Students of color, don’t be afraid to raise your voices in college

When discussing college applications in high school, my psychology teacher told us about a former student who was accepted to the University of Virginia, but instead opted to go to a less prestigious state school. At the time, I thought she was crazy for declining a spot at UVA because of what I thought was such a small reason at the time – the lack of minority students.

It didn’t take long after starting at GW for me to identify with this student’s sentiments. I was aware that the schools I went to growing up – where minority students like me, a Chinese American, were the majority – were not what most colleges would be like. I was not ready for how different it would feel to be at a predominantly white institution. I wasn’t prepared to frequently look around and realize I was the only Asian American in a room, to feel my voice wasn’t being heard and like I couldn’t connect to many of my classmates. Throughout my first two years here, I wondered if I would have been happier had I gone to a more diverse school.

Now, with graduation less than a month away, I have found myself thinking about this again. These days, I realize I made the right decision in coming – and staying – here. With the sense of isolation that can come with being a student of color at a predominantly white institution, we shouldn’t feel discouraged, but instead should raise our voices and educate others.

Looking back, I went to elementary, middle and high school in a bubble, since Fairfax County and its public schools are so diverse. My classmates came from all racial, ethnic, religious and socioeconomic backgrounds, so I was rarely put into situations that caused me to think about being an Asian American. Consequently, I didn’t have to think about racial discrimination or discomfort that can come with being a minority, other than the dreaded and occasional “Where are you really from?” question.

With the sense of isolation that can come with being a student of color at a predominantly white institution, we shouldn’t feel discouraged, but instead should raise our voices and educate others.

Yet upon starting classes here, my Asian American identity made me feel like I stuck out. It’s a lonely and isolating feeling when your classmates don’t “get” you the way other Asian Americans and minority students do. I have often felt like students assume people of one race or ethnicity must be like any other person from other minority groups, and don’t acknowledge cultural differences between them or concepts like white privilege. Alternatively, some assume because you aren’t from the same racial background, you must have nothing in common. It’s alienating when classmates assume you are an international student, like many have done to me, or make ignorant comments like “All Asians are rich” or “You must be so good at math.” Neither of these, unfortunately, are true of me either.

But if I hadn’t gone to GW, I wouldn’t have fully understood that many students who fall back on these stereotypes or preconceptions aren’t racist. Sure, some people are racist – but a common culprit for ignorance is being brought up in a homogenous setting. However, stepping outside your comfort zone and going to college is an opportunity to educate people. This has made me realize the importance of speaking up to try to correct these misconceptions and demanding the respect we deserve.

Over the last four years, I have gone from someone who rarely spoke up about political or social issues to someone who is very vocal about the misrepresentation and lack of representation of Asian Americans and other minorities in the media, and how it can mislead people into believing harmful stereotypes. This may have never happened if I hadn’t been confronted with the loneliness and frustration that can come with attending a predominantly white institution. My experience led me to see how having conversations about issues like misrepresentation can help students better understand different minority groups, and how we are both unique yet similar. I used to squirm at the thought of discussing my racial identity, but now I am unapologetic about it because I know it’s important to speak up.

This University is also full of students unafraid to call out problems on campus. I’ve seen students of color speak up together, like in February when a racist Snapchat rocked campus and sparked a conversation about campus racial tensions. Students discussed their negative experiences and demanded action from administrators. In this year’s Student Association election, three out of four presidential and executive vice presidential candidates were people of color, who ran on platforms of diversity and inclusion. While it’s on the University to carry out actions they said they would, like implementing mandatory diversity training for all incoming students, I admire these students for speaking up and working to improve life for all students on campus.

College may have been easier for me had I gone somewhere with a similar student body to my past schools, but it certainly would not have made me the impassioned, outspoken individual I am today.

I have been lucky. I’ve never personally felt unsafe or unwelcome here, but unfortunately some students will at predominantly white institutions. They shouldn’t be afraid to transfer somewhere they would feel more welcome. But for students like me, staying can spur us to grow. I have become more aware and proud of my identity as an Asian American, which wouldn’t have happened had I not been thrown into an environment where I wasn’t surrounded by people who looked like me.

When you live in such an accepting and heterogenous bubble like I did, you begin to take it for granted and assume every other environment is the same. Being a student of color at a predominantly white campus can be a rude awakening, but it can fuel students to call out problems and to propose solutions. College may have been easier for me had I gone somewhere with a similar student body to my past schools, but it certainly would not have made me the impassioned, outspoken individual I am today.

Irene Ly, a senior majoring in psychology, is The Hatchet’s opinions editor.

Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.