College Admit Season: What Are You Doing to Create a Space of Belonging?

We’re in the season of college acceptances which can bring a great source of stress, joy, and disbelief. We are captivated by the announcements from family, friends, and complete strangers who leap out of computer chairs wearing hoodies from their top choice school.

But what happens once these students arrive on campuses which are far removed from the places in which they feel a sense of belonging?

When I was 18 I went to Loyola Marymount University. Up until that point I had met maybe a couple of White people my age and only knew home to be Boyle Heights.

So many of us navigate college applications, choice, and college life blindly.

My parents are both immigrants from Mexico. My dad attended elementary school when he wasn’t working as a farm hand. His education stopped at the 3rd grade. My mom attended school sporadically up until the 6th grade. As the eldest, she regularly stayed home to babysit her younger seven siblings. At 14 she was pulled out of school permanently to work double shifts in the garment district. My parents met in LA working at Cliftons Cafeteria, got married at the Guadalupe Wedding Chapel on Broadway, and settled in a studio apartment on Union in Westlake. After one too many close calls with the regular drive-by’s, they decided to head East to Boyle Heights where my older sister and I attended Evergreen elementary. My childhood consisted of a few short blocks from school to Brooklyn (now Cesar Chavez). In the Summer we would get a dosage of alternate reality, of paradise, of two months spent in Villa Coronado, Chihuahua, MX (a small town that you have to really zoom in and know where to look to find it on a map) with my abuelito, tias and tios, and gaggle of primos. These spaces clung to me like a second skin, familiar and glowing.

Students of color will experience a multitude of microaggressions. What is your school doing to counterbalance the harm enacted by the environment you are bringing them into?

So when I walked onto the Marina Del Rey beautiful campus by the beach, I was elated. As I was unloading my things from the car a group of fraternity brothers walked by and stopped to stare and ask, “Hey! What are you?! We have a bet going. My bet is that you are Peruvian, they think you are Colombian.” Confused and feeling the red flame of self-consciousness lick my skin as my mom stood next to me I answered, “I’m Mexican.” They made a face and said, “Really? You’re Mexican? That’s too bad.” And without another word they walked off, their confident strut irking me even more. “Qué dijó?” my mom asked, “No sé.” I played dumb, trying hard to shrug it off.

Later that week I became friends with Kirsten whose name I found it so hard to pronounce that I practiced it over and over again as I showered and got ready for the day’s activities. I was so excited to make a friend and I really didn’t want to mess up her name. As we walked across campus, I noticed her curly-haired, blonde, lightly tanned, blue-eyed, with a slight bounce to her walk and me, canela-colored, dark stick straight hair, dark eyes, and with a determined stride, I thought wow this is really working. As we walked I caught the eye of an older Latina woman who looked lost and she asked me for directions in Spanish. Excited to know where she wanted to go I eagerly gave her directions in Spanish with a big smile. I felt the warmth of her gratitude as she said, “Gracias mijita!” Maybe that’s why it stung even more when Kirsten turned to me with a fuchi face and a hand on her hip to ask with disdain, “You speak Mexican?” “Nooo, I speak Spanish. I’m Mexican.” “Oh. I thought you were just really tanned.” We didn’t hang out after that. I wish I could say that I walked away with my forehead high with pride but that wasn’t the case. I was so hungry for connection that I would have kept hanging out with her if she didn’t start avoiding me.

Your students should not suffer from your failure to plan.

LMU didn’t have enough dorms for all of the freshman so they placed students into creative overflow housing. Some students were staying at a nearby nice hotel. I was placed into a temporary space (a converted study room with bunkbeds pushed in where we were told not to decorate since it was temporary) with a freshman who I was so excited to find out also spoke Spanish. Her Salvadorean parents visited often that week and I longed to be included in their tight knit trio. She was moved out to a permanent freshman housing a few days later so we never got a chance to connect. I felt like they took the two Latinas and shoved them wherever without any consideration. I felt like an estorbo. Because I didn’t have an official dorm room number, I didn’t receive any of the freshman dorm emails. Everyone seemed to be making friends fast and I just felt like an outsider. After a couple of weeks I was moved to a Sophomore dorm where my roommate was a White girl from Arizona, who corrected me and informed me she was Jewish. My suite mates were a bubbly blonde from Brazil and a Latina who didn’t speak Spanish and whose family had lived in the US for generations. They were nice but I didn’t blame them for not wanting a frosh around. I cringe when I remember how awkward I was around them. I would say I owe my former roommate the chocolate I took from her bin during my depression-driven compulsive binging but she was an incredibly unfriendly roommate so I will finally forgive myself and call it square.

I was so painfully lonely. I didn’t know how to just be me. I didn’t feel like I had the chance. Every time I met someone, they asked me, “What are you?” I felt excruciatingly awkward trying to get them to understand that I was Mexican and born in LA. It became easier to just nod when they assumed I was a foreign international student. Sometimes I leaned into whatever they thought I was, I was so damn hungry for friends.

