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Monday, September 28, 2009

Being black on campus can be lonely

Sometimes I’m the only woman in the room. Sometimes I’m the only one in a group who doesn’t speak French or Hindi or even “techie.” Do I feel uncomfortable? Yes, sometimes.

If I don’t know anyone at a party I pretty reliably gravitate towards people who look like me or speak my language. I prefer to be in my comfort zone.

With just these pretty limited experiences, I can’t imagine how frustrating it would be to be one of only 131 black freshmen out of a class of over 5,000 starting at the University of Washington this week. Will these kids feel lonely? Misunderstood? They'll probably feel pretty uncomfortable sometimes.

Former UW student and African-American, Lull Mengesha, recently wrote The Only Black Student to help African-American college students adapt to life at a PWI, that is, a predominately white institution, but white readers can also learn a lot from the book, like how stereotypes and a lack of courtesy can make black students “feel like [they] were a million miles from home.”

The kids at UW were fascinated with Mengesha’s hair.
Around the sixth time someone asked to touch his hair, though, or maybe it was the tenth or fifteenth, Mengesha started to wonder if everyone at the UW viewed him as some sort of exotic pet.
While he was a UW student, Mengesha was repeatedly stopped by campus cops for no reason, and was way too frequently mistaken by other students for a basketball player or, much less cool, a drug dealer.

Stories like these help to explain why thirty percent of African-American college students drop out in their first year, much more frequently than whites do. Many factors contribute to these drop outs, like students' financial difficulties or poor academic preparation in high school, but social differences also play a significant role.

If you are a student coming from a primarily black high school, meeting white America for the first time in college is a big adjustment.

African-American educator and activist Geoffrey Canada was in Seattle recently, speaking about his ambitious project to educate Harlem’s poor black children, the Harlem’s Children Zone. Canada’s goal and the promise he makes to his students’ parents, is that every last one of the children in his care will attend college. Yet, even Canada knows that just getting into college, hard as it is for inner-city kids, isn’t enough. These kids have to overcome many challenges in order to stay there.

Students work incredibly hard to get into college and it’s in society’s best interest to keep them there, for four years at least. Tutoring and academic support for those kids not prepared for the rigor of college is hugely important, but making all students feel welcome is crucial too. Schools where blacks feel valued will attract more black students, which could eventually lead to African-Americans feeling like less of a minority at those colleges and universities and more like a substantial and important part of the student population.

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