Thriving as a Student of Color on Campus

A student of color thriving in any homogenous community will be difficult. Especially when being a student of color can mean so many different things. Many universities have retention rates as low as 40 percent for black and brown and indigenous students.  POC are just not finishing school like the dominant culture is.

The disadvantage starts with the assumption that all SOC’s experiences are the same. This could not be farther from the truth. Being a SOC means that you come from a very unique background that is very different from the homogenous social norm. The inability to recognize this creates a lot of the problems SOC face on their campuses.  

I spent some time working as an advisor for SOC at a 4-year University. Some of the students I advised were first year students of color. Walking onto a new campus as a first year student creates a feeling like no other. College is a time where you are supposed to find your way, make lots of friends, fall in love, and set yourself up for success. For most SOC, this meant the desire to assimilate to the dominant culture. They may not use the word assimilate, or even realize what they are doing, but assimilation happens often for first year students wanting to fit in. Whatever the dominant culture, most SOC will try everything they can to be a part of the community as a whole.  

I also advised older college students and I noticed a pattern. After the typical SOC’s attempt to assimilate their first year, SOC tended to end up of three different categories.

  1. They successfully assimilated (enough) and are now part of the dominant culture (this path usually did not happen often).
  2. They failed to assimilate to the dominant culture and found their niche/community with other SOC.  We see examples of this in a lot of Multi-Ethnic Clubs (e.g. Black Student Union, Korean club, etc.)
  3. They failed at assimilating to the dominant culture and they don’t find a community of color. These students usually start to isolate themselves. They are probably the “go straight to school and go back home” type of students. Isolation happens a lot for students of color.

Tips for Thriving

Assimilating into the dominant culture or finding your own community are both options that can work for an individual. However, since the first option does not happen often and the second option usually happens after the first one fails, I have some tips to creating a healthier space for SOC right away (during their first year) rather than waiting until their 2nd or 3rd.  

  1. Do not be afraid to join clubs and and groups right away. Most students hesitate in joining during their first year because they feel like it will isolate them from the larger community. I would argue that joining these clubs can help you connect with your University as a whole. These clubs and groups aren’t just built for one type of person. Encourage your white friend to come with you to the Japanese club or your Latino friend to check out the BSU.  The more integrated these clubs and groups get, the more diverse the student experience will be at your University.  
  2. Push your university to make changes that will affect the dominant culture.  This means asking your professors to update their reading lists to add more People of Color. Or to change the themes of your dorm floors. The slow changing of the dominant culture and redefining the culture into a more diverse experience will help the SOC at your University.  Unlearn and Relearn.  
  3. Never isolate yourself. The common misconception that SOC believe is that no one else is like them. Or that no one will ever be able to understand them. Yes, every person and story is unique.  However, every individual will be able to find “their people” eventually. A big part of understanding someone is creating the space to listen to them. There are people that will accept you as who you are and will listen to the whole of your story. Never isolate.  

Addressing the SOC experience at college is not only to make sure they have a better time in school, but to actually keep them in school.