Closson: Adjusting to Northwestern, its lack of diversity as a black student

Troy Closson, Assistant Opinion Editor

When committing to Northwestern — one of my “dream schools” — as a senior in high school, I never thought I’d regret that decision once I got to campus.

Before I officially chose a college, my parents constantly stressed that I should take into account campus diversity. As I started to settle on NU, they both often light-heartedly joked “hope you’re okay with under 10 percent,” in reference to the percentage of undergraduate black students on campus. I’d always brush off their comments, laughing along with them and saying everything would be fine. I wasn’t actually prepared for the lack of diversity on campus and never expected it would impact me in so many ways.

My hometown of Laurel, Maryland is about 45 percent black, and black students made up about 15 percent of my high school’s student body. So when my parents jokingly referenced the percentage of black students at NU, I had no real concept of how that could affect my experiences. Even though I was fully aware there’d be much less diversity in college, I didn’t really believe it’d impact me, because before leaving my hometown this summer, I had never regularly experienced being the “only one” in the room. Although I’d been in many situations with little diversity, they were often temporary and passed before I could fully feel their impacts.

But as I came to NU in the fall, that quickly changed.

Throughout my first year here, being one of a few black students in many spaces became the norm, rather than the exception. Even before Wildcat Welcome, I was confronted with how different my college experience would be from high school. A few days before first-year programming began, my parents and I went to a nearby Target in Niles. And after about 10 minutes of walking down the aisles and moving through the store, I realized I hadn’t seen any other black people. Although I kept my observations to myself — partially because I didn’t want my parents to be right and partially because I wasn’t sure how to process what I was feeling — deep down, part of me regretted my decision to attend NU and leave the greater racial diversity of my hometown and high school. And throughout Fall Quarter, largely due to the lack of student and faculty diversity on campus, feeling out of place and questioning whether I belong in certain situations became increasingly common.

While I adjusted to life in college, those feelings continued to resurface and be magnified in different ways. As one of two black students in my Peer Adviser group, I immediately noticed the lack of diversity in different spaces throughout campus. When I’d go to Allison Dining Hall to eat lunch with my group, I’d notice the lack of black students throughout the space. In many of my classes, I was surrounded by many students who didn’t look like me. One of my professors did happen to be black — but, in my three quarters at NU, he’s been the only one. Although I tried to ignore and push away my discomfort, eventually I couldn’t.

Navigating social spaces and communities on campus was similarly difficult. When I arrived on campus, I quickly joined many different student groups and organizations in search of community. Yet in nearly every one, I initially felt uncomfortable because of the lack of diversity. I was often asked whether I was planning on joining a fraternity, but for me this was never a real consideration because of the lack of diversity in Greek life. I’ve also observed that many students often stay within their own racial groups, resulting in social groups that often appear segregated and racially singular. For me, this was just as challenging to navigate as spaces that were entirely undiverse: Both were so markedly different from my previous experiences in such a diverse hometown.

Over time, however, as I stopped forcing myself to join so many different groups and instead focused on my involvement in only a few, my experiences changed. While I’m still aware of the lack of diversity in various spaces, I’ve felt a much greater community and sense of belonging on campus through opening myself to new situations. And in the fall, as new students of color arrive, I hope to encourage them to approach their experiences on campus open-mindedly and without preconceived notions of what their college lives will look like.

Now, I don’t regret coming to Northwestern. But that isn’t to say I don’t still feel uncomfortable being the only one in certain situations or no longer feel inadequately represented on campus. I don’t expect being the only one in different spaces on campus to necessarily get easier. But coming to NU has been a lesson in navigating different and challenging situations. I’ve learned how to manage being OK with not being OK in my year at NU, and despite feeling discomfort with the lack of diversity, I’ve become more comfortable with talking about these issues.

Troy Closson is a Medill freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.