After graduating from Rochester Institute of Technology in 2011, I had some buffer time to think a few weeks before I got in deep with the masters program. I had a lot of thoughts on my experiences. I’ll admit, I had a lot of raw feelings too. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Freshman year through senior year I experienced my share of sexism, racism, and classism. To list a few scenarios:
- Almost getting into a fight with a grown man trying to rape my half-conscious drunken friend. In result I was accused of being “a lesbian” by the predator.
- Being called a lesbian simply because I didn’t giggle at every “big man” on campus.
- Being told I was “asking too much” from black men to simply respect me, by black men.
- A sorority I was interested in told me that if I had to “max out a credit card or two”, I had to do what I had to do in order to join. After informing them I was an independent student with no parental monetary support.
- Being told by professors (black and white) that I should assimilate instead of displaying any form of my culture or blackness. Like having a southern accent (and getting a lower grade for it) and putting “Society of African American Business Students” on my resumé.
- Middle class/upper middle class black students making light of poor people’s circumstances or more directly my lack of funding.
There are many more situations. However I have a few pointers for black and working class students attending RIT. These tips can/may apply to different spectrums of marginalized students at other predominately white and upper class institutions as well. However, I speak from my perspective.
Don’t assume that other students of color can immediately identify with you.
I made this mistake and got fooled. I didn’t grow up with black people with money. Didn’t meet many either. So I ended up having a foreign feeling with most of my Unity House (Special Interest Dorm for students of color) peers. Also, I got some shade for not having up to date material items. In one person’s dorm; you could find flat screen TVs, an XBOX, the latest phone, etc. In my room: some clothes, a picture, a old donated laptop, a shower caddy, and personal care products. So some people had to get corrected for trying to style on me. Not saying you can’t be friends, just be aware of these different backgrounds.
Not all Black professors are looking out for you.
There will be times where a professor will say the most sideways and prejudice things; including black professors. As I referenced before, there was a professor that decided to lecture me about my resumé showing that “I’m black”. I know that this is coming from a place of coping probably. A place of realism. However, this isn’t empowering either way. It just made me feel bad for wanting to contribute black student life. Why would I want to work for someone like that anyway? The problems would just keep coming.
Yes, working damn near or actual full time sucks. Yes, it’s okay to feel a bit salty when you see kids crashing their parentally funded Cadillacs.
Have your moment. Cry if you need to. Yes, you are surrounded by peers who can’t really begin to understand what this is like. That’s not their fault really, but you know this feeling will come anyway.
As a person who had up to three jobs just to pay for textbooks, bills, and other life expenses; I was tired. I ran myself into the ground. I was working way too much. To the point it took a torn through ACL and meniscus to actually get me to slow down. After my ACL reconstruction surgery* I was slowed down to one job. It was actually the best thing that ever happened for my health. Yes, I was still strapped for cash but I’m one of the few lucky ones that got significant financial aid. That quarter I had the best quarterly GPA I ever had and didn’t feel like my body was falling apart anymore. Anyway you can take care of yourself, do it. Do it without shame. You’re tired, get you a glass of wine [if over 21 of course, I have to put that in there at least]. Save up for a $40 massage. Aromatherapy. Something.
*if you’re an independent get you some medicaid too buddy, after 90 days you are a NY state resident.
Hustle. I’m so sincere.
As frequently as you can, look for opportunity on campus. This applies to many but your hustle is your survival and we both know going back home isn’t really on the list. You need to heal and probably living on campus while just visiting home for a few days can work out better.
What’s that program? If a favorite professor is working on some initiative, get put on. Study abroad? Mentorship program? Better job? McNair? Get yours. Send that email right now, not tomorrow. We all know if you weren’t in HEOP or MCAS Summer Bridge (formerly known as North Star), you may have slipped through the cracks support wise. So ask, search, apply, repeat. Every summer after freshman year I stayed on campus with my co-op or summer jobs (also relevant to my field!) and had some great times.
Speaking of good times, don’t feel bad for having them.
The first few weeks on campus I was in a whirlwind of feelings. Yet I decided to do something I’d never do at home. I got a 24 oz. bottle of Pepsi and a whole medium pizza from Papa Johns; and tore it all up for myself. I didn’t offer not one slice to my roommates. Pepsi was a luxury in my childhood and there was something redeeming about that moment. It was not healthy food at all, but I’d do it all again. I had looming guilt for a while when I thought I should be at home helping out but at a point you must realize you deserve happiness too. They’re adults in your family, you are not the sole burden holder for the plights of your family because you did not start this family. It’s okay to live.
Speak out against Patriarchy
Specific to RIT, I faced much sexism. So did my other female peers. I always regret not organizing around this and doing more about it. Women were stalked by exes, manhandled at parties, and shunned for expressing overt sexuality. Frat culture parties were especially hostile for me and other women I know. I noticed not many did anything to stop it either. I stood up for myself often. In result got called many names for it. It was something in the air I did not like at community events that talked about gender roles in very confined ways. It irked me to no end. I wish I pushed the envelope more on a wider scale. Men and women should speak up about this. To make an inclusive environment.
Get some counseling.
On my end I had issues with dealing with my past and translating that over to a “normal” life. Age 1-17 I can name chaos that affected me heavily for nearly every year of that 17 year span. I had PTSD, depression, rage, and a host of other residual issues. My junior year I decided to do outreach in a more organic way to a professional I met through one of my circumstances. I decided to just make the decision to get a different perspective on how to cope. I grew up with a confrontational life. So dealing with outwardly messed up people to mildly annoying passive aggressive people wasn’t the smoothest transition. I had to change my patterns and deal with my past.
One last thing. You don’t have to leave “it” behind.
I went through a period of “I’m never going back!”. I didn’t want to think about my past. I didn’t want to step foot back on territory that flooded my mind with horrible memories. I didn’t want to be reminded of anything. Now that I healed and allowed myself some room. I’ve rededicated myself to fight the structural plights I went through growing up. I realized just running away doesn’t help me or anyone else. I feel obligated now to at least be a resource to kids who grew up like me. I know better now and I feel more equipped, to help deter them from the horrors I experienced that could have been prevented.
These are the things I wish I had a more immediate awareness of. I am speaking from the years 2007-2011, so I’m not sure how the climate is at RIT these days. Yet, I still feel students who were like me may still struggle in some areas. So I hope this helped in some way.
Some RIT resources I utilized:
The Center for Women and Gender.
Great people to speak with in there. For any gender, no matter how you identify.
Locate Enrollment Facilitators for Medicaid [see Monroe]. They help you apply and facilitate the process.
Unity House (Lived there freshman year. Served on club board my sophomore year. Don’t regret it at all. Made friends I’m still tight with today)
Daylight Lamps/bulbs (for early morning shifts and general northern climate darkness)
The sauna and the pool at the RIT Gym. Water therapy and a hot room will loosen up the tenseness you feel from all those shifts.
Take a communications class with Dr. Keith Jenkins. His classes not only open up your line of thinking but they offer more narratives to the black experience. His classes were empowering for me.