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From Despair to Repair: Preparing College Students to Navigate Racial Conflicts on Campus

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Kevin is a 19-year-old college freshman at a predominantly white, mid-Atlantic university. Much of this essay is based on his true story, and he graciously allowed me to share his experience in this public forum.

Kevin is a slender, black male with dreadlocks and upper-body tattoos. Around Kevin's neck is a silver dog tag depicting the image of his beloved older brother, who was gunned down in a "drug deal gone wrong" as he puts it. Born in a low-income community in Washington, D.C., Kevin embodies all of the statistical signposts indicating a supposed life of perpetual poverty. And though both of his parents are recovering from the personal and economic ravages of the rampant drug abuse prevalent during the 1980s and 1990s, his family has stayed united.

While Kevin was my high school English student four years ago, he still remains one of my closest mentees. After graduating from high school two years ago, Kevin wavered on attending a four-year college, much to the dismay of his teachers and his closest friends from school. After graduating in the top percentage of his class, and as the year progressed, he took a job at a local sneaker shop. Gradually, his family grew to rely on his meager income, which he faithfully contributed. He worked while balancing not only his duties as a caregiver and mentor to local elementary age family members and neighborhood kids, but also the responsibilities of studying for the courses he took at the local, vocational, for-profit college.

In our conversations, I discovered that, though he did well, Kevin consistently found his courses to be remedial, uninspiring and disengaging. So I urged Kevin to consider applying to a four-year college. And after some gentle persuasion in the fall of 2011, he forfeited re-enrollment at his vocational institute for the spring 2012 semester and began both studying for the SAT and researching four-year colleges and universities with my assistance.

We both were excited about the prospects for his college enrollment. We talked at length about why college was so essential for his economic and personal security. For months, we prepared for the SATs, worked to secure letters of recommendation from teachers and navigated the websites of dozens of colleges and universities. We then thoroughly and carefully perused majors and programs that aligned both with his personal and academic interests and that would provide him opportunities in careers that would offer the best chances at economic stability upon graduation. He was accepted into both of the schools to which he applied and chose a medium-sized, predominantly white university in the mid-Atlantic. The entire community surrounding Kevin was elated, and none more than I, upon his acceptance.

Following his acceptance, we spent hours thinking about this college transition, talking about the logistics of loans, majors of studies, and how to live away from home. We visited campus during their multicultural student orientation day, and interacted with talented black, Asian and latino/a students from communities similar to the one from where he originated. I thought that Kevin and I had done all that could be done to best prepare for a relatively smooth transition. However, though we discussed loans, logistics and laundry, I failed to adequately ready him for the eventual racially charged encounters he would face.

A few days prior to the writing of this piece, which would have been only a week after Kevin arrived on campus, he called me after midnight to share a troubling encounter he had with one of his peers. Kevin spent a good deal of his first week with a young lady he'd met in his orientation group and slowly began to forge a meaningful friendship. Interestingly, his new friend Liz is white, upper-middle class and embodies the trappings of privilege, which many say might make it difficult for "someone like her" to be friends with "someone like him." Perhaps this proved to be true.

In a conversation with Liz that lingered from an English class they shared, Kevin accurately corrected a grammatical error in a sentence posed in the lecture. To do this, Kevin drew on his knowledge of proper English language conventions. This shocked his new friend. Liz was taken aback, and stated something to effect of, "Wow, how'd you know that?" Kevin urged her to say why she thought he wouldn't have known it and puzzled and visually perplexed, she said, "I just didn't think you'd know something like that." This incident was conflated by a comment Liz made earlier referencing her white friends' dislike of her "hanging out with black guys with dreads."

Kevin was shaken by this encounter and with what he saw as the racially charged implications in her statements. He walked away from her, not having the words to express his hurt, despair, and puzzlement after experiencing a racial and cultural conflict with someone who he thought was a friend. Kevin called me and we chatted at length about this experience, and I immediately thought about how all the preparation we did to get him to this point amounted to little considering how defeated this incident made him feel.

