Being Black at a PWI
Let’s preface this post by simply saying:
My experience is not the same as everyone else’s.
Not every PWI treats their black students the way I was treated.
Okay. Let’s talk about subtle racism that exists in predominantly white institutions.
From the moment I was accepted, I was almost fairly certain that my department had a quote of black students to meet and I helped them tick a box off. Maybe they need to meet a requirement to attain some extramural funding or somethin’…. I don’t know. But my department for sure was not for me. Not ever.
I had literally uprooted my life; I moved from the tippy top of the east coast to the belly of the beast: the South. I gave up an awesome job – with wonderful pay, amazing benefits, dental insurance, y’all. And for what? To be swept under the rug, working twice as much as I was supposed to but barely paying my bills on time. I had little savings, no official research advisor (aka no funding), and minimal knowledge about attending a graduate program.
Upon acceptance, I was awarded a “registration advisor” who was not actually in my program and suggested some courses for me to take – they were a waste of time, in case you’re wondering. Upon arrival, I learned that there was actually no funding in the department to take me on. So here I am, a young, misinformed-immigrant-first-generation grad student who stuck out on her own with no job, no money, just a crappy car and small chihuahua. What the sheol was I thinking??
I made my rounds contacting literally every professor in the college and finally found one who hadn’t gone on Christmas break just yet. He steered my in the right direction and advised me on courses that would actually benefit me. It took me an entire semester to get on track for graduation. He pointed me to my program officer who literally could not have been less helpful.
From the moment I met him, he let me know that I didn’t belong, and he would not help me, or more specifically: there was nothing he could (by the way, he was the dean of research, so... REALLY? Nothing?). When I asked if I could have the names of incoming professors, he told me he wasn’t allowed to disclose that information, privacy concerns he quoted. He suggested I come back a couple weeks later after they would have started, and he would inform me then. I reached out to him 4 times – via phone, email, and secretary – never heard back. Finally, I decided to walk into his office during regular business hours. I was asked to shoot him an email to schedule an appointment thought his door was obviously opened and he was in his office alone. Too busy, I was told. That was my final effort. I decided to find my advisor in other ways. (Later, I would find that several professors were hired at the same time and all were in search of students and even took on incoming students in my program.) I still see my program officer today. He smiles and says hello because he must be cordial; I do the same because so must I. I am the only black student in my program and I guess I have a reputation to upkeep, right? However, at the end of the day, I know he’s not for me. While he never came out and verbally insulted or offended me, his reluctance to help me advance in my graduate career, while helping other white students who came behind (with whom I was JUST as qualified, I might add), made it very apparent just who he was looking out for. Loud and clear.
After spending two semesters taking classes that had nothing to do with the work I’m doing today and anxiously searching for an advisor, I finally found a woman who was as eager to help me as she needed help. We happened upon each other by chance, and it has been an interesting journey since. With her help, I was finally able to get on the right track and to find a research topic that engages my interests in my community.
Here are some things I learned about being black at a PWI:
Find a good group and get to know them. Talk to them about your struggles and they’ll teach you how to handle yours. I met an awesome black grad student group, and though they are not in my department, they definitely fulfill my need for social support and mental health.
NOT. EVERYONE. IS. FOR. YOU.
Just as your advisor will test you, test them and examine if they are really for you. If you spend a semester with an advisor and you don’t think they are supporting you and pushing you to succeed, don’t stay. Find someone else.
Be cordial, but remain confident in your knowledge, your ability, your merit. IF you are accepted into an institution, you belong there. Don’t let anyone’s cold shoulder make you feel like you don’t.
Spend some time on yourself. If you don’t value YOU first, you may run the risk of losing your sanity. Self-care is IMPORTANT.
Be mindful of the fact that you WILL have to work twice as hard to prove that you belong there. While you want to be careful not to overdo it and burn yourself out, always, ALWAYS remember that long nights and working weekends are a requirement for you to appear successful to your white counterparts. However: see #6.
Work hard, play harder. Find a good group of friends you can unwind with. They will be your rock.
Pronouns: she, her