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By Cecily Michelle

For the majority of my life, I’ve been surrounded by nothing but black and brown faces.

I come from a city where it’s hard to spot a white hue if it’s not draped in a police uniform or posted downtown at a hockey game. So naturally, I grew to love and accept environments where people resemble me. That’s why as a high school senior, there was no question about where I was going to college. If you asked, I wouldn’t hesitate to tell you that I would be stomping yards and strutting the halls in my finest threads at an HBCU.

But as graduation neared, my plans took an abrupt turn when I realized that my dream school didn’t supply my major, and most importantly, it didn’t offer much financial aid—for me, the ultimate deal-breaker. So instead, I decided to take a scholarship to my community college, which just happened to be predominately black as well. Although not an HBCU, I felt at ease when I saw skin, hair, clothes and faces that reminded me of the people in my neighborhood.

When graduation rolled around, I received another scholarship that promised me a free ride at any public four-year college or university in New Jersey— all Predominantly White Institutions (PWI). From there, any thoughts of attending an HBCU had washed down the drain.
It took awhile, but after making my decision, I was excited about going away to school.  Still, I couldn’t shake the knots that had lodged in my stomach—the discomfort that moving outside of my mostly-black world had created. And after the first few weeks of settling in on the chiefly white campus, where most of the kids walking through the halls did not give me that comforting feeling from the neighborhood block, I fell into a serious funk.

All of the things that I had feared about going to a non-black college were coming to fruition. I was outnumbered, I felt like most people hated me, and I couldn’t shake the firm holds of feeling alienated. But as time progressed, those overwhelmingly negative feelings began to fade away, and I started to adjust. I socialized with people, both black and white, who were able to ease my worries and provide some level of comfort. I formulated strong bonds with professors who seemed to genuinely care about my success despite the difference in the tones of our skin. Basically, I got over myself.

Although I wasn’t getting the full experience of an HBCU, I discovered that there were plenty of events, clubs and organizations to make up for it.  Black students from near-by campuses came to participate in step shows and showcase their frat’s signature stroll at parties. Student organizations aimed at black unity and empowerment hosted monthly events which provided entertainment that, at times, made me forget that I was surrounded by a race other than my own.

So on May 16, 2012, the day that I said goodbye to my years as a college student, I sat draped in elation. I thought about how rough it was for me in the beginning—how I walked the campus with my head hanging low and how I wanted so badly to transfer to a school where I would have been more at ease, where I basically wouldn’t have to put forth much effort, but just be a black woman around black people. Maybe that’s what made my success at this university so much more sweeter—I was proud that in just a few moments, my name would be called to receive the case to my degree.

That day is now gone, and I’ve since realized—from both my own experience and conversations with other students who felt the same as me—that some of us are so wrapped up in the comfort of our neighborhoods that we forget that the planet is not dipped in black. There are millions of new people, places and things to be explored. And for me, attending a PWI not only helped me to accept racial differences and diversity, but better prepared me for life beyond my neighborhood.  I went through some tough times, a few encounters with subtle racism and smart remarks from both peers and professors, but it prepared me for the real world. I learned how to deal with complicated racial environments, how to behave when a person of a different race throws blows intended to evoke anger, and to accept cultural differences in people who don’t look like me. It wasn’t easy, but I survived at a predominantly white college, and it made me stronger.

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