You must provide mental health education and support to all students.

Then a few weeks into school I had issues with my computer and had to call IT. An older Filipino man walked in and asked me if I was Filipina. I said no but that I got asked that a lot, smiling to signal that I took it as a compliment. I had a quick realization that we were alone in my room. It made me uncomfortable but I didn’t know how to handle it. Could I ask him to come back? Don’t be ridiculous I told myself. Then he asked me a series of really personal questions: “Do you have a boyfriend? I bet you don’t, you look like a good girl.” I said no even though I technically did. I felt ashamed for lying to please this older man. Was I being respectful or was I falling into my old patterns of victim and abuser? I waved it off. “Are you a virgin?” He asked as he handed me a disk to clean my computer drive, his finger caressing my hand as I took it. I felt sick in my stomach. “I have to go to class now.” I lied. The room felt hot and I felt like I was falling out of consciousness (I now know that my body was disassociating, a helpful skill I learned when I was being abused as a child). He got up, annoyed, and stated that it was going to take another two hours for the disk to work (a lie). I insisted I couldn’t be late to class, to my theology class, I emphasized. I pandered to his good girl conversation thread hoping he would believe me and leave. He smiled, whispering close to my ear, “Well since you’re such a good girl…” He paused looking down at my chest and scanning my body for several seconds. “…I will leave you the disk. When you’re done with classes you can bring it to me tonight. My office is in the basement. Very quiet. I will wait for you.” I smiled brightly and nodded as I walked him out. As soon as he left I wanted to scratch my eyes out and jump out the window. I felt sick. Ashamed. Dirty.

I was carrying so much pain without the vocabulary to name what happened or the reassurance that it wasn’t my fault.

The exchange triggered all of my past sexual trauma. The IT tech kept calling several times a day using the disk as an excuse. This was not a store-bought software, it was software burned onto a generic CD that I’m sure he had several copies of.

His unwelcome and inappropriate advances (and his access to me) triggered a deep depression that took me from acing my 20 units to failing. I stopped going to class. I was scared to go out. I was ashamed of being scared. Nothing happened I told myself. The calls didn’t stop and I was so scared that he would drop by. I begged my suite mates to return it for me.

The thread between first-gen college and low-income students and their university is incredibly tenuous given all that we have to do to be able to attend.

I was holding four jobs at the time. I sorted books at the library and was a receptionist at an office – both jobs work study, meaning checks that went directly to my tuition. My third job was from sorting shoes at a Mervyn’s 30 miles away, a 2+hr bus ride each way, where I worked from 11 PM – almost 4 AM several days a week. My fourth job was Fri- Sun as a grill cook at the Los Angeles County Hospital, a job I held throughout high school. I worked so that I could meet the roughly $1K/month parent contribution that my parents couldn’t contribute to. They had four other kids and made minimum wage, well under the poverty line in LA. They were used to me helping them financially, there was no way to ask them. Ask them for what? To kill themselves further so that I could go to a private school? I felt so uninformed and stupid. I went to the dean’s office to tell them that I was struggling financially, emotionally, and now academically. I asked if there was any way I could qualify for additional loans. I got an “understanding smile” and apology that more couldn’t be done. I spoke to my professors (who were almost all masters students) for help and they shrugged their shoulders, no special treatment and all that. In their defense I didn’t say why I was struggling. I was too damn ashamed. In my defense, I didn’t feel seen, heard, and nowhere near safe in order to open up.

College Dropout.

Shortly after my mother was getting surgery and would be unable to work for months. She was struggling financially and while she didn’t ask, she didn’t say no when I said I’d take a leave of absence to come home and work and help. The decision was easy to make because I had no roots at LMU. I lacked a support system. I lacked a guide. I lacked a sense of belonging.

I never went back and no one at LMU ever reached out.

I never went back to LMU and it took me 14 years to get back to school full time. I’m lucky. The overwhelming majority of college students who dropout, including prospective students who accept but don’t end up attending any school largely due to financial constraints (Summer melt) and those who dropout after starting school, never return to school. As a first-gen college, low-income, daughter of Mexican immigrants who lived below the poverty line, I had a lot of cards stacked against me. These are data points that can easily be tracked. This data should be used to plan for and accommodate students.

I understand that it is hard for large universities to provide personalized services but it is unethical to accept students who meet your quotas, who you charge the same tuition, and whose personal statements clearly state their mental health crises – and not do a damn thing for them once they are on campus.

I was saddled with a lot of debt from just one semester. I was also saddled with a heavy feeling of failure. Of letting my parents down. Of disappointing my high school teachers. Of loss.

There were many little and easy things that could have been done to prevent me from leaving. Instead, many things and non-actions on LMU’s part prevented me from feeling welcome, from feeling like I belonged.

So I ask again, what are you doing to ensure that your prospective students can come to see your school as home? What are you doing to ensure that they can feel like they belong?

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