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4 Ways To Thrive As A POC At A PWI

Estimated reading time ~ 3 min
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As a Black student at Rollins College, a small predominantly White institution (PWI) in Florida, I’ve learned a lot about the courage it takes to navigate our multicultural world.

Growing up, I attended public schools with many other students of color. Like members of any cultural group, there were common threads – musical interests, colloquial lexicon, etc. – that bound my classmates and I together.

At Rollins, things are a little different. My parents encouraged me to attend Rollins because they were impressed by its small student population and 10:1 student-to-faculty ratio. They believed the environment would cultivate personal growth, help me acclimate to being independent for the first time, and enable me to connect with mentors in positions of authority. But, when I arrived for my freshman year, I felt excluded and misunderstood. I was lost in the company of unfamiliar people in an environment where I was on my own much more than I’d ever been. Most of my classmates came from cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds that I did not identify with. It was a culture shock.

Overtime, however, I grew comfortable and began to find my place. Now, I’m in a position to give back and share my advice with students who are in similar situations. If you feel like the “only” something, tap into your tenacity and courage, and you will be well-equipped to navigate any terrain. Here’s how:

1. Find community.

During my freshman year, I joined the Caribbean Student Association and the Black Student Union. As a Black student of Caribbean descent, both clubs gave me a platform to get to know people who shared my concerns regarding race and representation. At each weekly meeting, there was time allotted to express our grievances and/or triumphs. The shared vulnerability gave me a sense of camaraderie and value, especially in times of doubt and struggle. Because of my interest in STEM, I also joined science-based organizations like the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), where I was greeted by people who were similarly intrigued by computer science and discovery. Although there is no chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers at Rollins, I encourage students of color to join where one exists. Joining groups like these is a fantastic opportunity to meet people who may have similar backgrounds to you and face similar challenges.

2. Take initiative.

When you feel alone on campus, it can be easy to get discouraged and doubt yourself – don’t let that happen. Instead, take the initiative to advocate for yourself and seek out exciting opportunities. During the fall and spring semester of my junior year, I applied to several summer internships. I was met with a lot of rejection and disappointment. But this didn’t hinder my desire to gain more experience nor did it alter my perception of myself. I continued to apply and email various organizations. I persevered and landed a summer internship with the National Science Foundation, where I researched biometric authentication at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. I was able to make my presence known by connecting with a mentor who helped me succeed.

To this day, I continue to utilize a lot of personal connections and attend as many networking events as possible. As a recipient of the Gates Millennium Scholarship (GMS), I am fortunate to be eligible to attend many funded events. In 2016, I attended the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity (NCORE) in San Francisco, where I met many interesting, like-minded people. These experiences help me uncover my passions and grow professionally.

3. Prioritize your health.

Don't be afraid to take advantage of your school's counseling and psychological services. There is often a stigma associated with therapy or psychiatric drugs, especially among communities of color. But seeking out support should not be reserved solely for extreme cases. I felt so isolated during my freshman year, but attending weekly sessions with a therapist helped tremendously. Therapy sessions allowed me to hear my own voice, and they gave me an opportunity to articulate the emotions that were unintentionally suppressed. I ultimately learned how to better forge deep bonds in unfamiliar settings.

4. Give back.

As a computer science student, I am greatly aware of the lack of gender and racial diversity within technical fields. That’s why I think it’s important to educate, mentor, and share opportunities with those who are often overlooked. I partnered with Orange County Public Schools to assist students with scholarship applications and the college matriculation process. It’s helped me develop a strong understanding of the importance of mentorship and guidance, and I encourage you to seek out these lessons as well. Showing others the number of opportunities available to them and supporting them through their respective educational pursuits goes far in inspiring change – and making sure no one feels alone.

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