The day I moved to North Dakota State University, I felt like one of those smiling college students you see in the brochures. It was the end of summer 2018, and the weather was beautiful and beaming in Fargo. The grass was freshly cut and bright green, the buildings towered and looked ancient, and the dining centers had endless amounts of food and didn’t close until 11 p.m. Students were moving in, throwing Frisbees, sitting on blankets, skateboarding and walking in cliques. It was everything I’d imagined college would be.
I moved into the apartment-style dorm room I shared with three roommates. We each had our own bedroom and shared a kitchen, bathroom and living room. When I arrived, I did what all college kids do: I put away all the ramen I’d bought, placed a new comforter on my bed, and labeled my notebooks for each class. When everything was unpacked, I found myself sitting alone in my room, thinking, “I’m officially living on my own. I’m officially in college now!”
This moment had been a long time coming. In high school, I’d been turned down by every four-year college I applied to, and for two years I attended Saint Paul College, a community college a few miles from Frogtown, a neighborhood in St. Paul, Minnesota, where I grew up. It felt like high school turned up a notch. In fact, it wasn’t unusual for me to see some familiar faces from high school at Saint Paul College. Those two years went slowly, and I often found myself looking out the classroom windows daydreaming about living on my own and what being at a “real college” would be like.
And now here I was, walking around campus in Fargo, attending classes. At first, I was full of excitement. I wanted to meet lots of new people and join every club there was.
But the honeymoon phase soon began to fade. The weather was changing fast, too. The sun came out less and less, and that beautiful green grass turned to hay. My peers were no longer outside throwing Frisbees, but shimmying quickly to class, bundled up against the brisk North Dakota wind.
As quickly as the weather changed, I began to feel isolated, an African American woman at a predominately white institution, or PWI. The NDSU student body is 82 percent white, according to school data. The next biggest population on campus starts at 5 percent, what they call “nonresident alien.” African Americans accounted for just 2.6 percent.
Of course, I’d known before I got to campus that the school was mostly white, but that hadn’t fazed me. I was eager to meet new people who had different backgrounds than me. What I hadn’t counted on was how much NDSU didn’t feel like a place where I could really fit in.
My experience wasn’t just the normal ups and downs of transitioning to college. It felt like I was starring in my own Netflix episode of “Dear White People” every day. It was hard to understand the amount of culture shock I was going through, and why I was off to a rough start in college. All I knew was I didn’t feel like one of those kids in the brochures any more.
So, as an aspiring journalist, I decided the best way to make sense of my experiences was to chronicle them. I made YouTube videos like this: “Black Girl At PW College,” to try to make sense of it all.
I also started a blog a few months into school:
Election time in North Dakota is mad annoying. From the people to the ads– it all screams “Republican!” and it’s driving me crazy.
Last Friday, a debate was held in my intercultural class. The prompt was: Forced code-switching should be promoted in the United States.
For the debate we had to either sit on the strongly agree side, the strongly disagree side, or in the middle as undecided. Being the Erianna that I am, I sit in the middle. My only condition with the statement was language proficiency.
Now this is why I hate debates…
When my professor told us to go to the section we chose, I ended up being the only undecided person (Yay, me. Another opportunity for the black girl to stand out even more. Challenge accepted).
So the debate starts.
The common thread in everyone’s argument was that no matter what side they stood for, they valued diversity and interacting with people of color, and yadda-yadda. The problem I had with that was, ok –– do they actually mean this outside of class? Like how can you sit in class and say these things but don’t even engage in ways that supports that. Hell, you don’t even talk to me and I’m the only black girl in your class!
Idk, it rubbed me the wrong way. If anything, it gave me another reason to put on my list why I hate — I MEAN LOVE North Dakota.
You have no idea how much better I will feel to be around people… like me. People who are as politically and socially woke as I am. So the Thanksgiving countdown has begun!
That was one of the first days I knew that NDSU wasn’t for me. It was so bizarre to be sitting in these all-white or nearly all-white classes, taught by white professors, and trying to have conversations about race and politics with peers who had never interacted with people of color, at least in person.
My peers would talk a lot in class about embracing diversity and people from different cultures. But they didn’t live those ideals. These same people preaching diversity would pass me in the dining center or common areas as if I wasn’t even there. I wondered, “How is it that we spent 40 minutes in class getting to know each other, working on projects and now, all of a sudden once we leave class, I’m invisible?”
During my first semester, I mostly hung out with my roommates. And this, too, could feel isolating.
My roommates had cars on campus, and one day I asked if we could stop at this beauty supply store nearby. It was the only black hair store in town — and probably all of North Dakota.
