Paths & Perspectives
Your Career
Diversity Today

11 Things I Wish I Had Known As An Incoming Black Freshman

Estimated reading time ~ 7 min
content block

I had an incredible college experience. I took fascinating classes and made incredible friendships. I learned a lot about myself both inside and outside of the classroom. It’s safe to say, my time as an undergrad helped shape me into the person I am today. But it was also far from perfect.

As a Black freshman at Johns Hopkins University, I was surprised to encounter obstacles I hadn’t faced as a high school student in my liberal hometown of Washington D.C. I was met with racial insensitivity from fellow students, university staff, and even friends. I discovered the realities of living in the bubble of a college campus that was surrounded by a low-income area. And I realized just how difficult it is to move away from home for the first time and adapt to a new environment with its own unique challenges.

Overtime, I found my footing, but I certainly could have benefitted from some guidance early on. Afterall, college is a great arena for personal development and it’s important to make the most of it. That’s why I have collected advice from Black college graduates for incoming Black freshmen. Each of these remarkable people has made it through college and learned a lot along the way. They are eager to share their wisdom with the next generation of Black students in the hopes that they will thrive and succeed. Here are their top tips:

1. Pursue a well-rounded experience inside and outside of the classroom.

"It took me two years to figure out how to properly manage my time between classes, work, social and extracurricular activities, and future plans. But it’s one of the most essential skills I learned at school. In fact, most of the personal growth I experienced during college came from experiences that extended beyond the classroom walls. Step out of your comfort zone and try things you wouldn’t normally try so that you can learn about yourself – what you like, what you don’t like, who you are. Don’t get me wrong: Your GPA matters. But don't forget to prioritize fun and making lasting memories with the people who are by your side."
– Yvoire Whittaker, Georgetown University, class of 2017

2. Be open.

“My advice is fairly clichéd, but it’s important: Be open to all things. When you enter college, you’re a undefined being. And it’s important to embrace the journey rather than focusing too much on the destination. I came into college dead set on becoming an attorney. Four years later, I’m graduating as a hopeful social impact consultant intent on pursuing a career in economic development (with zero plans of ever going to law school). My personal journey to self-discovery was filled with trials and errors, but now I know what I am truly passionate about and have the necessary skills to pursue that passion. So, whenever an opportunity to research or learn more about yourself presents itself, — study abroad, a leadership position, volunteering — don’t think of the challenges, think of all the reasons to do it. At the end of four years, you should not recognize yourself.”
– Jordan Peterkin, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, class of 2017

3. Travel abroad, even if you think you can’t afford it.

Studying abroad was the best thing I did in college. It made my experience more well-rounded by exposing me to different cultures which shaped my beliefs and worldview. I encourage everyone – but Black students in particular since we are underrepresented in study abroad programs – to do their best to fit travel into their curriculum no matter what. There is always a way to overcome potential barriers (like a lack of funding) as long as you start early and are proactive about who you reach out to. Most universities have grants and scholarships for the specific purpose of studying abroad that go untouched every year because students either don't know they exist, or they worry they aren’t competitive candidates. Do your research and don’t let self-doubt deter you.”
– Danait Yemane, Johns Hopkins University, class of 2017

4. Surround yourself with people you admire.

“You become the average of the people you surround yourself with, so make sure to befriend people that you respect. In college, you have the unique opportunity to encounter smart, motivated individuals who have a variety of interests. Take some time to get to know them and find out what they’re passionate about – especially if it’s someone you wouldn’t typically meet. Do you admire the way they think and the values they hold? If so, you’re in good company and, soon, you will see how spending time with them shapes you in a positive manner. Remember, the connections you make today can have outsized returns tomorrow. ”
— Uzoma Bailey Ayogu, Duke University, class of 2017

