I am a 29-year-old Black woman who has been to university three times now to do various degrees. I never considered my race when I was applying to university, and as I learn today neither did many of my friends.
Despite not considering it then, today I sit and question the importance of considering your race when applying to university. Not because I am planning to go back, but because I have gone on to work in support roles for students in university, and am seeing more and more the impact that not considering race is having on students in the Black community.
A quick overview of my experience.
I remember being very fortunate in that I always knew I wanted to be a counsellor. So, when choosing what course I wanted to do at university, the “choosing” part was pretty easy. This narrowed down my choices very quickly.
I don’t even remember looking at the website of the universities I was applying to. I just remember having a limited amount of choices and picking them all.
The decision, in the end, of where to go was an easy one. One got eliminated by the cost of the train ticket to attend the open day. Another by the cost of the fees. In the end, I chose a place that wasn’t too far away from home and had the cheapest fees out of them all.
I went to the open day on my own, made my decision and went home to tell my parents where I was going. I was content with my decision and totally unprepared for the responses that came from my family.
“You can’t go there, that area is racist”
“The area is known for racially motivated attacks and worse”
For whatever reason (I can’t remember now) at that point, I felt I had no choice but to go. It was too late to change, and I would just have to keep my head down… “maybe no one would notice that I was Black”.
My mum drove me up to move into halls. And the diversity in my flat put me at ease instantly. I was introduced to a Mauritian girl, two Korean girls and two white girls. I got settled in pretty quickly.
During my time there I noticed that there were not many black people in the local community, but this was counterbalanced by the number of black people who lived on campus with me. For me, there was a real sense of community on that campus, filled with individuals from a range of different backgrounds.
This diversity was not as reflected in the staff at the university. I can look back now and remember three staff across the entire campus who were not white (this is not including student staff).
But all in all, I felt quite safe and I had family close by if I ever needed them. During my degrees, we talked about difference and diversity but I do not remember any specific mention of the importance of acknowledging, and working with race and culture. And there certainly was no reflection of this in the reading material.
What has happened since then
Fast forward to now, and I have worked in three different universities. Each doing different roles but all involving student support. I am a counsellor, who supports clients who are university students. From here, I can now see more than ever, the importance of considering race when going to university. And I shall tell you why.
Having worked in a number of universities both inside and outside of London, it would seem that (for the most part) the Universities that are situated in London, have the most diversity in student population. And as a consequence of that, have more inclusive support.
However, due to the cost of living in London and the fact that all universities offer different courses. The choice of going to an inner London university may be taken away due to these factors.
Outside of London, universities tend to be in very suburban areas where most of the population is White. And often, the people in those areas are not used to experiencing diversity which can cause tension. This can trigger feelings of isolation, loneliness and a heightened awareness of difference for Black students going to universities in those areas.
Supporting students in a counselling role has meant that I have been privy to the first hand experiences of some of many Black students attending universities outside of their hometowns. Many have come from their very diverse London areas to areas lacking in diversity. They have come to middle-class suburban areas, and have been exposed to racism, oppression and physical abuse because of their race.
Students who, like me, did not consider their race when applying for university, but are now seeking professional mental health support to deal with the repercussions of their choice of university.
Most are faced with the lack of diversity and reflection of themselves in the teaching and support staff, and in the curriculum. They feel unsupported in their grievances and in their academic abilities, and there is no sense of community for them both inside and outside of the university.
It saddens me to say that I hear the same from black students at other universities too. I have seen numerous accounts of students asking their universities to “please stop advertising your institutions as a place for diversity, if you are not going to make it one”.
They feel there is nowhere for them to express their culture apart from behind the four walls of whatever student accommodation they are living in. Many of them are trying to find ways to suppress and or minimise their “Blackness” in order to fit in with the community around them.
A sense of community is key to the Black experience. It is the thing that has enabled Black people to get through years of trauma and terror, and it should be something central to the Black student experience in places where there seems to be no room for this in the local communities.
So whilst I would love to say that no, Black students shouldn’t have to consider their race when applying to and or going to university, I am going to have to say yes. Consider the diversity of the institution you are applying for, and the support available for you as a black student.
I have seen some universities taking steps towards making changes in these areas. For example by encouraging the creation of African Caribbean Societies, Creating peer support groups for Black students and or creating projects for Black students to get involved in that will allow them to contribute to the change that needs to happen to make things more inclusive. I just hope that these changes are not short lived and can be embedded into the student experience across the UK, just like lectures are.
Written by Aisha