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My Columbia Diary

Sept. 17, 2014

I raised my fist in rebellion. I raised my fist for black power. I raised my fist for me. As I walked across the stage to accept my master’s degree in Social Work from Columbia University in May, I stopped in the middle of the platform. I turned my back to the audience and lifted my fist and head upward. Upon closer inspection one would notice the artwork of a black fist pasted on top of my graduation cap. The fist symbolized my defiance towards an institution that I believe silences students of color. The sign became the means to take back my power.

Many minority students face difficult and isolating times during their journey of matriculation at predominantly white institutions of higher education. Columbia University, an Ivy League school, is no exception. Minorities who tread this road often find it is rocky, discouraging and full of exclusion from every level. The student body, school administration and faculty evoke subtle forms of insult or racist ideology often disguised as being harmless or diplomatic by the offender. My graduate experience at Columbia was filled with such micro-aggressions. For example, one professor described a Latino woman in a case study as “being aggressive” and having an “attitude” while the white male in the study, who also vented, merely expressed concern. On another occasion a Caucasian student thought it appropriate to share how her clients, a group of black children, “talked really ghetto.” I defended and explained my people and my community frequently and quickly. With such repeated occurrences, however, I suffered battle fatigue. I went from being an engaged student to one who sat silently in the back of the classroom. Knowing that this is an experience for many students of color is most disheartening.

Black Enterprise Magazine in 2008, the most recent ranking, placed Columbia among the top Ivy League institutions for African Americans. The reality is that many black students feel extremely isolated at the university with few, if any, mentors or support. Statistics confirm that fact. Columbia’s 2013 online Statistics and Facts enrollment headcount indicated that of its 29,250 students, 1,484 were black - roughly 5% of the total population. The number of full-time minority faculty is higher (26%), but this includes all minorities, not only African-Americans. The university’s full-time employees who identify as black or African-American is 11%. With so few people of color, many students (including myself) struggle to find supportive networks and are ill prepared for the institutional racism-related stress they are sure to encounter upon entering Columbia or any other predominately white institution. A study on the experience of African American college students, published in the Journal of Negro Education, found that students facing these issues have higher levels of stress, which decreases academic motivation. The study also concluded that marginalized students often feel silenced and discounted within their classrooms. This is what it feels like to be a minority in the United States higher education system.

I reached out to other black students and alum asking, “What would be the one piece of advice you would give to an incoming black student entering a predominantly white college?” From the (30) responses, I took 10 of the most helpful and created “Columbia Diaries: A Black Student’s Survival Guide.” Ranked in no particular order they are a series of suggestions, warnings and thoughts by students for students. A large majority of the respondents emphasized the importance of building a supportive network of students and faculty saying it was the sole reason they persevered through their program to successfully obtain their degrees.

This “Survival Guide” may not actually “save” black students, but it is my hope that students of color will know they are not alone in their struggle. May these words of wisdom encourage students to push through when they find themselves in difficult situations. I strongly believe that if an African American student is accepted into a prestigious institution, Columbia or any other PWI for that matter, that individual is well equipped to be that consummate student who will successfully achieve the desired educational goals. To read more student interviews or watch videos on the matter, go to

1. Have a diverse group of friends for support.

2. It's important to outperform your peers in order to defy expectations.

3. Don't let derogatory comments about the black community go unchecked.

4. Push back against uncomfortable conversations about racism, white privilege and oppression.

5. Connect with other students of color.

6. A shared color does not make for a shared experience.

7. Seek out black clubs and organizations.

8. Find a mentor.

9. Never conform to something you don't believe in.

10. It is important to remember why you're here and who you're here for. 

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