Being Black and Fitting in at College

On almost any campus where I have been I have had some student -- or many -- talk about how they did not feel they belonged where they had landed. Generally race or class or first generation status was at the core of their feelings of being fraudulent misfits or "admission mistakes." Actually nearly every freshman feels like an admissions mistake in the early days of college life. Having edited my high school yearbook among other activities I thought I was pretty cool until I got to college and found EVERYBODY in my class seemed to have been a yearbook editor. I thought it was maybe a requirement. I was also one of the very few Black students in my class even though it was the largest number of us ever admitted to our school in 1964. (Yes, I am that old....) On the other hand whereas my other Black sisters (it was a women's college) generally did not come from families with high levels of education my family was definitely upper-middle class and I was a third generation college student. So the issue of class was one less burden for me to deal with. I had taken AP classes at a rigorous high school. So I felt prepared for the most part. Having my roommate pat my hair was one burden I could not escape. But in general my fitting in given my background, education and upbringing was easier than it was and is for many students.

Today many, if not most, students entering college are first generation. There are far more students of color and low-income students enrolling today than in 1964. Some are international which brings additional cultural challenges. Yet colleges seem often to chug along as though nothing had changed. For decades it seemed that first generation, low-income and students of color were accepting the status quo on campuses and worse, engaging in the self-destructive behavior of the depressed, isolating from everyone and then dropping out. That seems to be shifting now. Students of color are claiming their voices much as we did in the 1960s and 70s when there were demands for more faculty of color and African American Studies Programs. Now the demands are again for more faculties of color and courses relevant to the Diaspora experience. But they are asking too for acknowledgement of slights past and present. They are also joined by the voices of first generation students. It is a fact of history that revolutions don't begin with the poor who feel they have no rights or power but among the disgruntled middle. So it is not a surprise that the First Generation movement began on Ivy campuses and held its first conference at Brown.

Some things seem they will never change. The micro assaults/insults like the patting of my hair still go on. I identify too with the complaint of being asked to represent the race as the sole person of color in my classes (or later in my corporate life...) when there was an opinion needed on what black folks thought. The assumption clearly being that we were all the same. The new book, Negroland by Pulitzer Prize winner Margo Jefferson describes well the lives she and I lived as upper middle class Blacks in the 50s and 60s. It would not have been, then or now, the same as the life lived by someone of lesser means. Even looking at my hodgepodge of a family where every skin color is represented, none of us can speak for the experiences of the others fully. My fair skinned niece is often assumed to be Hispanic. I am parent and grandparent to white children by marriage, but often assumed to be the nanny.

Like everyone else we want to be valued as individuals by the larger society. However we get to campuses (and firms) and are not allowed to be that. So what to do? Actually it is useful to find your own tribe. It might seem counterintuitive but a starting place is the organization or club or program on campus that is based on ethnicity. It may be a Black Male Initiative, the Haitian club, a Caribbean organization, an academic enrichment program for talented students of color with STEM interests. I had a Black student at Hunter College who really felt very adrift socially because he was a total geek. When we got him into a science program that targeted talented students of color like him he suddenly found his voice among students who not only looked like him but who also spoke chemistry.

There are many such federally funded programs for students classified as low income, first generation to attend college, and/or underrepresented in certain fields, and the students they typically seek also include, specifically, Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, disabled or in some cases women in general or veterans. One such is the McNair program, funded by the Department of Education designed to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds, named for Ronald McNair, a Black astronaut lost on the 1986 Challenger flight. The McNair and programs like it -- including NIMH/ COR (National Institute of Mental Health-Careers in Research Program), MARC (National Institute of Health's Minority Access to Research Careers Program), MBRS (National Institute of Health's Minority Biomedical Research Program), RISE (National Institute of Health's Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement Program), LSAMP (Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation Programs in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and many others -- hope to give students in the designated populations access to mentored research opportunities on their campuses, summer GRE prep, special courses or workshops and exposure to conferences and opportunities to give presentations, as well as general guidance to graduate programs. Even better, they usually offer stipends.

The Academic Achievement Program (AAP) at NYU, now 25 years old, is also a model which I had the privilege to help build. The program is open to any student at the College of Arts and Sciences but targets Black and Hispanic students. There is research indicating that these students, also often first generation, struggle at predominantly white institutions -- often for some of the same reasons students cite now for their discomfort -- and ultimately do not make it through college at the same rates as middle-class, second generation, white students. The issue is not aptitude but that "I don't fit here feeling." AAP became home base to the students and a place where achievement was encouraged, supported and valued, but the student's diverse cultures and experiences were also valued. The program grew from 54 to over 200 students annually and now has nearly 400. The average GPA has consistently equaled that of the college as a whole and retention rates are on a par with the college as a whole. But it is no longer unique. Other campuses have created variations on it independently driven by student voices and outcomes.

An asset of such programs is that they connect new students with those who are more seasoned and aware of the issues and challenges on campus ranging from the social climate, to which administrators or faculty are most understanding and welcoming. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her biography My Beloved World talks about how important it was for her to find her tribe among the students at Princeton where she felt very like a fish out of water. Upperclassmen, with backgrounds like her own, told her which classes to take and which to avoid, what the college would be like and where to shop or get her hair done.

These clubs and programs were once seen as self-segregating. But it has become clear that the institution unwittingly creates or at least silently sanctions the aspects of the campus climate that create a feeling of "outsiderness." When it creates these homes away from home it allows for safe space where a student can feel at home somewhere on campus. And it affirms the value of the student's history and culture. Finding one's footing in such a space a student can step out into the larger campus community feeling more empowered, maybe even emboldened to help participate in making crucial changes for the good of all. William Boyd II, a Black student at Williams College in the 1960s was invited to pledge a campus fraternity. When accepted the national organization of the fraternity said that they could not accept a Black student, the Williams chapter left the national organization. Boyd, however, ultimately became President of the student body and worked to end fraternity life altogether at Williams making it a healthier campus for all.

Ultimately, it is important to move out of the comfort zone of whatever group becomes your safe space so that you can affect the larger culture and perceptions of those who are also in need of education about who you are and the diverse array of experiences and wealth of knowledge you can bring to the campus and society as a whole. The evidence is in that organizations, including colleges, are healthier and more robust when they fully embrace a culture of diversity with insight and intentionality. Our world must have no less if we are to survive in a global society.

Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD. is a consultant and former college dean and the author of I CAN Finish College: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide. You can find more blogs and other resources at www.icanfinishcollege.com