Students discuss challenges of being black during Wildcat Welcome, pre-orientation programs


Daily file photo by Zack Laurence

Students participate in March Through the Arch in September. Black students expressed disappointment with the lack of diversity in Wildcat Welcome and pre-orientation programs.

Allyson Chiu, Assistant Campus Editor

Each day of Wildcat Welcome, Communication freshman Mega Dafiaghor changed something about her appearance in the hope of making new friends.

“I had a different approach every single day because I didn’t want it to be like, they don’t want to hang out with me because I’m black,” Dafiaghor said. “I wanted it to be like, maybe I just don’t seem friendly enough or maybe I should dress more athletic today … but nothing changed.”

Dafiaghor is one of many black students who said Wildcat Welcome is not as inclusive and welcoming as it should be.

A 150-page report on the black student experience at Northwestern — sent to students in September — recommended the University review the inclusiveness of Wildcat Welcome and add more pre-orientation opportunities based on data gathered from student feedback. In the report, black students who participated in focus groups said they felt alienated in Peer Adviser groups and that it seemed as though some students in their groups hadn’t interacted with black people before.

In Fall 2015, African-American students comprised less than 10 percent of American undergraduates at NU, while white students made up nearly 70 percent, according to the report. These statistics did not include international students and students who didn’t indicate their race or ethnicity.

Dafiaghor said her PA group had seven students, two of whom were black.

“People weren’t really willing or they just weren’t talking to me at all,” Dafiaghor said. “I see how they interact and talk with other people, but I didn’t understand why they weren’t doing that towards me.”

Efforts to change the dynamic of PA groups include “better and more robust” training for PAs, said Josh McKenzie, associate director for New Student and Family Programs and director of first-year experience.

“We have around 200 Peer Advisers with different levels of experiences,” McKenzie said. “How do we do a better job preparing our Peer Advisers to be mentors and to be people that can advise in many different capacities for any single student that is in the group?”

In addition to PA groups, some students, including Weinberg freshman Sandra Kibet, said they were disappointed by the diversity and inclusion True Northwestern Dialogue. TNDs are mandatory sessions where students learn about various topics in a college setting, such as sexual health and mental wellness.

During the diversity and inclusion TND, students are asked to stand if they identify with statements such as “I am a first-generation college student” or “I am a student of color.”

“I was OK with most of the categories, but when it came to race, I felt like (the moderator) should have delved in more,” said Kibet, who was born and raised in Kenya. “I don’t identify as black American; I’m African. It was just so generalized.”

The diversity and inclusion TND is one of the highest-rated programs in terms of student satisfaction, McKenzie said. However, it is “re-examined” annually, and this year, PA groups met before the event to discuss how to mentally and emotionally prepare for it, he said.

“If you look historically at Northwestern, not just at Wildcat Welcome, it’s so many different pieces … created from the majority lens, but that’s not who our students are,” McKenzie said. “We know and recognize that we made a lot of changes over the past few years, but that doesn’t mean we’ve made all of the changes.”

Another recommendation from the September report called for the University to expand pre-orientation opportunities to promote a better sense of community for students of color.

These programs allow students to meet and make new friends in a “low-pressure setting,” said Justin Williamson, who participated in the Freshman Urban Program, which takes students through Chicago neighborhoods to explore social justice issues.

“You’re not thrown in an area you don’t know with like 2,000 different people expecting to make friends,” the Weinberg freshman said. “Just from being on the trip, you know (the other students) have at least some kind of interest in being involved with a certain theme of the trip, so you know you have that commonality.”

Pre-orientation programs can provide better opportunities for students to connect on a deeper level and create stronger friendships, said Medill freshman Ramenda Cyrus, who also participated in FUP.

Cyrus said Wildcat Welcome was “infinitely better” as a person of color because she participated in a pre-orientation program.

“The FUP counselors themselves were very social justice-oriented and very aware of the different experiences that we were all bringing,” she said. “It was easier in that sense as a person of color that I could relate (to them).”

The challenge of raising questions about race and identity within PA groups may be a result of the underrepresentation of black advisers, said peer adviser Robert Cunningham, who is black.

“You have to talk to another black student to actually get an answer that you really feel might be accurate,” the Communication junior said. “You have to talk to someone who has the same identity as you. … It’s hard because there are so few of us.”

Although he acknowledged the lack of diversity among PAs, Cunningham said he recognizes the University is making an effort to improve the inclusiveness of Wildcat Welcome.

Pre-orientation programs are also affected by homogeneity, despite helping students make friendships and connections before Wildcat Welcome, Williamson said. This year’s FUP participants were mostly white, he said.

One way the administration attempted to alleviate that problem this year was by making it easier for eligible students to access fee waivers, which covered all or some of the program’s costs, McKenzie said. However, socioeconomic status is just one area that contributes to diversity, he said.

For Kibet, an international student, the fix to Wildcat Welcome is as simple as facing these issues head on.

“I wish people were open,” she said. “I’m so open to learning about America. I want to know everything you have to tell me about America, but, at the same time, a conversation is an exchange, and as much as you tell me about where you’re coming from, I’d like to tell you where I’m coming from.”

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