“I didn’t know who else to talk to, so I reached out and talked to my mom and she was like, ‘Well you just need to pray some more’ and I was like, ‘He ain’t got the answers for me,’” said Elexus Buntley, fourth year advertising and public relations major. Buntley's story offers a glimpse into what students of color experience while attempting to fight psychological symptoms on college campuses.
As of Fall 2016, 25.8 percent of RIT’s student body population identified as Asian-, Latin-, African-, and Native-American ethnic decent (ALANA). This quarter of the institution’s population includes both undergraduate and graduate students.
In 2001, the Surgeon General reported that although minorities were not at a higher risk for disorders, psychological symptoms remained higher among minorities and the poor, who are also likely to have less access to mental health services.
Lack of access and privilege are often catalysts to how everyday life of minorities and whites differ. Dr. Kijana Crawford, a sociology and anthropology professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, said day to day operations can be hard when people know they are not welcomed and can create psychological stress. “The whole institution of slavery and racism have contributed to mental illness. Every day we walk around with some degree of mental illness. When you walk into a store knowing you’re going to be followed it’s a reality, not being paranoid.”
According to Dr. Crawford, being in college does not exempt ALANA students from jumping these same hurdles. “Education does not help you escape racism. Louis Gates was a great example of that,” she continued. “We must begin with the fundamental structure of racism and what it does.”
Darci Lane-Williams, the director of the Center for Women and Gender, said the current political climate has added additional stress to students because it opens more daily conversations about what it means to be an ALANA student. “There’s this little cartoon that compares microaggressions to mosquito bites. It says mosquito bites themselves aren’t gonna kill you, unless of course the mosquito has malaria, but they’re annoying and uncomfortable. Well, some people get bit more than others. Some people get bit every day, multiple times a day, which over time wears a person down.”
Dr. David Reetz, the director of RIT’s Counseling and Psychological Services in the August Center, said no matter how big or small an issue is everyone should seek help. “Mental health is a part of life. We all manage our mental health every day. A lot of the time we do it so well we don’t even notice.”
“Mental health services just try to help people overcome the obstacles in front of them. We all have an obstacle in front of us but if you don’t feel like you have the capacity to work thorough it on your own, or with the people you have in your life, that’s a good time to seek help,” Reetz added.
According to data reported by the Counseling Center, the distribution of RIT students served over the last two school years has been about equal. Nearly every ethnic demographic was directly represented.
None of the students interviewed for this story said they’d sought help at the Counseling Center, they admitted to visiting the Center of Women and Gender instead.
Dr. Keith Jenkins, interim vice president and associate provost of the division of diversity & inclusion, said the same premise applied while he was an undergrad student. “I went to a predominantly white institution and I imprinted on the ALANA faculty and staff.”
“From the moment I arrived at RIT, I became involved with students [outside of the classroom],” he continued. “Here, for many years, Dr. Cassandra Jordan was the director of the Counseling Center. She’s an African-American woman. I think that showed tremendous sensitivity to issues regarding individuals of color. I don’t know if students have those outlets now with persons of color.”
Jenkins was not alone in this. Williams, director of the Women and Gender Center, said relationships outside classrooms are where the real work begins. “It’s a choice, and active choice. That’s the big thing you try to get non-ALANA people to understand; You don’t know what it’s like to be marginalized, unless you choose to understand.”
Williams added, “Just like with deaf culture, you can be at RIT and never learn anything about deaf culture. No one will make you learn about deaf culture but it makes sense since there’s this large of a deaf population to understand who you’re here with.”
Crawford said white institutions could learn from historically black universities. “What does it take to retain ALANA faculty and students? They have the answers. It’s the culture, an environment where you’re respected and valued, where every day your history is emphasized.”
Jenkins said although he shared similar experiences being at a predominantly white institution (PWI), he doesn’t believe the PWIs are at fault. “I think college life can affect a person’s mental health. It’s the rigors of adjusting to college. No matter the school, there are stressors but add isolation to that and it can have a dramatic effect.”
Jenkins explained that these stressors can come from the simplest things when students are ineffective in establishing relationships across cultural lines. “When you talk about: ‘Ok let’s all form groups of 3 or 4,’ but you’re not chosen… Or as I’ve heard deaf or hard of hearing students say, ‘We generally connect with students of color because we’re usually the ones left over.’”
Ian Effendi, a second-year game design development major and honor student, said his freshman experience was atypical because he lived in the International House. “It was a very close-knit community in the sense that I met a bunch of people who weren’t the typical people you’d find at a PWI. We were able to have a floor in which while there were white students, there were other students who were a part of the ALANA community and we were able to just talk about that, especially when anything bad happened.”
Effendi’s experience in the classroom was different: “In classes, it’s different. Since this is a PWI, there’s a lot of white students in there. That means there are certain conversations that happen that make me uncomfortable.”
Effendi said, “It’s really interesting to see how it manifests for white students, or at least the one’s I’ve worked with. They see diversity as this controversial thing where they don’t want to talk about it, unless they have to. Whereas for a lot of students like me, bringing up diversity is another way for us to get representation and explain diversity isn’t always controversial.”
These types of interactions in addition to stress from classes and the current political climate have become a lot for many students to handle. In fact, Effendi said it’s contributed to his battling burnout and depression but he’s not alone. According to the 2016 Association for University and College Counseling Center Director (AUCCCD) Survey, presenting concerns of anxiety and depression on college campus have been on a constant rise since 2012.
Cynthia Chu, a second-year film and animation major who serves as Student Government’s 2016-2017 women’s senator, organized a “Love & Solidarity Walk” after the elections to uplift the mood on campus and clarify this wasn’t the end, but rather the beginning. “Even if Trump wasn’t here, we still need to be there for these marginalized people. The walk was about showing people we cared and how to become empowered,” Chu said.
The same self-love was pushed in programming by several other organizations on campus, including the ALANA Collegiate Association (ACA). Elexus Buntley, a fourth-year advertising and public relations major and ACA’s vice president, said this was the very reason she joined the organization. “As a freshman, I kind of went through the year with this perception that this is just what it’s going to be so I have to deal with it. It took me a while to realize that it didn’t have to be like this. I didn’t have to be mad.”
“When I found out about ACA and learned it was an organization dedicated to resolving the things I thought were unfixable, I decided to join.”
ACA is a major student organization who caters to the needs to ALANA students by supporting academic excellence, cultural expression and leadership. The organization works with 24 affiliate clubs to achieve this mission. This year, the organization introduced the “Mental Health Monday” event. The monthly event aims to address mental health issues that are often labeled taboo in the ALANA community.
When it comes to improving the ALANA experience at RIT, Buntley said the first step should be acknowledging the uniqueness of ALANA students’ experience. “Realize because our experience is unique, you can’t cater to us in the same way as someone who doesn’t have this experience. College isn’t going to be cookie cutter for every student. The only way to understand what we need is to talk to us. There’s a lot of conversations being had about improving systems and very often students aren’t included in the conversation.”
“It’s very difficult to serve a group of people if you don’t know what they need,” she added.
Beginning in the fall, RIT will be welcoming Dr. David C. Munson Jr. as the new president. While President Munson already has experience in the collegiate field, students hope he will be able to maintain RIT’s unique culture. “RIT is very different from other schools. We’re a large technical school but if you strip it all down, we’re very liberal. There’s always a big push for us to get involved, advocate for ourselves and say how we feel,” said Buntley.
“He needs to understand that we have an expectation for where the school is going on diversity. It’s very clear that RIT knows they have a diversity issue. But we also understand it’s not going to happen overnight.”