How does a black student have a sense of culture on a predominantly white campus? That is the question I asked myself within the first week of my freshman year at Vanderbilt, but it is was never a question I ever considered during my college search. Being accepted to a top 20 university was such an accomplishment that I didn't care if the people were white, black, or green. In retrospect, I wish I had thought about the cultural dynamic before I made a definite decision.
One weekend during the spring semester Vanderbilt invites rising college freshmen from different cultures and backgrounds to the campus to convince them that Vanderbilt is not only an amazing choice academically, but also a great choice for diverse students. This weekend is called Mosaic, and typically students that are invited to Mosaic have already been accepted to Vanderbilt but have not confirmed that they will attend the university. The weekend showcases all of the various cultural organizations on campus and allows for the rising freshmen to get a head start at meeting other potential Vanderbilt students who are similar to them. When I visited Vanderbilt's campus during my junior year in high school I paid absolutely no attention to who was on campus, and being an early decision applicant, I did not get the Mosaic experience because I confirmed my attendance during my first semester of senior year in high school.
I stepped onto campus blind to color, culture and the like, but it did not take me long to figure out that black culture at Vanderbilt was something that I had to actively seek out. Culture was not necessarily something that was integral to my upbringing; my family has never been the down home, chicken frying, pig feet eating family that is characteristic of black culture. We never had family reunions, we never congregated during times other than holidays, and my grandmother was not the "big mama" type. The black culture in my family is one of great music, family stories, crazy cousins, and lots of laughter. Maybe my different outlook on what culture is made it somewhat difficult for me to find culture on campus. I saw the efforts of the Black Student Alliance and the African Student Union trying to make the black freshmen feel welcome and included, but as far as I was concerned, I still felt a lack of culture.
A major culture shock that I experienced was the overwhelming amount of white students there were. I had never been around so many white people in my life, and that is another reason why I felt lost in trying to find a sense of culture on campus. The black community at Vanderbilt is relatively small compared to other campuses, and finding people that had a similar sense of culture to mine was very hard. I would talk to friends of mine from high school that attended either public universities or historically black colleges and none of them seemed to be struggling with culture like I was at Vanderbilt. My friends had great stories about their cultural experiences; they told me about weekly cookouts, pop up step shows on the quad, crawfish boils, fish fries, etc., and all of those events were opportunities for the black students on those campuses to bond and create culture. Not saying that the black population at Vanderbilt never does this, but the events were few and far between. Taking into consideration that white fraternities threw parties and had events on a weekly basis, as a freshman I just couldn't understand why the black community did not have a bigger presence on campus. There aren't many of us to begin with, but I always felt like the cultural experience would be better if the black population had more opportunities to create stronger cultural connections.
Black events on campus are kind of hit or miss, they can be really fun or they can be really unexciting. One of the first events I attended as a freshman at Vanderbilt was the Black Student Alliance's Back to School Carnival. The event was held on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in the middle of Alumni Lawn; there was food, inflatables, games, music, etc., but one thing that I did not see was a lot of people. Being a freshman, I wanted to experience everything, so my friends and I went and we had a good time playing the games with each other and bouncing around in the bounce houses. I could not understand why there weren't more people there, but I ended up finding out that not many black students attend the Back to School Carnival. Here was an example of the black community at Vanderbilt being given the opportunity to bond and make connections, but only a handful of people came to the event. When I returned to Vanderbilt for my second year, I went to the Back to School Carnival again; there were a lot more people and it was more fun than the year before, an obvious step in the right direction for black culture on campus.
After having a year under my belt, I definitely see more black culture on campus. As I mentioned before, it was something that I had to consciously seek out, but it was there nonetheless. I never realized before how important culture is, individually and collectively. From being at Vanderbilt, I realized that black culture isn't about soul food and dirty secrets; black culture is black people standing together as one unit, one entity. For the most part, that is what black culture at Vanderbilt displays. What I initially deemed as a disadvantage is, in actuality, a blessing in disguise. Despite the fact that there are so few of us and we don't have an extremely strong presence on campus, we still hold our own and support each other.
I cannot speak for black students on other campuses; all I know about their culture is what I am told, but I do know something about black culture on Vanderbilt's campus, pertaining to me at least. Admittedly, I wish I had done more research on Vanderbilt's demographics before making a final decision for the simple reason of knowing what I was getting into before I got here. Thankfully, culture has indeed revealed itself, and I have come to know and include certain people in my cultural experience. There is great music, hilarious stories, friends that are quite reminiscent of crazy cousins, and laughter is in abundance, just like the culture in my family. Culture was not an important part of my childhood, but I can tell that it will have a pretty dominant role in the rest of my life. The impact of culture on a black student at a predominantly white university might take some time to find, but finding it is just the beginning.