Laptop? Check. Futon? Check. Mini Fridge? Check. Special sheets to fit the dorm beds? Check. A college where students of color feel welcome, mentally healthy and equal to their white counterparts? Still needs some work.
As students head back to the hustle of juggling classes, extracurricular activities, jobs and maintaining a social life, a growing challenge has emerged on campuses across the U.S.
Many students of color have reported mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and even suicide.
Students of color feel more isolated and more overwhelmed than their white colleagues. They feel they are not well understood or effectively addressed, and ultimately avoid available campus services, according to surveys conducted by Harris Poll.
The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s “The Forum,” presented in partnership with The Steve Fund and Huffington Post, addressed students of color, and their mental health and wellness during the transition to college.
“I feel a lot of paranoia,” said Tatum Dunn, Steve Fund Youth Advisory Board Member. “I’m about to graduate in 2020, and go on and get a career. I’m anxious because I know I won’t be put on the forefront because of my color.”
Stephanie Pinder-Amaker, Founding Director of McLean Hospital’s College Mental Health Program, said students of color experienced unique stressors that added to the regular anxiousness of college.
“It’s repeated exposure to incidents of racism, discrimination, microaggressions, and questions about belonging on campus,” Pinder-Amaker said.
David Williams, Chair, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said that recent studies have shown that racial incidents online were also significant stressors for students of color. Others included: aggressive policing, high community violence and financial stress.
David Rivera, Associate Professor of Counselor Education at Queens College-City University of New York, said he experienced some of the same incidents as a Latinx student on a predominately white campus during his undergraduate 20-years-ago. He said it was hard for students of color to pursue their careers when their classmates and staff did not look like them.
“What does it say to a student of color studying, let’s say accounting, to never see a professor that looks like them? What kind of message does that send to that student? Does it send a message that they belong in this profession and that they’re welcomed? Possibly not, so it could have an impact on their immediate well-being and the long-term trajectory of their career,” Rivera said.
John Silvanus Wilson, Senior Advisor and Strategist to the President of Harvard University, said it was almost like culture shock attending Harvard for his Master’s Degree after just completing his undergraduate at Morehouse University, a Historically Black College.
“When I was at Morehouse, I felt seen, heard and valued, like it was tailored for me. I felt like I belonged,” he said. “When I came to Graduate school, I did not feel seen, heard or valued. I did not feel like the institution was made for me nor did it feel like it was there for me and I did not feel like I belonged. So, I was essentially ‘othered.’”
Silvanus Wilson said he learned from his experience. After taking the helm as President of Morehouse College and later as Senior Advisor to the President of Harvard, he realized the institution’s responsibility for shifting the impact for its students of color because they could never be fully successful without their support.
“If you don’t feel like you belong on campus, why would reach out to the mental health services on campus?” Williams said.
The panel agreed that campuses must create safe spaces for students of color. They needed to be more than social clubs, a place for students to talk to professionals about school and life.
“It has to be an institutional priority because we’ve had diversity in higher education for the past 50 years and nobody has gotten this right,” Silvanus Wilson.