His story resonated even more because I remembered immediately similar incidents occurring for me when I was an undergraduate at a predominantly white university. I used the lessons I gleaned from own college experiences as a frame from which to think about Kevin's situation, as we discussed, as he noted, "what would make her say something like that?" And as he talked, I wondered the following: Kevin and I worked so hard to get him into college and did so much to get ready for so many possible scenarios. But why did I let this young man go off to a rural, predominantly white school without discussing with him more concrete ways to deal with racially-charged situations that I knew were inevitable? I thought for a second and gave him a few things to think about.

I argue that the practice of critical remembering is key for marginalized students, in particular. Often new and different social contexts can jar vulnerable students so much that they can go off-course, lose themselves to a fault, and succumb to the negative portrayals embodied in others' responses to their mere presence. I urged Kevin to remember both where he came from and all that he did to get into college. Drawing from a critical remembrance is essential, as students like Kevin need encouragement to constantly draw from memories, which tap into wells of strength and courage thus allowing students to make it through difficult encounters in new spaces. I pushed Kevin to develop a clear understanding of all that he had to sacrifice, risk, and resist, to achieve academic and social successes. First generation black collegiate males in particular, like Kevin, must constantly reflect upon their reasons for deciding to attend college, as inherent in these underlying reasons is the understanding that they are trailblazers for their families and communities. Their mere presence on a college campus remains an affront to the stereotypical and vehemently damaging images that pervade the mindsets of so many about the worth and potential of black males.

I also told Kevin that I doubted that his friend was a racist per se and that what he encountered could be viewed as evidence for the inherent clash of cultures and worldviews that happens when individuals encounter racial or cultural difference. And while it was not his duty to teach Liz about how to better interact with those unlike her, it was his duty to at least begin to make meaning of the situation, heal, and move on. Scholars, like Dr. Rich Milner at Vanderbilt University, have written about cultural conflicts that happen between white teachers and their students of color. When a cultural conflict happens, a positive result of this seemingly negative occurrence can occur when these cultural misunderstandings evolve into a source of learning and growth (see my review of Rich Milner's book Start Where You Are, But Don't Stay There: Understanding Diversity, Opportunity Gaps and Teaching in Today's Classrooms).

Liz has much to learn from this situation, too. What Liz could glean is how her position as a white student, makes her cultural ways of knowing and being privileged and constantly validated on campus, while Kevin's ways of knowing and being find greater scrutiny and penalty. I urged Kevin to consider healing with his friend, as many times these cultural clashes evolve into illuminating discussions of race, class, and gender privilege that make for priceless learning opportunities on college campuses.

Discussions of race and identity are constantly avoided on many campuses, as students shy away from situations where their identity is questioned and retreat to their respective race, gender or class-based pockets of familiarity and comfort. These pockets mirror society, where boundaries remain un-crossed, mindsets remain un-interrogated and social inequities and misunderstandings persist because of a fear or disinterest in confronting and grappling with these issues.

Kevin, and thousands of students like him have traversed amazingly daunting personal obstacles to matriculate at a college. While Kevin is in the minority, because of his race, class and gender identities at his predominantly white rural college, he has earned the right, like everyone else, to learn, mature, grow, have fun, and even stumble from time to time, in a relatively safe and secure environment.

Kevin, and many others like him, can harness power and agency, even in these tough moments. While these conflicts might sting, they need not decimate and flatten student's abilities to build, grow, re-coup and move on. To do this, though, it is essential that students must be prepared to do the work of understanding and working with each other in these increasingly diverse spaces, as their survival and success depends on the mindsets with which they bring to these issues. Furthermore, we must constantly remind marginalized students of their worth, and encourage them to harness the resilience that undergirds their journeys to these far-off college campuses.

Those of us who work to aid students in getting to college need to think a bit more about how well these students are emotionally and psychologically prepared to confront the racial and cultural conflicts they will encounter. These cultural conflicts can be devastating to vulnerable students, but they assuredly need not be. I urge parents, teachers, mentors, guidance counselors and many others who engage in the work of preparing students for college to accompany their pragmatic preparation efforts (e.g. ensuring they have books for classes), with personal preparation for the cultural conflicts they will encounter once they arrive.