By Sam Awonuga
Students attend university for a selection of reasons, the varying expectations and the actualised reality means the overall university experience for students differ. Incoming students are facing the “hybrid” form of education, and now more than ever, it is important for students to be prepared before embarking on what is an essential steppingstone, not just towards their career, but their personal development. Having just completed my second year at university here is some advice I would give to incoming students about making the most of their experience as a Black student.
1) Be yourself, expand and diversify your interest
Due to the lower number of minority students, many Black students often face a dichotomous pressure between being what society or they themselves perceive as being stereotypically “too Black” or not “Black enough”. As a result, some students often neglect interests, events and courses which may not fit into what they may deem to be apparent within their specific culture. However, it is important to note that not one student is homogenous; as you are coming to university, expand and diversify your interest. If it is karate, join the karate society, if it’s ACS, join ACS, if it’s politics, join the politics society. Take time to cultivate your more “niche” interests and grow your network, regardless of social perception and stereotypes. Even though some societies may not be run as you expected, it is still useful to build relations with a variety of people from different cultures and step out of your comfort zone.
2) Consider developing your professional experience
A Guardian article recently highlighted that poor career advice at university disproportionately affects Black students, and thus we are more likely to leave university with little to no work experience and less awareness of relevant fields and application processes. This was penned down to a variety of reasons, some being social and economic factors, but other factors were frontend such as an inability of careers advisors to relate to particular experiences. It is certainly still useful to visit the career advisor’s office, however, I would also encourage students to be proactive in gaining an understanding of possible career progressions. Being a fresher means you can start early; many students are often not aware of the valuable first year events available to them. To boost understanding of different fields, I would advise Black students to apply to internships, insight weeks, schemes or events that aim to provide understating of your desired field. If the competitiveness of a full internship or insight week is not for you, consider attending non-selective events aimed at learning or shadowing experiences by emailing local companies.
3) Do not be afraid to demand changes
It is often the case that university staff and services do not reflect the diversity of their students. From the lack of Black professors to the lack of services tailored to the varying cultures, it is likely that at some point during your degree, your university will not sufficiently address your needs or interests. If you experience this, do not be afraid to demand better access and inclusion. Remember, you are paying the institution to aid you in your academic journey, so express your concerns if the services are not as expected. Black students are often reluctant to speak out about the lack of representation, but it is important that you become comfortable with speaking out.
4) Don’t be afraid to ask for help
The Office for Students recently released figures that illustrated the extensive gap in attainment and continuation rates between Black university students with a mental health problem and their counterparts. The report highlighted that in 2017-18, 53% of Black students with a mental health condition obtained an Upper Second Class or higher, compared to 77% of all students with mental health issues. The reality that the gap demonstrates is that Black students are the brunt of disproportionality in access to services at university, from degree attainment to access to mental health services. While these are often a result of varying factors, it is also useful for Black students to be active in seeking help, whether the help needed is academic, social, or mental. This could mean emailing your lecturers or personal tutors for academic support or using services such as Nightline or Welfare Watch for mental support. Make sure you are aware of the support services on campus. They may not be perfect, but they are often a good start.
5) Take care of yourself
Taking care of yourself means cultivating good habits such as getting a balanced and regular diet, prioritising good sleep, financial prudency and proactiveness. There are plenty of resources online that can aid you with setting these tangible goals and I would advise that you use them. Do bear in mind that University is tough so it is vital to remain positive. It is important to do what is best for your path in life and success. So, in your journey it is important that you first and foremost take care of yourself.
Sam Awonuga is a placement year Computer and Internet Engineering student at the University of Surrey.