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Beyond numbers: creating a sense of belonging in a sea of students

It was my first week of college, everything and everyone was new. I assumed other first-year students were feeling the same anxious excitement I felt, and that was confirmed at the Cal Club Soccer tryouts. There was a clearly heightened desire among first-year students to make the team, but was it for the love of the sport or for something else? 

For me, it was something else.

I wanted to belong. I wanted an instant community on campus during my first weeks there. The last thing I wanted was to be lost in a school of over 40,000 students and just become another number in the system of higher education. I wanted my university to feel like home, but that wasn’t going to be easy. When I arrived on campus, I quickly noticed I didn’t have any prior connections (which was not the case for most of my peers who knew other students who came from their high schools), and those who looked like me, being a person of color, around campus were sparse at best.

While other students were talking about their month-long trips to Europe during the summer before college and connecting over the cities they visited, all I could share was my visit to Mexicali with a few of my closest friends. Right away, I felt out of place. We chose to drive down to the California-Mexico border from Sacramento since it was comparatively inexpensive and we could stay at my friend's place in El Centro free of charge. These conditions made the trip economically feasible for us and was the only way we could afford the trip. Unfortunately, a month-long trip to Europe for us was nothing more than an unrealistic dream. 

As the months passed, I focused on my classes and figured that if I could excel academically, friends would come naturally. That sadly was not the case. It took weeks, even months, for me to find community, but when I finally did, I vowed to do everything in my power to ensure that other students of color felt welcome when they first stepped foot on campus.

Numerous studies have proven the benefit of racial diversity in areas of higher learning. The exposure to different perspectives sparks an environment of fusion and a discussion where all individuals can learn more from one another and the unique experiences they bring. However, the U.S. has recently seen a  push against efforts of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) in higher learning education across the country, most visibly in Republican-controlled states. 

Those efforts are unwelcome in an era where students of color face a plethora of disproportionate challenges at universities that in many ways serve as inhibitors to their success. Graduation and retention rates among Black and Brown students are significantly lower in comparison to their caucasian counterparts, while studies find that students of color are often more stressed and anxious than other students on campus. Campus leadership cannot ignore or brush under the rug the mental health toll of being a minority in predominantly white-serving institutions. If educational leaders want students of color at their institutions to spark holistic discussion, then they must make an effort to ensure those students have the necessary resources available and accessible to thrive there.

The way in which our society thinks and talks about the issues that students of color face in higher education makes a difference, and using communication strategies as an ally in the battle for educational equity is pivotal to its success. Centering lived experiences in the discussion of how to make higher education more inclusive is an important step toward using communication to solve issues in higher education institutions. Those focused on educational policy must focus on centering the right voices while refusing to acknowledge the notion of eliminating DEI initiatives as is currently happening in Florida with Governor DeSantis’ crippling rhetoric. Giving any acknowledgement to that and other harmful proposals only amplifies radical republicans’ positions and spreads their rhetoric. Instead, by using communication channels wisely and efficiently, educational policy leaders can ensure that power is put back into students’ hands. While interning at Spitfire, I learned valuable communication skills and strategies, such as leaning into the power of lived experiences and focusing on what brings Americans together instead of what pushes us apart. 

Today, we must center the idea that we all want students to not only have a good college experience but also graduate from institutions to then better society. That is something society can all agree on and is the central solution to the problem. Together, we must take an introspective look at ourselves and our institutions and then make changes that will ensure all voices and backgrounds are welcoming spaces of higher learning. Student advocates and student affinity groups across campuses have laid the groundwork for that, but they only achieve their goals if those goals become ours.

This blog was written by Spitfire Intern and Coro Fellow Mateo Torrico

This entry was posted on Tuesday, June 6, 2023 at 12:03 pm and is filed under Coalition, connection and network building and Spitfire culture. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.