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Life as a Minority at a PWI

Photo courtesy of the Columbia Daily Spectator

I have attended predominantly white institutions (PWI) for most of my life. According to M. Christopher Brown II & T. Elon Dancy II, those are defined as institutions of higher learning in which whites account for 50% or greater of the student enrollment. I use the word PWI throughout this piece because that is what it felt like to attend these institutions. I grew up in an upper-middle-class suburban town in North Carolina that is mostly populated by white, Southeast Asian and East Asian people. So if you happened to be a part of any other minority group, namely Black or Hispanic, you were consistently excluded. During my time in the public school system, it consistently felt as though your voice would not be heard if you were not a part of the aforementioned groups. It felt like screaming into a void because no one seemed to listen. We live in a time where segregation in the public school system is not supposed to exist, but it does and it is still a very present problem in the U.S. This is why I will use PWI when describing my time spent in the public school systems.

In these predominantly white institutions, you either had to be number one in your class or cure some sort of “problem” that was happening within your community. If not, you would be excluded from the academically rigorous opportunities presented by the professors and the school itself.

One of the experiences that shocked me was that our middle schools already had clubs aimed at the STEM field. They had meetings that occurred only after school hours, but most of the students attending this after-school program lived exclusively within a 10 mile radius away from the school. During this time, I lived at the edge of the city where the only opportunity I had to go home was by bus. Because of this, I felt as if there were barriers for those who did not have enough resources to stay after school to participate. There was another transition in middle school when students from other ethnicities began adopting the individualist culture that America is notoriously known for, rather than the collectivism that their parents and grandparents may have had. This was most visible when classes began to get “harder”: students and teachers began to deny help for those that needed it and began singling out those that were not “up to par” with the school’s needs. Though this action may seem small, it started an almost ripple effect situation in which students started valuing and using their ego to achieve anything even if it meant that the community as a whole would suffer. A great example of this was when students began finding ways to dismiss others’ achievements because it wasn’t the “A+” that they received. Students began looking for validation from superiors rather than questioning why they were the only ones dominating the honor rolls and leadership compared to those from minority groups. As someone whose culture is solely focused on the well being of their family members and others, this environment always felt off.

Since these STEM clubs were already being implemented in middle school, the tone was set for what high school was going to be like. High school came around the corner, and this was truly the “survival of the fittest” atmosphere. You were either in all AP classes or you were a nobody in the eyes of the administration. My high school was notoriously known for being an academically competitive school as well as having students with the highest achievements in the public system. Everyone had high expectations of what you were supposed to be in the future and how the school expected you to act in the classroom setting, because of its reputation. This set a huge divide between students that already had these resources available to them since middle school and students that were being bussed in from different cities. During my time at this school, I served as secretary for the environmental club because I was really passionate about the environment during those years. As time went on, I slowly became aware that there was no one who looked like me, acted like me or was the same ethnicity as me. This could be applied for leadership positions, student diversity in the classroom and especially in teachers and administrators. It always ended up with me bringing up tough conversation classrooms and clubs I was a part of. It felt as though no one in the school understood what it meant to be a minority. They expected minority students to take charge and be the leaders of “change” but realistically that was and never will be the case. How can a student who didn’t have these prior experiences or resources be the change? It did not make sense to me.

In college this changed; I saw more minority women taking charge and coming into leadership positions. There have been instances where students want change to happen on campus; however, administrators would be reluctant to show support for these changes. Meredith College is a school where the majority of students on campus happen to be white and financially well off. That being said, it is important to keep in mind that minorities on campus cannot facilitate change by themselves. They need the support of the majority in order to have their voices heard. This could include calling out any microaggressions that are seen on campus or on social media.

Although I have seen the obsessiveness, competitiveness and individualistic nature that PWIs foster towards students, I have also seen the benefits of it. I benefited from these environments first hand because they shaped me into who I am today; but that does not change the fact that I and other minority students felt a barrier between us and those that had resources available to them.

By Sofia Gomez, Podcasting Director


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