Yesterday, we highlighted the importance of the Black Student Alliance Invitational. However, a single weekend event cannot create a sustainable, welcoming campus for students of all different communities. Ultimately we must strive daily to ensure that the picture we paint for students during recruitment becomes the image in which they find themselves during their time on campus. While recent efforts have sought to counteract instances of hate and bias with varying success, there is still much to be done to ensure that students who differ from the majority at Duke on the basis of race, socioeconomic status, family educational status or country of origin can take full advantage of the opportunities Duke affords.
The majority of students at Duke fall within the top 20 percent of the income scale, and black, Latinx and international students are in the minority among Duke students. These minority students still deserve the best that Duke has to offer, beginning with administrative recognition of the “hidden” needs of these students.
While international students often receive assistance in transitioning to the U.S., first-generation Americans may come to Duke with similar cultural gaps without acknowledgement of these areas for learning. The American university structure or pathways to professional programs can be completely unfamiliar to these students. Potentially coupled with these issues, students of color may struggle with asking for help from a professorial body that largely does not look like them or understand the complexities of their experience.
Students arriving from resource poor backgrounds with possibly little-to-no access to advanced coursework, skilled support staff or non-essential services may need help with tasks that are assumed Duke students should be able to perform before arriving on campus, including use of the library, wellness center and other campus assets. Other difficulties can include understanding the cultural range of acceptable assistance like the elements of professionalism necessary to compose an email. Further, students from low socioeconomic backgrounds can struggle with self-confidence fighting class antagonism.
Students from these non-standard backgrounds can be taught the ability to “switch codes” in a way that is not patronizing but acknowledges their need for assistance. Developing programing geared towards common concerns of minority students, assigning advisors with skills to work with minority students, ensuring that campus resources such as the Career Center allow students to “start from zero” rather than presenting hurdles for utilization and introducing sustained programming throughout the first semester similar to that planned for students in the Washington Duke Scholars program are all steps toward helping these students. Such interventions will help students develop tools to be successful during their time here.
Professors and support staff must also be trained to recognize a wider range of normal among incoming students and respond with compassion. Recruiting faculty from diverse backgrounds will create an environment where diverse students can be understood, but professors from more traditional university backgrounds should also be helped to gain exposure to allow them to more effectively support students they might not understand.
Ultimately, the real difference between minority students and those in the majority is often the level of comfort asking for the help they need to address issues as they present themselves. Finding a single sympathetic ear can change the trajectory of a student’s career, and Duke must create more opportunities for these connections to occur. With effort from the university, students can enter Duke with rose-colored glasses and leave with a sense of self confidence requiring no blinders.
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