through, we were shown a clip of a young black man, who looked not unlike myself, trespassing on college grounds and stealing two laptops. I’m sure this was a well-meaning attempt to encourage us to take responsibility for our belongings, but as the only black man in my year alarm bells started to ring about how I might be initially perceived. In hindsight, I think the clip was particularly problematic since you don’t see many black faces around Cambridge at all. His race, like his hoodie and his demeanor, marked him out as being an intruder in the college.

My advice for PoCs who've just started Cambridge? Get stuck in. Very few get here without a strong support network behind them. While independence is important, be wary of turning your back on the family, friends, and even teachers who only want you to succeed in this new challenge. Also, that no one should go away for college before they’re ready, and that’s particularly true for PoCs.

Ultimately, for us to feel more comfortable and supported, there needs to be more PoCs as counselors, tutors, and career advisors available.

Alex studied Human, Social, and Political Sciences (HSPS) at the University of Cambridge. He graduated in 2018 and is of mixed race heritage

Kene’h, 20

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Photo courtesy of Kene'h.

I'd say I was unprepared about being a minority before arriving, as I was the majority, race-wise, during my 14 years of education.

One particular incident that makes me feel uncomfortable, looking back, was when I attended a party in my first year organized by fellow black students. It was attended by around 100 mainly black students and was interrupted by the police arriving due to a noise complaint. The number of vehicles [two vans and about three police cars] that was required to end a student birthday party was ridiculous.

I’d tell my younger self before coming to college not to be wary of joining societies because of your race. You’re likely to be a minority once or many times during your college experience, but that shouldn’t ever stop you.

Do I find the recent stats that found black students dropout of college more often than their white peers surprising? Not at all. Attending a college where you're the minority [can have] a harmful impact on mental health. For a PoC who might be struggling or considering quitting, utilize the (usually free) therapy available. There’s a growing pressure in PoC cultures to succeed and take the college route as our parents or grandparents were immigrants who left their homes seeking a better life, and particularly better career opportunities, for their kids. But college isn’t for everyone and I’d recommend prioritizing your mental health over education

Kene’h is Black British Nigerian and is from Greenwich. She’s an MPharm student at the University of Nottingham and will graduate in 2021.

Malak, 23

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Photo courtesy of Malak.

In the beginning, I really struggled with my school’s political societies and campaigning groups. Despite these spaces branding themselves as progressive, I still experienced gendered Islamophobia. I’ve also had to confront orientalist tropes about Muslim women from peers in my classes when we’ve done group work focusing on health in the Middle East.

I’m very lucky that even though most of my friends aren’t Muslim, they’ve never pressured me into drinking, and are happy to socialize without alcohol. I do miss out on a lot of socials because they often revolve around clubbing and heavy drinking.

To any incoming Muslim women, WoC, or people of color who identify as non-binary, find your LGBTQ/ BME societies and networks and make friends with the activists who run those networks. The people who run them will either share your experiences or be an active ally, and you’ll be able to make friends in a safe space with people you don’t have to explain your existence to.

To any Muslim or WoC struggling or considering quitting, know that your voice and presence is important and there are resources and people who can provide you with support.

People will despise you if you’re a non-binary Muslim PoC who doesn’t conform to stereotypes [like me]. You will excel anyway.

Malak is from London and studies Nutrition at the University of Nottingham. They are Muslim, of South Asian heritage and identify as a non-binary PoC.

Gabriela, 25

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Photo by Yasmine Akim.

Upon entering college, you will become someone’s first foray into blackness. Blackness that shares the same social space as them, in the same privileged spaces as them, and not the media’s casting of PoCs. Most teachers will look at you with hope because they’ll think you’ve pulled yourself out of the trenches of poverty to go to college. At 18, I had a blonde mohawk. I suspect that I was typecast as the "beacon of access" to white students too scared to socialize with black people as I was seemingly more "approachable."

The spike in race-related incidents on campuses doesn’t surprise me—I specifically stayed in London for that reason. Colleges have never been a peaceful ground for black people, even when you graduate with the highest grades. I haven’t met anyone yet who hasn’t come out with some sort of trauma.

PoC freshman: be prepared to be your one white friend’s [fallback] when they’re called out for their racism. Have fun spending that government money. Read outside of your syllabus. Never buy your own drugs when there are rich kids trying to make new friends. Lastly, find the ethnic corner of the library, the only safe space there is. Even your lone brown or black teacher will find solace there, too. Existing in academia is the biggest act of protest.

You’ve got this far.

Gabriela is a BA International Studies graduate from Goldsmiths. She’s from London, is of mixed race heritage and currently works in publishing.

Ashley, 20

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Photo courtesy of Ashley.

I’ve been lucky, as the majority of people at my school are PoC so I blend in a lot more than I ever did in my hometown [in Wales]. Naturally, I was terrified before going away to college, but I’d assumed that as I was going to be far away from my hometown, everything was going to be better. Instead, I’ve just encountered a different type of racism. Back home, there is a lot more ignorant racism, whereas coming to college it’s been more malicious.

When I worked at a club for about six months during my first year, I had two or three white boys make unwarranted comments about my hair. My manager ended up kicking them out. When I explained it to other adults, though, most told me to "toughen up," which is kind of a fucked up thing to have to tell WoC throughout their lives: [essentially] just take the bullet? Fuck that.

That infamous video of a law student who made those "we hate the blacks" chants happened here on my campus. The whole incident made me feel incredibly sad and angry. I’d assumed that racism wasn’t as frequent here because it was so diverse, but I was proved to be beyond wrong.

My advice for WoC? Think about the end game and how good it’ll feel once you graduate and get a good degree. Either way, shit on ‘em, sis.

Ashley is of mixed heritage [Kenyan, Tanzanian, and Welsh]. She’s currently studying English, Television and Film at Nottingham Trent University.

Timi, 20

I didn't feel entirely unprepared before coming to college about the challenges ahead, [mostly] because my school teachers convinced me not to apply to Cambridge because "they weren’t looking for students who were like me." I remember going home to my parents, relaying this back to them, and saying that I wasn’t going to apply as a result. They told me that my teachers were suggesting that, as a black woman, there wasn’t a place for me in Cambridge. Despite getting in, this feeling that I would be out of place is something I internalized, and it weighed on my shoulders in my first year.

[There were times] when I thought I was inferior to my white counterparts, or less deserving of my place. I subconsciously diluted my background as I didn’t want to be different from my friends. I’d pretend to know songs that everyone else knew, or ate food in the dining hall that I’d never heard of before. But I realized I wasn’t being myself because of this and started being more open about my culture. It wasn’t easy, disagreements arose and I lost friends as a result of being more "me." Even so, I have no regrets.

It was definitely hard starting out, but now I feel a lot more confident and sure of myself. The WoC community here is also amazing. After discovering that there were safe spaces for people like me, it made my time easier.

What would I tell my younger self? Don’t think there’s one way to do college and put yourself into situations that make you uncomfortable. Do whatever makes you happy. It doesn’t matter if there are people who are having the time of their life. If it isn’t for you, then don’t do it! It might be hard going against the grain at first, but you’ll always find people who are like you eventually.

Colleges and universities need to make sure that their mental health services are more inclusive. There’s a lack of diversity when it comes to counselors, and this really does affect how successful they are to students of color who reach out to them. From my experience, speaking about my culture did not go down well with my white counselor, so I just avoided speaking on those issues altogether, which, in hindsight, impeded my recovery.

Timi is of black African heritage and studies Human, Social, and Political Sciences at the University of Cambridge. She will graduate in 2019.

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Interviews have been edited for length and clarity