My college decision was a no-brainer — Cal Poly San Luis Obispo was a prestigious school, with a reputation for top-tier academics surrounded by picturesque rolling emerald hills.
Enamored by my move-in experience with perfect weather, tireless nights of orientation and newfound freedom, it wasn’t until after this “honeymoon” phase that I became more aware that I didn’t feel like I really fit in.
As part of the California State University system — known for being affordable and accessible and therefore attracting diversity — Cal Poly seems to be an exception. With a student population composed of more than 50% white students, Cal Poly is considered the only predominantly white institution of the 23 CSU campuses, and also the whitest public university in California.
Part of feeling disconnected from my new college community came from my naive assumption that a 21,000-person college would be a place where I would immediately feel at home with others who share my Asian American cultural roots. It didn’t help that I stopped routinely engaging in culturally significant activities, like making dumplings with friends. To cope, I buried my head in classes.
Fortunately, I found comfort through the Cal Poly Scholars program.
Designed to encourage underrepresented students from low-income families to apply and attend Cal Poly, the Scholars program also requires all participants to live together, granting ample opportunities for students to bond. While I was not a Scholar myself, I arranged to live with a girl who was part of the program. I took immediate notice when I looked down the hall; the vast majority of my neighbors were people of color.
It was this community that healed my homesickness. I was able to culturally bond with students — a stark comparison to how I felt in my classes. Being surrounded by others who understood and shared the struggle to feel comfortable or supported at a predominantly white institution established a tight-knit community, and gave me security knowing there was a physical space with a mutual understanding of this feeling.
Now in my second year, I’ve taken more notice of Cal Poly’s efforts to improve its diversity and attract a wider variety of applicants — the cross-cultural centers, its diversity, equity and inclusion-focused hire cluster and Bias Incident Report Team, to name a few.
Another way students find this sense of belonging is within cultural clubs and affinity groups. At first, I tried this avenue but had time conflicts with my academic commitments. I appreciate the few, welcoming meetings I did attend, and I know other people who have had success connecting this way.
With more than 65 student-run cultural clubs and organizations at my university, this presence of minority groups on campus is critical for incoming and continuing students because these clubs, centers and communities become hubs of conversation and safe spaces for students adjusting to change.
For those deciding whether to attend a predominately white institution as a person of color, here are some tips I and others around me found helpful when adjusting.
- Don’t be afraid to reach out to those in your community: I put a post about myself on the Facebook Class of ‘25 page, which is how I connected with my current roommate. Without this, I might not have been in a living community with people I was comfortable with and related to. Whether you choose to do this via Instagram DMs or IRL, I’ve found it to be highly effective.
- Join a cultural club or a cultural-affinity living community, and invest in it: Attending a few meetings of a cultural club does not mean you will connect with people instantly. Things take time; being patient is key. I cannot stress how much easier college is when you build a support system with people who share your lived experience, and when you have a physical home base where you feel comfortable.
Putting myself at a predominantly white college forced me to get out of my comfort zone. In retrospect, if I’d put immense weight on Cal Poly’s lack of diversity and allowed it to deter me from attending, it would have perpetuated this issue. My attendance allows for the opportunity to be the representation I found missing as a first-year student.
Establishing this presence goes along with an implicit responsibility to act as an “ambassador” for your peers. This ambassador position can feel like a burden, but it comes with the reward when increments of change visibly impact campus culture.
You don’t need to be the president of a big cultural club on campus or be a student assistant at a cultural center to catalyze that change. It can be as simple as just being present, in the classroom. Without knowing it, you could be a familiar face to someone else sitting across the lecture hall.
Amelia Wu is majoring in journalism at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and works at the university’s paper, Mustang News, as a data and investigations reporter. Wu is a member of EdSource’s California Student Journalism Corps.
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