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The Trauma of COVID on Black Students in Higher Education

The Trauma of COVID on Black Students in Higher Education

Scrolling through your Instagram timeline these days might be more celebratory than usual. But, as our young people make their way back to school, their hopes and smiles won’t be able to mask the reality of the continuing global pandemic. It’s different this year, and for some, quite overwhelming.

Black college students not only face a disproportionate risk of contracting COVID-19, they are particularly vulnerable to its psychological damage — especially when the struggle against inequality and the current financial crisis are factored in.

It’s a triple threat that most colleges and universities have found themselves ill-equipped to manage. COVID-19 has exposed health and economic inequities that past generations have not had to deal with so directly.

The disparities that exist because of COVID-19 are the result of prepandemic realities — healthcare, access to technology, social justice concerns, financial challenges, and a sense of community. These areas of concern have been amplified to a critical level, and it’s making attending college more of a burden.

Black students typically don’t see themselves reflected throughout the school campuses they walk through on a daily basis or in the curriculum they have to learn. These experiences show a lack of inclusion that has a significant effect on their mental health.

As the pandemic continues, students are experiencing heightened stress — particularly academic stress — and burnout. With the Delta variant posing a threat to having a normal campus experience, these stressors have increased the student mental-health concerns that have been on the rise for years.

Higher education began as a privilege in this country. Harvard’s first commencement was in 1642 with just nine students. They were, of course, all white and male. According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, this year Harvard accepted only 1,968 students out of the 57,435 who applied to the class of 2025. Black students make up 18 percent of the admitted class — an increase from the 14.8 percent of the previous class.

“We have the most diverse class in the history of Harvard this year, economically and ethnically,” reports William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid. “This is an incoming group of students who’ve had experiences, unlike any experiences first-year students have had in the history of Harvard or history of higher education.”

Fitzsimmons is right. These students’ experiences are unlike any that the Ivy-league institution has seen before and during a time we haven’t seen before. The questions remain: Is Harvard equipped to respond to the social, emotional, and academic needs of Black students? How are they going to meet these unique experiences and create space for Black students to be supported and thrive?

At the University of California-Riverside (UCR), Black students graduate at a rate higher than any other college in California and any other group on campus. This is due, in large part, to the community of support the campus has cultivated.  

UCR has a Black Alumni Chapter, as well as a Black Faculty and Staff Association made up of professionals on campus across various disciplines. They serve as role models and mentors from the beginning of a student’s journey, and it continues after graduation. African Student Programs (ASP) is the first professionally staffed Black student resource center in the University of California system.

As with many campuses, UCR is requiring COVID vaccination for all students, faculty and staff this fall. Non-compliance of this will cause a suspension in student status, including exclusion from classes and all university activities.

Total inoculation may be a step towards some level of normalcy on campus, but many Black students do not have adequate access to the vaccine. The absence of the vaccine, or lack of the vaccine, has the greatest impact on Black communities.

Some colleges and universities had to make emergency transitions to the online space, and it highlighted how remote learning reinforces educational inequities for Black students. Truth is, not everyone has access to high-speed Internet, which is required for online education. However, a larger issue is simply having the equipment needed, such as a laptop.

Grantham University, a 100 percent online school located in Lenexa, Kansas, is able to provide an education that is affordable and flexible. These two factors are at the top of the list for first-generation, non-traditional students. Once the pandemic forced us all inside, Grantham students were able to continue without disruption to their usual academic routine. Recognizing that many students did not have access to technology, Grantham now provides a new laptop upon enrollment.

Black students have the right to a safe and affirming learning environment, which requires initiatives on the local, state, and national level. This includes significant investment in mental health services to address the impacts of the pandemic and racial trauma.

The reality is that faculty and staff members are also feeling overwhelmed and traumatized. Not only do they need access to resources but also the professional development necessary to address the social, emotional, and academic needs of their Black students.

Higher education has taken action to be more equitable, but the work is far from done. Campuses have to value making a difference within marginalized groups, which in turn amplifies the learning experience for everyone.

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