Social Justice College Counseling Part 2: The Other 2%

This is the second piece in a series I am calling Social Justice College Counseling, things to think about in terms of my philosophy when I am counseling students and families about college. The first in the series talked about finances and making sure students (1) graduate from college and (2) when they do, are free to make decisions that have little to do with paying back an enormous debt.

With that said, there is something else that is critical to consider when advising students of color, undocumented, first generation, migrant, and low-income students and girls about where they should attend school and this something is not one I hear most college counselors talk about.

When I was in graduate school at UCLA, I was also a researcher for an organization called the College Access Project for African Americans. I looked at enrollment data for African Americans and Latinos in the UC- and CSU-systems before and after Proposition 209 prohibited race-based affirmative action in California. It seemed to me that the institutions used the law to accept even fewer students of color than they already were so universities such as UCLA and Berkeley went from about 7% to 3% African Americans enrolled. Coupled with a state that was and is broke, a Black student who gained admissions to UCLA, for example, with little funding was likely getting into Yale with full funding so off they went to Yale, of course. Long story short, it was and is hard to find certain groups of students on certain campuses.

Back to being at UCLA. In one of those years, UCLA enrolled six African American non-athlete males. Six. I was a TA that following year when an African American male student approached me during a final exam study session and said, “sis, I’m one of the six and I really need your help.” That has stuck with me in the years to follow and now I think about my son being in that same situation one day.

When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of affirmative action in Bakke v. UC Regents in 1976, one of the arguments was that we need students of color in our classrooms in order to provide some context or a differing opinion on a given topic. Some campuses have come to require a course in race as part of the general education requirements on that campus, such as Berkeley’s American Cultures requirement. As a graduate student at Berkeley, I have been a graduate student instructor for a few of those courses. The classes are super important and critical for students to understand issues of identity or as part of what we are now calling 21st Century Skills.

So Bakke is important in terms of content even without affirmative action and the American Cultures courses are spectacular, but here is my issue with both: they are incidents of mainstream society looking to what they can receive from students of color, not what they can give students of color. That student who approached me at UCLA? He was struggling. But when that course on race came up, suddenly he was everybody’s friend and the sole authority in the classroom. When you ask universities about the lack of diverse enrollment, they are quick to point their fingers at K-12 education and K-12 educators are quick to point their fingers at budgets or restrictive admissions practices at universities. The problem is always someone else’s fault and in the meantime it doesn’t get solved. Meanwhile, as college counselors and teachers, we continue to prepare students to attend universities that believe it isn’t their fault that other diverse students are not attending that university. And they continue to do things in the exact same way…something I hope to change very soon.

I realize this sounds real chip-on-the-shoulder like but the basic point that I am making is that when you have qualified and motivated students of color, the university has to give something back. Some of those things are embedded. For example for Black students, Berkeley Black undergrads can choose to live in a dorm with other Black students, the African American Studies Department at Berkeley provides such a community and safe place for Black students, unlike any I have ever seen on any other campus, and the Black Recruitment and Retention Center provides amazing peer support. None of it is perfect, but it’s there.

I briefly stated earlier that I began recently working with girls for many reasons and I’ll go into them another time. Thinking about the above as well, I do think about supports that universities put in place for girls. I was talking to a colleague a few years ago about the number of sexual assaults on college campuses and he said that for his daughter, he knew it was inevitable so he was preparing her for how she should respond. I thought back to my undergraduate years and the handbook all the girls received about where the safe places were, how to call for an escort from the library to the dorms, and how all of the dorms had security guards at night. I remembered back to all of the college tours I have taken with families and all of the times those same safe places were pointed out. And I realized in talking to that colleague or looking back at all the tours, I never once heard how they were going to train or provide discussions on power for the boys. My colleague also had a son; he never talked about having a discussion with his son about power, appropriate relationships, or how to guide his friends to make good decisions. The onus was on the victim and tools to be less victim-like.

Some things are reactive. While one can create support systems, universities have to be malleable as humans change and therefore their indiscretions change.

This brings me to the incident at Oklahoma University and the very unfortunate reality that incidents of racist and sexist parties or other events happen on college campuses all the time. All. The. Time. And this absolutely has to stop. Universities have to be safe places for everyone to learn about self. So when these incidents occur, and I think of the families I work with, I first take note of the campus and then the response: how quickly does that apology come; who makes the apology; what are they apologizing for; and what systemic things are put in place to ensure future incidents do not occur. Would I advise a female student to attend a university that took a year to bring charges against alleged rapists? Or one where a fraternity consistently holds “gangster and hoes” and “undocumented” parties without even an apology from the university? It is not likely and hopefully other counselors do the same.

Remember that I am not about victim-blaming so while I do mentor students of color, undocumented, migrant, low-income, first generation students and girls to have the soft skills necessary to be successful in these environments since the other reality is being a super minority will be their reality for a long time to come, when I work with students and families in majority cultures, I discuss privilege and power and how they can dismantle those systems. I know other college counselors encourage students to search for that ancestor of color and write a personal statement about that discovery or to fudge numbers on the FAFSA to seem needy. If that works or not is one thing, but what is the learning for that student in how they understand her or his privilege? It seems that some are ready to have diverse students on campus for when their student has a question about Ferguson for their term paper or is playing ball, but not willing to hear the upset from that same student when a noose is hanging in their dorm room or a fraternity is chanting about a noose on a bus.

The larger point I am making here is that college counseling, similar to how we approach other aspects of education as social justice teachers, is yet another way to dismantle institutional racism, sexism, and classism from both ends.