The latest in this blog series on Living Black at University was kindly contributed by Dorothy Chirwa. Dorothy is the former President of Newcastle University Students’ Union and a recent Masters graduate from the University of Oxford.
As the term comes to a close and the dust settles I know that there are a bunch of students probably feeling a little lost right now. That was me five years ago, contemplating dropping out and going home. Thinking back now, I wish someone would have better prepared for me living while Black at university. It comes as its own experience. In recognition of that experience, I thought I would write this blog with things that I wish I had known at university. This is by no means an exhaustive post, but just some of the things that have stuck with me to this day. Should you be reading this as someone who is not a Black student, I hope this gives you insight and allows you to empathise with some of the feelings and thoughts of what it could be like living while Black at university.
1. Make no apologies for your presence in that space
By this, I mean that you should feel completely and utterly comfortable being yourself. Existing in these spaces can often feel like a chore, like you need to adapt and bend to fit the space but what I found is you often end up folding away the most important parts of yourself. So, instead, be unapologetically yourself. For me, this meant playing the music I wanted to play in my room and on social occasions and speaking up in seminars. I had earnt my place in every room that I found myself in and I was not going to shrink myself for anyone. I am an extrovert so this may look different for you, but however you show up, show up as your most authentic self.
2. Feed your soul with foods that bring you comfort
This one sounds weird, I know, but for months in my first year I avoided foods I loved, scared of making them in my new space. It took one long day to tip me over the edge to make my favourite rice and stew. It was at that point I realised that my homesickness had been so closely intertwined with things I had been refusing myself. The minute I started making foods that I had grown up on, I became more comfortable in that space. It felt more like a home rather than a weird halfway stop.
3. You are not the sounding board for all ‘Black’ issues
Passion for change is a really important thing. It is a key driver for why many of us do what we do. Universities, however, have co-opted these passions, placing Black students on countless committees and review boards that they need not be on. It is not your job to help university management write policy or plan modules, especially if you are not being paid for this labour. You do not need to sit in any group that does not fuel you or ignite passion. Protecting your mental space is so important and often these committees don’t care about that. They just want your emotional labour.
4. Community is possibly the most important thing to have
I know that when you move to uni it can seem like you just have to work and get out, but something I learnt very quickly is that building a community of people around you is what will sustain you in that space. Finding the people who affirm your existence and your experiences is critical to flourishing in those spaces. Finding people that you can go on nights out with, cook with, and laugh with will help you feel less alone and allow you to recharge and enable you to keep going.
I hope you all have a restful break over the festive period and when you come back to uni, know that the space belongs to you as much as anyone else. You deserve to be to be there.