“You should really consider other options; I just don’t think a place like that is the right fit for you.” Throughout my college search during my junior and senior years of high school, this sentiment was expressed to me repeatedly whenever I would tell people where I wanted to go to school.
I come from an African-American and Mexican-American mother and a white father. Growing up in such a diverse household with two older sisters with the same racial background as my mom, I never paid much attention to race. My mother would tell me to be careful when we would travel to certain towns for my pee-wee football games and that we should stay away from some brands because of things they had said about our people, but I never thought I was directly impacted by these seemingly abstract ideals. That was, until I was wrongfully accused of theft in a mall at age twelve because, according to the store owner, “Your people always commit the crimes.” Ever since that fateful day, my eyes have been opened to an entirely new world where race does play an unfortunately large part in some factors of society.
Fast forward to my junior year of high school, I had gone on college visits, looked at all the “helpful” websites there were and I knew where I wanted to go. The only problem was the minority population of this school was just above 17 percent. Upon reading this fact I instantly became dejected. How could I fit in at a place where less than one in every five students is a person of color? How could I possibly connect with people if most of the people there had no idea what it was like to be like me? It was at this time I decided to look into other options at a deeper level than I really wanted to.
Contrary to popular belief, college searching is not fun. The stress level I felt during this period of my life was about the same stress someone feels when they realize that their essay they thought was due in two weeks is actually due in ten minutes. I was running out of time and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t shake this terrible level of stress. Some schools offered me more money, some schools were actually more diverse, some schools had more prestige, but nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, felt close to the dream school I had written off. I knew I couldn’t fight it, so I had to find a way to embrace it.
It was now the start of the spring semester of my senior year and I knew where I was going to college - or at least that’s the persona I put on for everyone who knew me. Internally, I was scared out of my mind. I had joined a "Class of 2020" group message and everyone seemed nice enough, except for every now and then where there would be a joke that was just a little bit too racist or a conversation about the Black Lives Matter movement that was just a little bit too hate-filled behind the guise of friendly conversation. I thought there was no way I could survive four years at a place like that - a person like me didn’t belong and never would.
Despite feeling out of touch with the student body, something kept pulling me back to this school, so in the April of my senior year I made my enrollment deposit. There was no going back and I didn’t feel any of the relief I expected to come with the finality of my decision. Should I start dressing different to fit in? How can I make it look like my family is more well off than it actually is? How do I explain to people every single day that I am not a scholarship athlete and am actually there just for an education? And how will I safely express my views on controversial issues concerning POC? These are the types of questions I began to ask myself daily in preparation for the inevitable. I was going to the school of my dreams, whether I was ready to or not.
I decided to leave most of the large Class of 2020 group messages and just not worry about the social aspect. I was going there to get an education and if I didn’t make many friends, I would be okay with that. Life was going well and there was no need to stress about what I assumed I couldn’t fix - that was until the day my roommate added me to a group message he was already in. This was not like the other group messages I had been in: instead of two hundred people there were only twelve. In this group of twelve there were three POC including my roommate and me. Even though that might sound unbalanced, it was a much better ratio than the six I counted in a group message of two hundred. Each person in this small group had their own background and own story and they began to grow on me. The family feeling I experienced in that group message was the first time I can remember feeling even somewhat at home with my fellow students. Time passed and I became somewhat close with this group, but I was sure that this was an exception and that I wouldn’t fit in with anyone else.
It was now the day after graduation and I was on a bus going to a campsite in Central Texas with hundreds of other incoming freshmen for a three-day freshman experience. It wasn’t orientation, just a way to have fun and meet fellow students in hopes that you’ll meet some good friends. My normally outgoing personality flew completely out of the window from the second I walked into registration. This sea of white faces certainly would want nothing to do with me. However, over the next three days my views on the school and the students changed completely. The experience I had over those three days was nothing short of remarkable. We were sorted into small groups for the duration of the camp and by the third day, I was sharing feelings with them I had never shared before. I explained to them how scared I was to go to this school and how intimidated I was by them. I never once felt stereotyped or discriminated against - instead, I felt at home.
The only way that I was able to have such a wonderful experience was opening myself up to the experience. After the first night I made a conscious decision to no longer assume I was unwanted and unwelcome. I decided to make an effort at talking to everyone, whether I would’ve talked to them in high school or not. This mindset opened the door for bonding and friendships with people I thought I had nothing in common with. Everyone I met was completely friendly and the more I talked to people, the more I realized each person was going through some type of fear like I was. Maybe not because of race or economic status, but because of gender or looks or maybe just being shy - every person had something that they were worried about. I also realized that they weren’t afraid to listen to my fears and preconceptions of them in order to make me feel more comfortable. After that trip and orientation (where much of the same happened), I didn’t feel like I had found a family in a group message - I felt like I had found a family in a university. Although you can never completely escape the racism and ignorance that follow POC around, you can confront your own preconceptions head on and break down the barriers preventing you, and someone else who might be different, from becoming friends for a lifetime.
Lead Image Credit: Ryan McGuire