Finding Community in Your Cultural Identity
Updated: Nov 15, 2020
PHHS '17, TCNJ '21
Going to college was very exciting for me for not just the usual quirks, like being away from home and gaining independence, but also finding a community with people like myself. Back in high school, I was lucky enough to have friends who were Asian-American, but unfortunate to not have support as an LGBTQ+ student. So, it was difficult, if not frustrating, to explain the nuances of my experiences as I slowly came out of the closet. Coming to college was finally my chance to be truly myself and grow as an individual. College became not only a place for me to be academically challenged, but to find safety and confidence in my identity.
Nevertheless, finding community and solidarity in your college can be daunting and intimidating. But, many incoming freshmen like yourself will be in the same position. For the first few days, weeks, or even months, everyone coming to college will be scrambling to find their niche away from home. No matter how long it takes, I can assure you you will find your safe space.
To break down your search, I would start with student organizations. This is one of the easier ways to find community, especially if you do not know where to look. Typically, organizations/clubs have their own website, which also lists all of their social media, on the college's student organization directory. This is a great way to get a glimpse of what to join for next year and to ask any questions you may have prior to coming on campus. Some college campuses have more than one organization per identity group. Some identity groups are large enough to have their own Greek life chapter. Although it's great that there is diversity on these campuses, you will probably have a limited amount of free time as a soon-to-be busy college student.
So, to narrow down your options, participate in freshman orientation and new member events. Freshman orientation, or "welcome week" as some colleges may call it, often has student organizations plan events to encourage students to come out and participate in student life. These events can also extend beyond orientation and run through the first few weeks of September. I encourage you to push yourself and learn when new member meetings are happening and get a taste of which identity organization fits best for you. Some specialize in advocacy, others focus on social life. On smaller campuses, some organizations may function as both. It's up to you on how you want to celebrate your identity away from home.
If you get too busy within your first month of college and could not come to the new member meetings, that’s OK! You can also attend events specific to your identity. You probably celebrate these events back home: new year celebrations, religious observances, cultural festivals, and much more. Larger colleges may have a cultural center that will host these events. On the other hand, if the college is smaller, student organizations take up responsibility for hosting them. Colleges may also have events pertaining to their heritage month: Black History Month, National Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian Pacific American Month, etc. And yes, we do celebrate Gay Pride - just because Pride is in June does not mean we can’t ever celebrate it early!
There are also times when you want to talk about your identity behind closed doors. You may be struggling to understand your background in relation to your mental health. If that’s the case, you may be interested in looking into group counseling. One of the perks of college is having reduced cost or free group counseling, all paid by your tuition. Many of these groups may also focus on a specific identity to better understand how it intersects with your mental health. These groups don't necessarily always talk about identity, but really serve to surround yourself with people like you.
As exciting as college can be, it is important to discuss your rights as a part of an underrepresented group. How can we protect our rights as underrepresented individuals? Although we wish our college experience would be worry-free, being apart of a minority does come with risk of discrimination. It’s important to speak up about bias in your college experience - not only will you be protecting yourself, but others as well from discrimination. There are some avenues you could go to address bias; note that this list is not exhaustive of every resource, as every school differs in their approach to bias:
Your campus's Diversity and Inclusion department: Many colleges are equipped to have departments like these to safely report and investigate bias and discrimination. Connecting with your department helps not only protect yourself from further discrimination, but inform your college of the general atmosphere and safety of the student body.
Title IX: Title IX is prepared to handle discrimination and harassment cases based on sex and gender. A person of any sexual/gender identity can file a case.
Dean of Students: The Dean of Students investigates a wide range of cases concerning student life. The cases range from student misconduct (harassment or discrimination) to life-threatening events (poverty, food insecurity, family death, etc.). If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call emergency services or campus police instead.
You won't find the entire minority student body in their respective clubs or cultural centers. But, underrepresented students can be found elsewhere: your classes, other interest groups, sports teams, and much more. It may take some courage during the first few months to find friends like yourself, but you will find your place. College is a time for self-discovery - it will take time to find out who you want to be and what kind of people you want to surround yourself in.