Updated: Jan 2
When I entered college, I was the seventh from my immediate family to attend a predominantly white institution (PWI). Half of my family attended one large PWI, and the other half attended a smaller PWI. Both were in the Midwest. We had been taught from a very young age that education was the key to success, and that if we earned good grades, worked hard, stayed out of trouble, and respected our elders, we would do well in life. As a lower-middle class family, we were also taught that education was the great equalizer, and so I imagined college was a place where “no matter who you were,” you would be well-prepared for a successful life ahead. I had been indoctrinated into the idea of the American Dream before I had the words or the terms to describe it. I was sure that I would have a space where I belonged once I left the small suburb just outside of Chicago.
However, what I realized very soon after stepping foot on campus, was that although I was welcomed on paper, there were very few spaces that embraced me. And, even though three of my siblings had attended the same well-to-do college, there were constant reminders all around me that I would need to remain relatively unseen. I would need to blend into the environment so much so that any trace of my culture, my life experiences, or my diverse perspectives would not surface. The consequences of drawing, speaking, or existing outside of these boxes were grave; I could easily be labeled as a trouble-maker and lose the small circle of support I had.
This model did not work for me, and I began to challenge the status quo. When I experienced low expectations from professors, exclusionary curricula, poor treatment, injustices on campus, or mistreatment based on their perceptions of racial and ethnic identity, I took action. I organized discussions, wrote letters, spoke out, and even got involved in campus organizations towards making meaningful change. There were others with me in these efforts. I had a community of Black & Brown peers who advocated with me who I am so grateful for. This time in my life was both challenging and rewarding, and it watered seeds of advocacy in me. Embracing my identities and being a social justice change agent was surely a risk.
What I realized after I had earned my first degree was that, while I was adapting to a new environment, developing self-efficacy and finding my voice, I left that campus with no transition plan. I had no idea how to truly leverage the skills and knowledge I had acquired towards career growth beyond the transcript and a sequence of disciplinary courses. I could be added to the success stories and number of students who had earned a degree. I could be a brown face on a media pamphlet. However, I was not prepared for the next career steps, nor did I have the right questions to ask, or even the right people to bring my requests to. I had a village of my peers, and a few amazing adults, faculty & staff, that cared about me tremendously. But critical care as mentorship, career guidance and preparation for a career in the real world was sorely missing from my experiences. I felt the tension between erasing my culture, my identities, and my lived experiences and putting on a new identity. This "professional passing" would disconnect me from the person I knew myself to be and the young Black woman I was developing into.
This past year has brought to light the need for significant changes in higher education. Building transformative communities and impactful relationships for ALL students is more important than ever, especially historically under-served Black & Brown students. To that end, career guidance as mentorship offers great promise, both from creating an ecosystem of support for students, but also for fostering stronger connections between alumni of color and the institutions they left behind after earning their degree.
Author: Elissa Frazier. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org