But what felt like a normal store to me was a new experience for them. As we pulled up, I asked, “You guys want to come in with me?” I felt the tone shift in the car. They all kind of looked at each other hesitantly. Finally, one said, “No, it’s okay, we’ll stay in the car.”
This incident seemed to represent so much of what was happening. Here I was embracing my roommates and my peers, trying to fit in to their culture 24/7. And yet they couldn’t embrace even one experience, one chance to enter my world. Why was the burden all on me?
It felt like the campus was rejecting me daily, and I couldn’t find a way to relate to anybody.
I tried to convince myself that I was just fine. That it was all a part of a transitional phase that I would get through:
I just may be finally settling into college.
My friends and mentors all told me that this would take a while to happen but I didn’t entirely see what they meant until now.
When I came back two weeks ago I wasn’t even close to being in the “school spirit” and this past weekend I really let that feeling get the best of me. I stayed in my dorm all weekend, I sent off a couple of my friends, I cried, and I even had a misunderstanding with my roommates. So you can only imagine how shitty I was feeling. “Anti” would be the best word to describe how I was feeling towards everyone and I hated that I did.
I remember calling my mentors — a group of old friends from back home — every week talking about how much I hated NDSU and wanted to leave. One weekend, I even took a Greyhound bus back to Minneapolis and showed up on one of their doorsteps out of desperation.
School just wasn’t going like how it was “supposed to.” Three months in, I was “supposed to” be making all these friends and having the time of my life. You know, all the things in the brochure. But I wasn’t.
So, I took all the advice I could get on how to improve things.
I started with going to the gym — a little. Then, I went to the school clinic, and they suggested antidepressants would do the trick. They were wrong.
After that, I started going to Black Student Association meetings every Thursday night, and I got a therapist on campus.
Still, it seemed like nothing was resonating with me. The fall semester wasn’t even over, and I wanted to move back home. The blogs and videos kept me going.
Slowly, I started to make a few friends and kept going to Black Student Association meetings. With a few more trips to the gym, a couple YouTube videos, and about six blog posts later, the spring semester was off to a good start. And I thought I had finally made it through the worst.
The only thing this week didn’t fix was my uneasy feeling about how hard and just in my head I am about making friends and being social. Back home, this was never a problem. Making friends, being social was just a part of my norm, and was never no big deal. Then it’s like when I’m here, in college, and on this campus, everything small has become big for some reason. I would think, now I’m the out-group, now I’m questioning what kind of person I am, now I’m feeling lame, and uncomfortable. I wonder why that is?
Overall though, I’m happy that I took control and seized the week. Not for anyone else, but solely for the sake of me keeping it together.
This is just the beginning and it’s about damn time!
Talk to y’all next week,
But these feelings faded, too, and I was back to thinking that NDSU wasn’t for me. When the spring semester ended in May, and I came home to Minneapolis, I knew I wasn’t going back to North Dakota.
I found a room share with five roommates and spent a handful of days filling out paperwork to transfer to Metropolitan State University, a four-year college in Saint Paul that’s a sister school of Saint Paul College. Metro State was a radically different experience: an urban school with students of varying ages and ethnicities.
It’s funny how I ended up trading the distinguished-looking buildings and green grass of North Dakota State for three separate campuses, a commute to class, and the responsibility of paying rent every month just to feel at home.
At Metro State, my classes aren’t all white, and the conversations we have about race and politics are far more complex and reflect more diverse experiences than they did at NDSU. And though I still live among many white people, there is some level of familiarity between us because we all live in the city.
My first semester at Metro State changed my perspective on college. That it wasn’t just about what the campus buildings look like or what you see in brochures or what I’d imagined college is supposed to be like. It’s not supposed to be like anything. And it’s definitely not supposed to make you feel like you have to change everything about yourself as a person to make it work.
I now think college is about feeling supported in your environment, being comfortable in class, being brave and advocating for yourself when something doesn’t feel right and knowing your intuition enough to hear it when it says, “try something else.”
I don’t have all the answers just yet. I’m still in college and still learning. But one thing I do know is that college is truly what you make it. And it’s not about wearing the T-shirt, making friends or having the new comforter. It’s about how you’re going to get yours. Meaning, how you’re going to navigate your decisions in this small portion of your life to get a college degree. And try to support others when they feel like the odd ones out.
This story about transferring to a four-year college was produced by APM Reports in partnership with The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.
Erianna Jiles is a student at Metropolitan State University in Minneapolis and an assistant producer at American Public Media.