Counseling Psychology in Action: Working to Help Students of Color Navigate Higher Education

2020 has been a particularly difficult year for students of color. Since November typically entails additional stress due to midterms, applying for graduate school, and securing internships for the spring semester,  it is a good time to pause and highlight the challenges this year has presented for students or color. During a “typical” academic year, students of color in higher education across the U.S. face several obstacles that negatively impact their persistence and academic achievement:

During 2020, students of color are encountering additional obstacles that exacerbate these concerns:

In these moments, it is important to have resources to help students of color successfully navigate these unprecedented times. Here are some important concrete suggestions for BIPOC students that have surfaced from an online survey of 150 current undergraduate and graduate students across the U.S. They were asked to provide advice for other students of color on how to navigate academia. Below, students were given pseudonyms to protect their anonymity. However, the social identities listed (i.e., race and gender) are how they self-identified:

  1. Know Yourself
  • Make sure to understand your capabilities and self-worth as a student of color.

“Believe in yourself, you have made it where you are because you have earned it. Do not let anybody tell you that you do not deserve to be here, that you are less than them, or that you have received something out of pity.” – Ilia, Latinx woman, International Law Student

  1. Embrace Your Identities
  • Work to fully embrace your intersecting identities and externalize and reject any negativity people try to place on you.

“Embrace your color and culture and do not let anyone make you feel as if you do not belong at this institution because if you are here it is because you earned it…Your experiences are a validation of how resilient you have been throughout your life.” – Celia, Latinx woman, Undergraduate Student

  1. Be Attentive To Your Body & Mind
  • Prioritize your health by taking care of yourself holistically.

“I think the biggest thing is self-care—taking time for yourself outside of school to re-center. Listen to your favorite music, dance around, move your body, get plenty of sleep, hydrate, brush your teeth. Taking care of myself reminds me that I have worth even when I feel undervalued.” – Michelle, Multiracial woman, Master’s Student

  1. It Will Be Challenging, But You Will Overcome
  • Push through any setbacks that arise to fully realize your greatness.

“Never back down!! Never back down from your goals, never back down from your values and morals, and never back down even if you are the only woman of color in your field! Pave a way for other women of color to follow in your footsteps even if you have to be the trailblazer.” – Assata, Black/African American woman, Undergraduate Student

  1. Create Your Own Village
  • Build up and rely on your network of people who understand and validate you.

“Find your community, seek out opportunities to connect with other women and men of color so you can decompress, share stories, and just breathe. Know that you are not alone although it may feel that way. Create spaces and find ways for you to be your authentic self.” – Tracee, Black woman, Doctoral Student

 6. Be Visible & Vocal

  • Do not suffer in silence. Speak up. Advocate for your needs and the needs of others.

“My advice to women of color is to stand your ground and speak up. If you feel as though you are being mistreated or ignored, let the person know directly using specific language…” – Tarana, Black woman, Doctoral Student

  1. Learn to Navigate The System
  • Being a successful student has a lot to do with learning how to effectively navigate a large college/university system by being aware of the different resources available to you.

“A lot of being successful as a student of color is knowing who to contact about what. It’s important to quickly figure out where to go when you need help academically, financially, mentally, physically, emotionally, legally, etc…” – Langston, Black/African American man, Doctoral Student

If you are interested in knowing more about the experiences of current undergraduate and graduate students of color across the U.S. more information can be found from students themselves here. If you are a student yourself, you may also benefit from looking into:

A Note about This Work

I began my present work effort to use my doctoral research to help students of color navigate higher education. Because of my busy schedule, I stopped working on it for months. Spring 2020 changed that. The murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd amid the COVID-19 pandemic (that disproportionately impacted Black and Brown communities) had a deep impact on me. These twin traumas left me feeling defeated, depressed, and hopeless about meaningfully transforming racism and others forms of societal oppression in my life- time.

During this time of pain, I found my way back to my research. Working on it became a form of self-care. It motivated me to get up each day, it helped heal some of my wounds stemming from racism, and it provided me with much needed encouragement to keep moving forward. I hope it does for other students of color as well.

I continue to be committed to collecting and creating support resources for students, inspired by the countless instances of oppression my colleagues and I have experienced in higher education. Having attended a predominantly white institution (PWI) during undergraduate and graduate school, I experienced the adverse outcomes that those with marginalized identities continuously face (e.g., discrimination and being viewed as less qualified than one’s white peers).

However, I have also seen and experienced the transformative power of culturally responsive practices that foster comprehensive wellness among groups with marginalized identities. Throughout my time in academia, I have experienced several forms of gendered racism, which negatively impacted my academics and mental health. Receiving support from friends and mentors of color in my program, which incorporated my intersecting identities was instrumental in navigating these situations successfully.

I am hopeful that the resources I provided here and the texts I have written elsewhere will help students of color enjoy similar supportive experiences. Counseling psychologists can reference my work as a resource for current and incoming students of color as well as for clients at university counseling centers and program training clinics. I hope my work will help students of color connect, reflect, heal, and thrive. I also hope it will serve as a catalyst for individuals and inspire broader systemic change in counseling psychology programs and beyond.

Bio: Nelson O. O. Zounlome (he/him/his), M.S.Ed. is a first-generation college student, child of immigrants, and native of South Bend, IN. He is also a McNair Scholar, Ford Foundation Fellow, Herman B. Wells Graduate Fellow, and counseling psychology Ph.D. candidate at Indiana University (IU). He studies academic persistence and mental wellness to promote holistic healing among Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). Nelson is dedicated to helping BIPOC Communities liberate themselves and achieve their wildest dreams.

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