A Black Girl’s Guide To Surviving And Thriving At A Primarily White University

When I left home for college, I was incredibly naïve as I prepared to attend a PWI (predominantly white institution). As excited as I was to work hard towards completing my bachelor’s degree, getting an education, and having the opportunity to live on a college campus, I was very unaware of the racism, microaggressions, and trauma that I’d be exposed to and experience as a Black student. I started college right around the time Barack Obama was elected to office, which was an exciting and seemingly short-lived progressive time on campus (and in the world) for some students, but a source of bitterness and controversy for others who weren’t happy about the election. By the time my senior year arrived, I wrestled with a lingering discontent and regret about not attending an HBCU (historically black college or university). To this day, I believe my college experience would have been better and perhaps richer, had I chosen a learning environment that was more welcoming and genuinely caring of its diverse student body.

Being able to adjust and adapt academically as well as socially are both important parts of the college experience. And if you’re a Black girl attending a PWI, it’s important to be as well-informed as you can about some of the things that lie ahead before you step foot on campus. Though there may be things that happen you won’t always be prepared for, it’s good to have some helpful insights as you embark on your journey and aim to survive and thrive as a Black student.

Find Community.

This might be hard to do at first, but it’s not impossible. As a Black student, it will be critical for you to find a community with like-minded individuals on campus you can trust, confide in, and relate to. Though there may be a small percentage of students on campus who look like you, you may be surprised about who you’ll connect with and who’ll be happy to partner alongside you as you learn about the world together in the classroom and outside of it. Having a solid support system is massively beneficial.

Beware Of The Campus Karens.

If you’re not entirely sure what a Karen is, look it up. Just know that the likelihood of encountering one at a PWI is strong. That said, if you’re going to make it through all four years of being on campus, you’ll need to have a level of patience, thick skin, and perseverance when it comes to communicating, rooming, or working with a peer who’s a Karen. You may have some professors who fall under this category too. Karens are the type who may find your presence on campus alarming, and in some cases, threatening. They’ll act entitled, seemingly get away with a lot of things that other students would typically get in trouble for, be oblivious when it comes to race and interacting with minorities, and will insist they’re not actually racist because they’ve interacted with Black people before or have at least one Black friend. And before you react or respond to any offense that comes your way from one of them, just try your best to breathe. I know it’ll be hard at first, but you’ll get through it.

Professors Can Be Messy Too.

I can recall having some unpleasant encounters with different professors who would often use their positions to try to flex and intimidate different students because they had the power to determine our final grades, make decisions about letters of recommendation, and in some cases, have an impact on whether we graduated or not. I also remember different professors who made thoughtless comments about how my writing would be best suited for an “urban market,” that my stories about race were “exaggerated,” and that the experiences different Black characters I wrote about weren’t “realistic.” There was also another professor I had who made some unnecessary and offensive remarks about Black people and fried chicken during a class lecture one day. And many of my peers didn’t help when it came to class discussions about slavery, the use of the n-word in literature, and more. So, you may find that you’ll have professors (and peers) who are messy when it comes to commentary on Black history and current issues pertaining to the Black community. This is another thing that will be hard to move through, but if you know this going in, you’ll have some time to figure out how to process and cope should you have a similar experience.

Don’t Censor Yourself To Make Other People Comfortable.

During undergrad, I had exactly one professor who noticed how quiet I’d get when it came to discussing race and challenges happening in the Black community. She reached out to me, asked me if I was okay, and encouraged me to speak up more during class discussions. Sometimes I was quiet because I was offended, scared, and didn’t know what to say. When I did start speaking up, I’d censor myself, and I often did the same in my writing. Even though I was uncomfortable, I didn’t want others to be uncomfortable. And looking back, I now see how I missed opportunities to be authentic and share my thoughts and opinions freely without fear of what my peers or professors thought. As a Black student on campus, you will have many opportunities to culturally enlighten and inform your peers who may rarely encounter someone who looks like you. Don’t be afraid to use your voice, don’t be scared to challenge practices that are not okay, and don’t be afraid to be a disruptor who shifts your school’s culture. I believe in being respectful, but that doesn’t mean that you have to remain silent or censored when you have something important and beneficial to share.

Watch Higher Learning.

In 1995, the late and great director John Singleton dropped a film called Higher Learning. It was a powerful and iconic film that highlighted the lives of different college students in the ‘90s. And it touched on subjects that are still relevant to this day: racism, white supremacy, sexual assault, gun violence, and more. I’ll never forget how I felt the first time I watched it, and after attending a PWI, some of the things that happened in the movie weren’t too far off from some of my own experiences as a Black student. Higher Learning is a film that will speak to you in some important ways and could even give you a glimpse of how others who came before you coped with life on campus. It’s definitely worth watching.