For parents of Black children, starting a semester at a predominantly white institution can cause fear and anxiety. Experts offer tips on how parents can help set their Black children up for success at PWI.
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An image of a boy studying in a college library.
Credit: Getty Images.

After a tough year of virtual learning, children of all ages are back in school buildings this fall. Whether having kids in elementary school, high school, or college, parents all over the country are excited and anxious about what this school season will hold for their kids.

But for some parents, the anxiety doesn't only have to do with COVID-19. Instead, they have sent their Black sons off at predominantly white institutions (PWIs). And frankly, some are mildly anxious while others are downright fearful. Black people in majority-white spaces often experience race-related stress. For young people entering PWIs, that stress can manifest as anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. Worse, the stress and racism Black students experience often goes unnoticed by other students, professors, and the university at large.

I felt that fear when I dropped my three kids, particularly my two sons, at the PWIs they have since graduated from. Experts explain why the fear is real and what parents can do to help their Black children have a positive college experience in one of these institutions.

Finding a Place to Fit in

"For students who are not part of the majority, there is a different level of belonging when they come on campus," Idethia Shevon Harvey, DrPH, MPH, associate professor in the department of health and kinesiology at Texas A&M University's College of Education & Human Development, explained to Texas A&M Today. "There may not be a critical mass of students who look like them or have the same lived experience in their classroom."

Dr. Harvey, who was a Black student at a PWI during her undergraduate studies at Clemson University, said Black students can struggle to find a sense of belonging, feel pressure and judgment from other students, or feel forced to give up a part of who they are. Having a lack of support, added Dr. Harvey, along with the stressors of school, work, and other conflicts, can cause "distress" and have a "negative impact" in one's education.

Carlton Goode, a Ph.D. student in education leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University and the school's lead faculty for men of color (MOC) freshman retention teaching initiative, agrees. "The fear of being isolated and losing community are very real concerns. 'Where do I fit in,' is also a question asked by these students," says Goode, whose work centers on the retention and success of men of color, with an emphasis on African American and Latinx men in higher education. Along with being away from family and longtime friends, finding one's place on a university campus where few look like you or have a shared experience can be isolating.

How Parents Can Help

Before sending their kids to a PWI, parents can prepare them for what to expect and help them make the most of their time there.

Remind them it's OK to seek help

When asked what parents should say to their Black sons attending a PWI this fall, Goode says to tell them it's OK to ask for help. In fact, it is paramount. Many male students, he points out, often attempt to "figure it out" on their own, but the support of a mentor, counselor, or professor can make all the difference in their college experience.

Goode also encourages parents to assist their child with not only the "what" but also the "how." They can do that by offering advice on how to build relationships with professors. His tip: Students should visit professors during their office hours at least two or three times a semester.

"Often, freshmen will need recommendations the following year for an internship, to be a resident advisor, for a scholarship, or membership into a club. Professors find it hard to write a recommendation if they do not know the student," says Goode. Students can head to the professor's office hours to introduce themselves and ask questions about the class or something they read in the textbook or syllabus. "The goal is to start conversations," says Goode.

Some helpful questions a student can ask: "What is the best strategy to study for the test?" "How should I prepare for the class or upcoming lectures?" "Will the exam focus more on the textbook, the lectures, or PowerPoint presentations?"

Suggest they find support early on

Isaiah Alicea attended Villanova where only 5.4 percent of the student body is Black. Along with the solid academic history, Alicea is connected to the school through legacy since his mother and aunt both graduated from there. He says his experience is a bit different than other Black students because he was on the football team. "I'm not sure I would've stayed at Villanova if I wasn't an athlete. African American students and African American student athletes have a different experience," he points out. Not unlike other schools with large sports programs, athletes on many of these campuses are seen as "rockstars," as Alicea describes it.

That doesn't mean he didn't need a support system. He found his early on through a nearby church and barbershop and other Black students on campus. "Encourage them to surround themselves with support early and often and not to wait until they need it," says Alicea.

Social media is also a great way to reach out to the Black alumni organizations—even before a semester begins. Connecting with Black alumni can help your son learn about the reputation of professors. Additionally, it's an opportunity for your kid to ask questions about life on and off campus in the college town. Remember, internship opportunities often develop out of these relationships.

Encourage them to join a club

Timothy (Dapo) Osinowo attended the Oxford campus of Miami of Ohio University where only 3.6 percent of the undergraduate student body is Black. He was motivated to go there because of the schools' solid reputation and its high acceptance rate for medical school. Although he says he was well liked by both his Black and white peers, Osinowo would have spent more time making connections if he could do it all over again.

"Looking back, I wish I had taken advantage of the African American clubs and organizations while there," he says. And that's the advice he offers to parents. "Encourage your child to get involved in both African American organizations and others as well," he adds, explaining that it will offer a much-needed sense of community.

Finding a sense of community and safe spaces is very important for a student's success. Goode's program allows for these safe spaces and conversations to occur with the goal of assisting young Black men in managing the stress they may be experiencing at their institution. It also provides an atmosphere to celebrate their wins with others that have a similar experience. Goode says, "It's not always about managing the bad; often it's about having a village to celebrate the good, also."

Talk with them about racism on campus

While Osinowo and Aliciea both describe their undergraduate experiences as rewarding, they say they did deal with racial issues. That includes one of them having their image used on almost all the marketing material for their university—an attempt to show diversity despite the fact the school has such a low percentage of Black students. The other remembers the 2016 election year being a hard one on campus for students of color. It felt as though the election brought out the worst in some and led to a young Black female student being followed and called inappropriate names while walking home from class after dark.

Both men highlighted the need for open communication about hard things between the parent and college student. The goal is not to frighten your student but to make them aware of what may happen and, consequently, what to do about it.

A few conversations parents should have:

  • Remind them to always have their college ID on them. Because of racial profiling, your student may unfortunately be asked for it when they are on campus.
  • Research what the university's policy is on racist and discriminatory behavior and discuss this with your son.
  • Check in with your student. Calls should not focus on grades, exclusively. Knowing the mental health of your student is a priority.

The Bottom Line

More work needs to be done at an administrative level to improve the experience of Black students on PWIs around the country, including hiring more Black professors and staff and focusing policies on equity instead of diversity. Black students experiencing isolation and race-related stress often suffer in silence, and the right support can mean the difference between them graduating and leaving school. If you have a Black son in a PWI or heading to one, encourage him to be himself, find support and community early, and seek out a mentor. And remember: you did the best to prepare your son and he's now selected the university of his choice. Watch him soar.