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Common Experiences of Students of Color at Predominantly White Universities

For many students of color, being in an environment in which most of the people are different from themselves is a new and challenging experience. The challenges result from having to develop relationships with persons with whom they may have had limited or no contact, learning new values and mores that govern social interactions and the exchange of information, learning different ways of communicating with others, and finding resources that allow them to meet personal needs (i.e., hair care products, cultural foods, places of worship) among others. The unfamiliarity of such an experience can be a stressful event - leaving a person feeling a variety of emotions such as excited, fascinated, enthusiastic, insecure, discouraged, afraid, and alienated. As a result, students of color may seek out familiar "faces" (i.e., persons of the same race/ ethnicity/gender, churches with similar religious beliefs) in order to bring some stability back into their life. Those students of color who are not able to feel connected to and a part of the university may feel alienated, inadequate, and depressed, see a dramatic drop in their academic performance, and may eventually leave the university.

In order to give a more definitive picture of the college experience of many U.S. students of color, we have provided a more in-depth description below. Donna Bourassa (1991) identified some of the social pressures that many students of color experience while attending a predominantly white university. The following experiences and their accompanying descriptions were taken from her article.

Alienation
Many U.S. students of color comprise a small percentage of the total college population. As a result, it is difficult for them to find and interact with persons similar to themselves. Many U.S. students of color also experience the various college policies and activities as designed for white students. These factors contribute to a sense of social alienation and "ethnic isolation" that is often more severely experienced by U.S. students of color than that of white students. A challenge that many U.S. students of color face is finding their niche in the campus community by developing a social support network consisting of other students, faculty, and administrators who share a similar cultural background and/or support them in their cultural identity.

Mistrust
Many U.S. students of color come to college with preconceived notions about what members of other ethnic and racial groups are like. These notions are often fueled by both personal and collective historical experiences which lead to mistrust and uncertainty about members of other groups. This mistrust may also result from both past and recent experiences with hate crimes and discrimination. Thus, another challenge that many U.S. students of color face is learning to trust persons from cultural groups different from their own while maintaining vigilance about being a target of discrimination.

Pressure to Assimilate
Many U.S. students of color experience pressure to adopt the values, beliefs, and attitudes of the dominant white culture while simultaneously feeling pressured to abandon their own culture. These pressures come from a variety of sources including the classroom, family, and friends. A third challenge is finding a balance between maintaining their unique cultural identity and the necessity of adopting certain white cultural values in order to succeed.

Mobilization to Reclaim a Sense of Power
Many U.S. students of color must make an effort to have college institutions be responsible in meeting their cultural needs, including addressing acts of discrimination. This often requires students of color to be involved in campus activism that is above and beyond their academic demands. This effort often puts them in direct conflict with university policies, procedures, and administrators.

Racism, Sexism, Heterosexism, and Other Forms of Oppression
Sometimes students of color are either a direct or indirect target of oppression. This oppression can come in a variety of forms. Racial slurs spray-painted on the wall of an elevator, euphemisms such as "jerk my chain," derogatory jokes about one’s sexual orientation, mimicking a student’s grasp of the English language, refusing to study with someone because of that person’s gender, and intentionally ostracizing someone because of their cultural differences are a few examples of oppression. Although these examples range in intentionality and severity, they are still very common on a college campus and affect everyone regardless of the intended victim. These experiences can leave a victim feeling angry, hurt, alienated, despised, suspicious, fearful, and disheartened. Utilizing social supports and finding healthy outlets for expressing hurt and anger are just a few steps that can be taken to help a victim(s) of oppression. Assessing the damage done to the community by these acts, understanding the effects and ramifications of such acts, and rebuilding an atmosphere of trust and safety are some steps that communities of individuals can take.

*Taken from Bourassa, D.M. (1991). How White Students and Students of Color Organize and Interact on Campus. New Directions for Student Services, no. 56.