Responding to Cultural Challenges on Campus

Light Years from Star Trek

Posted Jul 09, 2017

During my childhood in the 1970s, I fondly remember watching reruns of the original Star Trek series with its multicultural flight deck crew. I always thought this show foreshadowed a time when people of diverse backgrounds would live and work together in peace.

Fast forward to 2017, and the future has not turned out as I hoped. As a college mental health psychiatrist, I see students from diverse cultural groups grow increasingly concerned about the climate in our country that is more stormy than calm. This year at the university where I work, Jewish students expressed concern that a man wearing a swastika armband spent several hours on campus. In fact, anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses increased by 150 percent from 2014 to 2016. In May of 2017, at least three campuses reported finding nooses with threatening messages to black students. Sadly, reports of racial harassment have doubled on college campuses between 2009 and 2016, according the Office of Civil Rights. During the 2016-2017 academic year, there were 147 incidents of white supremacist groups spreading anti-Muslim, racist, and anti-Semitic messages around different campuses.

Amidst these incidents, many colleges are redoubling efforts to make their campuses safe and inclusive environments through their dean of students office, office of multicultural affairs, and campus police department. You as parents can also take steps to help your child overcome any safety, academic, and social challenges they may encounter.

Safety Concerns

College campuses are generally safe places. Students for the most part are open-minded and accepting of people from diverse cultures. But each campus has its own cultural system and sits in a town or city that may have a vastly different set of values from the campus environment.

Cultural comfort is of major importance in determining where your child attends college. Make sure you visit the campus together while school is in session to get a feel for campus life. If your child is serious about attending, he or she should stay over before making a final decision.

Once your child is enrolled in college, ask them to keep you aware of any safety concerns on campus or in the local community. If there have been racial incidents on campus, assess how the university has responded to them. Encourage your child to stay aware of his or her surroundings and to avoid travelling alone in isolated areas at night. Urge them to reach out to the dean of students office or the campus police with any concerns.

Educational Challenges

Did you know that the number of Hispanic, black, and Asian students are on the rise on college campuses? However, the faculty composition has not changed proportionally. Students may lack role models who look or sound like them.  

Many schools are aware of this disparity and match students with faculty and/or student mentors, which has proven to increase academic success. First generation students, who are more likely to come from a minority status, can benefit from these programs. But often students have to take the initiative to set up meetings. The best thing you can do as a parent is to encourage your child to sign up for a mentoring program and to consistently meet with the mentor.

Even with mentoring, some students cannot overcome the belief that they are not academically good enough to be in school. They suffer from “imposter syndrome.” They might fail a test during their first semester and think “game over.” They have a confidence gap that students whose parents went to college may not experience.

As a parent, do your best to fill this confidence gap. Encourage your child to meet with the professor, an academic advisor, and a tutor. I see many students who are afraid to ask for help, seeing it as a sign of weakness. Promote a problem-solving approach to academic problems that leaves out the self-blame.

A Social Disconnect

A sense of social belonging is critical to academic success and emotional wellness. Every parent wants their child to have friends and to feel like they’re a part of campus life. If your child is from a minority culture, she may feel like she does not belong. We want our children to have a diverse group of friends, but we also want to encourage them to establish a home base of friends who give them comfort. Often this can come from groups of students of similar cultural backgrounds.

I have worked with many patients who come from Latin American countries or whose parents are immigrants. Some of these students have found great social support by joining clubs based on a specific country from which they or their parents came from. These students are still friends with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, but they also enjoy having their home away from home. If your child is feeling disconnected, encourage him or her to find a campus group that will solidify his or her sense of belonging.

Source: Flickr/rawpixel

Some minority or underrepresented student groups – Hispanic, black, and first generation - are celebrating their sense of community by creating their own graduation ceremonies while at the same time attending their formal commencements. At a 2017 graduation ceremony organized by black Harvard students, graduates celebrated their success and determination in the face of ongoing societal pressures. As a Harvard alumna, I am glad to know students found a platform to highlight their resilience in the face of these challenges.

We as parents have a unique opportunity to promote resilience in our children and our children’s friends during these tumultuous times. In the face of current cultural anxieties, we can continue to encourage safety, academic success, and social belonging.

My book, The Campus Cure: A Parent's Guide to Mental Health and Wellness for College Students, will be released winter of 2017.

©2017 Marcia Morris, All Rights Reserved

Details have been altered to protect patient privacy.

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