5. Seek out mentors.

“Don’t be afraid to seek out mentors, whether it be an upperclassmen in your major or a professor in one of your favorite classes. If your school has an Office of Multicultural Affairs or a center for students of color, inquire about how you can get involved in those communities. If you have a great professor, don’t be afraid to go to office hours, even if it’s only to learn more about them as a person. You would be astonished at how many people of color truly want to help you thrive and succeed.Seeking out their guidance is paramount to your success.”
– Jonathan Brown, Johns Hopkins University, class of 2017

6. Make sure your mental health is in check.

“College can be an especially draining time, emotionally and mentally, for many students. So don’t be afraid to speak up if you feel you are not thriving or performing at your best because of mental health issues. If you’re encountering trouble, from stress to depression and anxiety, make it a point to talk to someone — be it friends, parents, professionals — about whatever you’re going through. Find people who support and understand you so that you can learn to conquer it before it conquers you."
— Tyana Warren, Johns Hopkins University, class of 2017

7. Step off your campus.

“One of the best decisions I made while in college was getting involved in the local community where my school is located. Baltimore is very different from my hometown and participating in activities like community service helped me learn more about the history of the city, which, in turn, made me feel more connected to my new environment. I was able to work on things I was passionate about — namely healthcare and social justice — while building a connection with the world beyond the ‘Hopkins bubble’ in a way that was respectful and beneficial for this city I grew to love. College is more than just making an impact on your campus; it’s also about making an impact on your community.”
— Chase Alston, Johns Hopkins University, class of 2017

8. Explore your passions (it’s OK if you can’t put them on your résumé).

“As a pre-med, there were enough medical clubs and activities to keep me occupied 24/7, but that didn't stop me from pursuing interests completely outside the realm of medicine. In college, I developed an affinity for making music. I became captivated by its complexity and came to appreciate the emotion music is able to inspire through sounds and storytelling. When the stress of school became overwhelming, it was great to have an activity that I did simply because it brought me joy. It eased my mind and gave me the energy to commit to long nights of studying. College is not only about doing things that will get you to the next level professionally, it's also about discovering who you are — and my passion for music is a big part of that.”
— Kendall Elue, University of Chicago, class of 2017

9. Cultivate a diverse network.

“In college, it can be tempting to stick to friends who are similar to you, but you should resist that urge. Some of my longest lasting friendships formed when I stepped out of my comfort zone and bonded with people who I thought I would be unable to connect with due to differences. It is so vital to venture out and surround yourself with a diverse group of people. Having friends not only from different races and religions, but also, with different majors and ideologies was so important in helping me expand my worldview and morph into the person I am today. We are living in an increasingly diverse world, and if you only stick to people who think and act like you, you'll never be able to thrive.”
— Nick Azinge, Penn State, class of 2017

10. You can do anything– if you plan for it.

“Time management is without a doubt the most essential skill that EVERY student needs to master – as soon as possible. You can do anything in college – but you can’t do everything. Choose a few activities that are most meaningful to you and invest in those. There are only so many hours in a day, so learning how to plan and carve out the time to incorporate those passions is key. Use a planner or calendar, and you’ll be astonished by how much one can get done in 24 hours. If you can manage your time wisely, you don't have to let go of the multiple aspects of your life that you really care about.”
— Ayokunle Fagbemi, University of Pennsylvania, class of 2017

11. The only person you should compete with is yourself

“Freshman year I remember thinking how I had just started college, yet felt behind so many of my classmates and peers. At times it felt super intimidating. It can be easy to think that you are slacking or behind because you see your peers accomplishing things you haven't - but it's so important to tune out that voice out. Everyone's journey and timeline to success is highly personalized. Your path to your career could be totally different than a classmate’s path to the same career. Comparing yourself to others will just put you in a state of constant anxiety. The only person you should compete with is yourself, the only person you should worry about being better than is the person you were yesterday. Once you focus on yourself and quit comparing, you'll be surprised at how much better you will feel and how much more you will achieve.”
— Jalen Benson, Dartmouth College, class of 2017

Jopwell helps America's leading companies connect with and recruit Black, Latino/Hispanic, and Native American professionals and students at scale. Sign up to find your dream job.