It’s the first day of freshman year, and you look around to see that only two out of 30 college students look like you from class to class. Class gets out, and you see less and less people of your race. Don’t fret, this may be a natural reaction for a minority student who’s not accustomed to a predominantly white institution (PWI).
Today, numerous black students embrace being a minority at a PWI. Thanks to sit-ins during the Civil Rights Era, Florida State University integrated and over the years became a diverse institution. Minority students no longer endure the level of insults and threats faced by Maxwell Courtney, the first minority student at FSU, or Calvin Patterson, the first African American football player at FSU. While students no longer endure insults and threats faced by Courtney and Patterson, the hardships haven’t vanished. So what’s it like being a black student at a PWI in the 21st Century?
Many people tend to expect black students to attend universities to play a sport, not because they made it into a highly recognized state college. In reality, black students seek to excel at engineering, teaching, writing and nursing. Many black students use their university status as an opening to educate others on an important fact: They’re worth more than playing ball.
FSU alumnus and computer engineer Jimmy Smith Jr. said, “Being black at a PWI to me means that you have been afforded an opportunity to show your family, friends and kids that look up to you that you can make it when the odds are clearly stacked against you.” Standing out from the crowd feels scary, but without facing the fear, majority students wouldn’t be able to learn about people’s differing cultures and lifestyles.
More stereotypes plague PWI’s, preventing growth among the communities within. Another common (and false) stereotype persists: More black men are incarcerated than in college. Yet the National Center for Educational Statistics reported, “There are 1,437,363 African American males in college as of 2013,” a number predicted to have grown since then. To battle these stereotypes, PWIs must create an environment for black students that promotes frank talk about these stereotypes and black students in general at their institution.
As a minority student, it’s standard to become accustomed as one of few minorities in a classroom. Attending a PWI might feel different or shocking at first. “Transferring from FAMU to FSU, I see differences in the classroom environment, the people and how the college campus feels,” FSU creative writing senior Justen Ramsey said. “FAMU has pretty small classes which makes it more personal between professor and student. I can recognize also a few faces in a crowd going from class to class. In contrast, at FSU I’m usually the only black person in my class and I get lost in a crowd when I’m inside and outside of the classroom.” In this sense, both minority and majority students at a PWI should have an open mind about learning to embrace different races and lifestyles, even if they might feel uncomfortable at first.
Despite its downfalls, some minority students use the lack of diversity at a PWI to their advantage. Program Director of FSU Student Support Services STEM Dr. Asha Fields Brewer said, “The biggest impact a PWI had on me was teaching me how to professionally and personally navigate a realm that demographically reflects society as a whole.” Brewer continued, “I learned to be comfortable and confident as the minority in the room, which allows me to bring diverse opinions and perspectives to the table. I truly believe this, coupled with my intrinsic drive and my faith has been major contributor to my continued success.”
Despite its upsides and downsides, PWIs need more diversity. So how can we begin to move toward diversity?
Criminal justice fraternity Lambda Alpha Epsilon at Florida State University takes strides towards diversity by including students of all backgrounds even though the fraternity is traditionally majority white nationwide. FSU Criminology senior Daniel Frison said, “I discovered the criminal justice fraternity, Lambda Alpha Epsilon on one random Market Wednesday. This fraternity welcomed me with open arms, even though the diversity was low. I wouldn’t trade this fraternity for anything in the world. I felt included the more Lambda Alpha Epsilon bonded and became a family.”
Put simply, start small. Creating diversity within small groups at PWIs helps to strengthen bonds between minority and majority students overall and provides a stepping stone for inclusion across the board.
College students come from all over the world to get an education and to pursue their dreams. Whether we want to realize it or not, students from all types of backgrounds and socioeconomic classes make up the college student body. Minority students have the unique opportunity to bring their perspective into the classroom, break common stereotypes and teach people who don’t have a similar frame of reference. Attending a PWI as a black student is difficult and not a privilege; rather, it’s a choice.
If you’re a minority in the majority, you’ve already begun to break boundaries and declare to the world that anyone can be successful in college, no matter your socioeconomic status or skin color.