Fitting in at College: Alumni Reflect on Challenges at Predominantly White Schools

April 6, 2022

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English teacher Nohely Peraza (Eastside class of 2016) stands near the main gate of her college, Williams College in Massachusetts

As students prepare for college, they challenge themselves in classes like AB Calculus and Foothill English. In Senior College Prep, they acquire life skills like personal finance and work closely with college coaches.

But the one thing that is rarely addressed directly is what it will be like to spend days and nights in a predominantly white environment rather than with their first-generation classmates at Eastside.

“It makes it harder when there’s not a lot of people that look like you,” said English teacher Nohely Peraza, who graduated from Eastside in 2016 and attended Williams College, a small liberal arts college in Williamstown, Mass. Williams’ student population is roughly 49% white, 13% Hispanic, 12% Asian and 7% Black/African American.

Many Eastside students go on to attend colleges known as Predominantly White Institutions, or PWIs. Luis Rosas, class of 2019, attended a PWI on the East Coast – University of Rochester, a medium size college in Rochester, New York that was 42% White, 11% Asian, 7% Hispanic, and 5% Black/African American.

“I tried looking for groups and clubs that made me feel at home,” Luis said.

The first group that caught his attention was called “Salsa”. It celebrated Latin traditions and was run by students of Hispanic and Latin descent.

“It was really cool because every few months they would have these show-and-tells where there would be dancing, singing, art, poetry,” Luis said.

Christopher Young graduated last May and now attends Columbia College in Chicago. The student body is 51% white, but he finds ways to connect with other black and brown students.

“For me I’ve never gone to anything PWI-related growing up,” Chris said. “I would attend the black student union meetings and then I just go from there because that’s the main way for me to make those relationships.”

Alumni agreed that more could be done by Eastside to prepare students for life at a PWI.

“It would’ve helped me if I heard from other students who went to PWIs,” Nohely said.

While at Williams, Nohely experienced acts of racism on campus and nearby. After Donald Trump was elected President, she and some Black friends were walking to a Dollar Store near campus when a pickup truck with a huge Trump flag approached them. The driver spat racist slurs at them, and even told Nohely to “go back to her country” before speeding off.

“I was kind of scared for my safety because I didn’t know if he was going to get out of the car,” Nohely recalled.

Luis also said it would be beneficial if students were made more aware of what to expect at PWIs while at Eastside, so they would feel less blindsided. He recalled an experience at University of Rochester when a white undergraduate mocked another student’s political art piece in a Snapchat post. The art piece criticized a new policy that had increased the number of armed police around campus, which Black students specifically found uncomfortable. Despite a huge uproar over the Snapchat post, Luis said that there were no consequences.

“She wrote a text at the bottom that was fairly insensitive, racist,” Luis recalled. “I think that preparing for that sort of insensitivity, because sometimes the privilege of white students is so blatant that it leaves you in actual shock.”

Conversely, Chris thought that it is up to students to prepare on their own for what to expect at a PWI.

“We as students have to figure out ways to get used to that culture shock ourselves or at least prepare ourselves for that culture shock,” Chris said. “Can Eastside help us with that process? Maybe. But given the colleges that students are considering, it’s on us to make sure we’re ready for that new audience we are going to be around.”

All college freshmen are stepping out of their comfort zones into unfamiliar environments, but the transition from Eastside to a PWI can present particular challenges. Alumni shared advice that they thought would be beneficial for Eastside students interested in attending PWIs should keep in mind.

“You need to be vulnerable and share your concerns and fears,” Nohely said.

Chris advised students to get involved around their campuses.

“Just get involved in lots of different clubs that specifically target people that look like you, people that share the same identity as you,” he said.

Luis added that students should continue to be their authentic selves when they are on their college campuses.

“Don’t be afraid to express yourself even though I know in some cases it might feel unsafe or you won’t feel supported,” Luis said.  “There will be other people there, maybe few, but there will be some people there who will support you and celebrate what you bring to the table.”

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