Challenges Facing Minority Students
Meeting new people, delving into novel subject matter, having opportunities to travel and discovering the answers to the meaning of life (well, maybe not all the answers to the meaning of life) make college a very exciting time for Georgia Tech students. Although college is an exciting time, some Georgia Tech students, particularly ethnic-minority students, face challenges that can impede on their academic success and ability to fully enjoy their experience.
Imagine walking into a classroom and being the only person in the room that looks like you! When placed in this position, ethnic-minority students may experience two polar opposite reactions. Some students may feel hypervisible. They may feel pressure to “represent their group well,” feel like they have to fight against negative stereotypes and thus must act, dress or speak in a particular fashion, or that they have to be the spokesperson for an entire ethnic group. Other students may experience invisibility, in that their presence and contributions go unheard or unseen. Unfortunately, the experiences of hypervisibility and invisibility can distract students and take up unnecessary emotional and mental energy that would be better served if directed at school work.
Let’s face it, discrimination still exists. Ethnic minority students are less likely to experience overt discrimination, like being banned from attending college, and are more likely to experience subtle types of discrimination called microaggressions. Racial microaggressions are innocuous, often unconscious communications that devalue, denigrate or are dismissive to someone based on their race. On the surface, they may not seem harmful, but with repeated exposure to microaggressions, the effects become great. For example, Asian-American students are frequently asked, “Where are you from?” This may seem like a benign question, but imagine hearing this question over and over again. Dr. Derald Wing Sue, a leading microaggression researcher, explains that such repeated comments make Asian-American individuals feel like an “alien in their own land” and communicate the message that “you are different” or “you don’t belong here”. Another example of a microaggression is making statements to African American and Hispanic students such as, “You speak so well”, as if the assumption is African American are not articulate individuals, or that all Hispanic individuals must speak Spanish. What’s worse is these statements often come from well-intended and kind individuals, such as peers, professors, or advisors. Ethnic minority students are placed in an uncomfortable position of deciding if they will confront the microaggression, try to ignore it, or internalize it. Internalizing these negative messages can lead students to feel anxious, depressed, angry, frustrated, resentful or alone. Again, such a myriad of emotions can distract students from focusing on coursework, applying to internships, or completing research.
It is no wonder then that some students suffer from ‘Impostor Syndrome’. Impostor Syndrome means feeling like a fraud for being at Georgia Tech. Students feel like they have to be a superstar and may demand perfectionism of themselves, while all the time fearing that someone will discover that they are not really supposed to be here. This leads to burn out. What compounds this issue is the fact that ethnic minority students are often unlikely to seek out help and utilize resources. Thus, ethnic minority students may struggle academically without seeking tutoring or going to professors’ office hours, can experience symptoms of depression or anxiety without seeking mental health care, or may struggle with learning disorders or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and never pursue disability accommodations.
Fortunately, Georgia Tech has taken many steps to address systemic issues to make our campus a more inclusive and welcoming environment for all students. While Georgia Tech works to make institutional changes, there are many resources ethnic minority students can utilize to help them succeed at Tech. First, to overcome the Impostor Syndrome it is important for ethnic minority students to remember that they met entrance requirements to get into Tech (many exceeding the minimum requirements) and that they are here to learn, thus not expected to already know everything. Secondly, it is okay to ask for help. Asking for help does not mean that we are weak. It’s quite the opposite; it takes a great deal of strength and power to face and deal with problems we are experiencing. Students are able to obtain academic support from departments such as the Office of Minority Education (OMED) and Center for Academic Success. The Counseling Center is an excellent resource to help students deal with transitional issues, issues related to ethnic identity and to cope with any other mental health concerns. Additionally, getting involved in the campus community helps students find their fit. Peers help normalize feelings, overcome barriers and provide academic and personal support. Making use of all resources will help students make the most out of their years at Tech!