Ontiveros: When reality casts a cloud on a college dream

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Columnist Sue Ontiveros’ first dorm room at Northwestern University years ago.

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The car’s air-conditioning conked out the day before, making the short journey to where I’d attend college sticky and uncomfortable.

As we inched our way in bumper-to-bumper traffic, another car banged into ours, but thankfully my little stereo and other precious belongings – as well my parents and I – were jolted, but unharmed.

And then we arrived in a dull town at what was the whitest gathering of people I’d ever encountered.  Wow, how had I not noticed the lack of diversity at the brief orientation I’d attended in the spring?

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Thus began my rocky start to college. With all the praise about me getting into a prestigious university and being the first in my family to attend college, no one, myself included, considered the emotional adjustment I’d have to make when I finally got where I so wanted to be. That old adage “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it” fit my situation.

I really liked my classes, but the social scene left much to be desired. It didn’t help that high school friends were sending letters waxing on about how much fun they were having. Add to all of this the fact I couldn’t find a tortilla anywhere in town to save my life.

Everyone was enjoying college except me.

Why bring up ancient history? A couple days ago a young Asian woman I know reflected quite candidly on Facebook about college as her sophomore year was beginning. She admitted that after one semester she almost ditched the university she’d so wanted to attend. After always being in a diverse community, going to an overwhelmingly white university was a tough transition. She decided to stick it out and by joining campus organizations things got better.

All these years apart and yet our situations so similar!

I think that in the thrill of college acceptance letters and career dreams, we forget to warn minority students it’s very possible they’re going to find themselves the only one or one of a handful of “others” in a sea of whiteness once they hit their college campuses.  Not being thrilled by one’s chosen college probably stings worse in the age of social media, where everyone always sounds like they’re having a wonderful time.

How to get through it? Well to begin with, by remembering why one’s going to college in the first place. I got as far as visiting another university with the idea of transferring when I decided to mention my situation to my advisor. He was a great guy who reminded me why I wanted to attend my now-alma mater in the first place: because I’d get a first-rate journalism education. So, like my young friend, I decided to make things better and got involved in campus organizations.

I grew to like the place so much that by the time graduation rolled around I was sorry to leave. More importantly, I had learned how to be a good journalist.

Figuring out how to navigate in that sea of non-diversity wasn’t a bad lesson, either. It prepared me for similar scenarios I encountered repeatedly at work.

In a perfect world, the answer would be for academia to work a little harder at making their campuses look more like the rest of America’s changing demographics. Until that happens, it never hurts to prepare minority students for what might lie ahead.

Email: sueontiveros.cst@gmail.com

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