“The Challenge  of Moving on from College  for the Young Person of Color”

By Alexandra Williams

This post is part of the Steve Fund’s celebration of National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, July 2017

Transitions are difficult. Four years ago at this time, I had just graduated high school and was preparing for the next four years of my life in college. By preparing, I mean frantically looking up my future roommates on Facebook, perusing class options and extracurriculars I could be interested in, and eagerly counting down the days until I would be living “on my own.” College was this beautiful and magical place that I had worked so hard to reach, and now it was here, and I was going to have full reign to make it mine. I participated in a first-year orientation program called Cultural Connections that started before the rest of the undergraduate class arrived on campus. I was able to learn how to get around, develop relationships with dozens of my peers – some of whom would continue to be my best friends throughout all four years, and get to know upperclassmen who were our counselors for the week. I was eased into the newness and chaos of college through this program, and subsequently found it easier to have my bearings from the get-go.

Once the other first years arrived on campus, we had a week full of different orientation sessions, of icebreakers, and nonstop social gallivanting. But, my experience is not the same, nor perhaps even standard, for many first year students. Some students experience mental health problems for the first time during this transition period and must also grapple with identifying resources, seeking out support from psychological staff, or from friends that they hardly know yet. Other students become overwhelmed by the constant buzz and develop anxiety, becoming overpoweringly worried about if they’re taking the right classes, or going to enough parties, or meeting enough people. For students of color, particularly at Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs), their experience of isolation, fear, or anxiousness may be further exacerbated by existing systematic racism that exists in our society and on college campuses everywhere.

Now, it’s four years later. I made it through college and graduated! Yay! But, now, the next transition awaits, and this one, though exciting is also more daunting. From high school to college, there is a clear progression. From college to the “real world,” the steps are nonexistent. Who knows what exactly you should do or how? Who is going to give me a week-long orientation to “being an adult”? My peers are traveling more divergent roads now, some going into the workforce, others going to grad school, some traveling for a long period of time. College, we knew, or at least we felt like we knew from movies, or older siblings, or teachers, or mentors, what we were getting ourselves into.

For this post-college leap, everything seems a bit more in limbo. In particular, for students of color leaving college, the world again becomes a more “real” and therefore scarier place. There are realistic threats to our physical well-being such as indiscriminate police brutality and racially charged aggression, but there are also more acute threats to our emotional well-being. Daily, we may encounter microaggressions that belittle our intelligence or stereotype our behavior; our every move will be scrutinized from those navigating the same spaces we are. College, whether it was a positive experience or not, eventually became some semblance of a home. We found pockets of comfort and security, whether that be in the arms of friends, in the classroom, at our extracurriculars. In the real world, not everyone has that same sense of security and comfort right away, and for young people of color, that makes this next phase of life a much more strenuous place to thrive in.

I encourage you all to reach out to someone experiencing a transition in their life and talk to them about it, be there for them, learn from them, and continue to support organizations like The Steve Fund, as they work to ensure the mental health and emotional well-being of people of color stays intact, and flourishes, in these often difficult times.

Alexandra Williams was until recently a senior at Yale University majoring in political science with a concentration in urban studies. She serves as the National Youth Adviser of the Steve Fund and oversees the development and activities of the Youth Advisory Board and directs other youth engagement initiatives.