The transition from high school to college can be complicated: students are challenged to find a new social group, adjust to class rigor and manage any other problems that may arise. According to a new study, however, the challenges for minority students often run deeper.
“The First-Year College Experience,” a study commissioned by the JED Foundation — an organization that “promotes mental health and works to prevent suicide among college and university students” — surveyed 1,500 second-semester college freshmen from around the United States on a range of psychological measures, including pre-college emotional preparedness and coping strategies. The study concluded that all students experience a plethora of emotional challenges that stretch beyond the classroom, but revealed a number of disparities in mental health indicators among different demographic groups. In particular, black students were less likely to feel emotionally prepared for college and were less likely to report a positive college experience. Both black and Hispanic students were less likely to express the challenges they face in college.
The findings seem to underscore many of the grievances raised last semester by students of color at Yale, who said the University needs to improve its support for minority students. Students demanded that Yale hire more mental health professionals of color and station them regularly in the University’s cultural centers.
But minority students and administrators interviewed indicated that the challenges of transitioning to college are not solely based on race, but rather on a variety of factors.
“For some students there are cultural factors, others economic, and for others I would imagine that exposure and access to informed family support contribute to the disparities,” Dean of Student Engagement Burgwell Howard said.
Still, the JED Foundation’s study found that 69 percent of black students wished they had more help getting emotionally ready for college, compared to 59 percent of white students. In addition, African-American students were 14 percent less likely to report a “good” or “excellent” experience than their white counterparts. Michelle Alozie ’19 said African-American students may feel less emotionally prepared for college because they are often the first in their families to receive a higher education.
“[Black students’ parents] are from a generation where they weren’t really pushed to go to college,” she said. “White students’ parents are more education-heavy, so they were able to have that background.”
Daniel Diaz-Vita ’19 said the same principle could apply to Hispanic students, although the study did not provide numbers for that demographic. Diaz-Vita, who is the first in his family to attend college, said he understands the pressure that many first-generation students feel.
The study also indicates that Hispanic students are more inclined to “turn to no one” when in need of help compared to white students. Similarly, 75 percent of black students surveyed said they tended to keep their feelings about the difficulty of college to themselves.
Even though his family is emotionally supportive, Diaz-Vita said, he does not want to alarm them if he is struggling. Diaz-Vita said he not only represents his immediate family, but also his extended family.
“I don’t want to seem weak to them. I think it’s a pride thing,” he said. “When you’re struggling, and you do ask for help, you don’t do it unless you absolutely need to.”
Sydney Babiak ’19 said that Hispanic students, particularly Hispanic men, have a strong sense of pride and desire to get things done without help. There is an emphasis in Latin American culture on being “macho,” she said.
Henry Screen ’19 offered an explanation for why African-American students might be hesitant to express their struggles: “You don’t want to be that person who always seems to be calling out [racial injustice],” he said.
Still, students interviewed emphasized that the study’s results were likely more a product of students’ socioeconomic backgrounds than of students’ race.
Sara Speller ’19 said minority students represent different parts of the socioeconomic ladder, and so they might not all face the same challenges. But she pointed to intersectionality and microaggressions as the two major unique mental health obstacles all minority students endure, no matter their family’s financial status.
According to Speller, these unique challenges are often subliminal, and many minority students don’t even recognize how they can be detrimental. In fact, she said, it was not until she heard the stories told by other students of color that she became aware of the ways in which microaggressions were affecting her own life.
As a result, Speller echoed the call of many students for more psychologists and counselors of color, noting that they could help minority students recognize “hugely suppressed things” like microaggressions.
“You want to learn about yourself from someone who is more like yourself,” she said.
Howard said the numbers in the study are a concern for the leadership of Yale. He added that he hopes that “in partnership with students and families … we can have an impact on the experience of Yale students, that may be different than the data presented by the JED Foundation.”
More than one out of every eight Yale students will be the first in their families to graduate from a four-year college, according to the Yale Admissions website.