Creating Spaces for College Students to Cope: A Proactive Approach to Race-Related Discrimination

A Blog by: Cassandra Granville

CassandraImagine your first week of your undergraduate career. Adjusting to dorm life, trying to make new friends and figuring out how to get to all of your classes. And then you experience something you may not have experienced first-hand in your hometown: race-related discrimination. Being a student of color at a predominantly white institution brings its own set of challenges on top of the stress of figuring out what you want to do with your life. Equipping students of color, particularly black students, with a toolbox of strategies to cope with these almost guaranteed experiences is critical in order to support them in their transition to college.

I wanted to explore which coping mechanisms are best for both physical and mental health, as supported by research. This meta-analysis explains how there are some studies that support the idea that a strong sense of racial identity can buffer the effect of discrimination because having your own people to identity with gives you a feeling a belonging. But other studies show that a strong sense of racial identity leads to more perceived instances of interpersonal discrimination and vigilant behavior.

Although not all research is consistent about what the best coping styles are, it is apparent and well accepted that problem-focused coping styles are better for health than emotion-focused coping styles. Problem-focused coping styles involve seeking social support, confrontation and addressing the cause of the stress. Conversely, emotion-focused coping styles involve avoiding the source of stress, suppressing your emotions, and using drugs or alcohol.

In order to make sure that black college students have a space to learn the benefits of choosing problem-focused coping styles in times of distress, it is necessary to create spaces where students have the opportunity to learn and reflect. Creating spaces on campus environments is often effective at disseminating this information. Mandatory online workshops and events organized by student organizations are possible ways to inform black students on both how systemic anti-black racism negatively impacts their health and how they can brainstorm healthier ways to cope. These spaces should teach black students the negative effect that vigilant coping styles have on their immediate health and how to better manage the added stress of a new college environment where race-related discrimination is common and difficult to handle when navigating a campus where few people share your racial identity.

In addition to knowing how to best cope with discrimination, another related way that we can prepare black students for the discrimination experienced at predominately white institutions is to ensure that they have people within the black community that they can turn to. A program that connects incoming black students with existing black students at predominantly white institutions provides them with a multitude of opportunities to better cope with interpersonal discrimination. One connection can turn into many, so that new students have a foundation of people on which they can rely on in times of distress.