Lost on campus, as colleges look abroad

One day this fall, Rachel Domond, a third-year student at Northeastern University, conducted a counting exercise that has become all too familiar for many African-American students. She sat on the red couches on the second floor of the Curry Student Center and scanned the room for others who looked like her.

It didn’t take long to count. It never does.

“I see one black person over there,” she said, motioning across the room to a group of about 40 students. “But for the most part, I see white faces, and I see all of these international students.”

For many black students in Boston, the word “diversity” is taking on a global, multicultural meaning that has little to do with them. Boston has become a leader in attracting foreign students, but at the same time it lags behind other parts of the country when it comes to enrolling black college students from closer to home.

The Globe spoke to more than four dozen students and alumni from Boston-area schools, and many had similar experiences: While they were grateful for their educations, they felt the isolation of being the only black student in classes, they questioned how to fit in at overwhelmingly white campuses, and they sometimes experienced overt racism that made them ready to leave Boston.

 

Fresh from their first day of classes this September, freshmen slowly filed into a meeting of the Northeastern Black Student Association in the John D. O’Bryant African-American Institute, named after the first black member of the Boston School Committee. They were there for advice. After Pictionary and pizza, the new students turned their attention to upperclassmen telling them to reach out to professors, study abroad, and regularly check the online syllabus.

But they were also honest about the subject that united them: What it was like to be black at Northeastern.

They laughed about their favorite barbershops or hair braiders, and the older students hinted at the kind of subtle, offensive comments that would be familiar to any black student: Are you on a sports scholarship? You’re really a student here? Do you think medical school is really for you?

Sitting in the front of the room, one junior told them to stay strong together. “The little microaggressions will eat at you,” said Kyumon Murrell, a 21-year-old from Long Island. “And if you don’t have that support network, it will crush you.

 

This spring at Harvard University, a group of black students organized the first “Black Commencement” across all graduate schools at Harvard University. Hundreds of black students gathered with friends and family near the law school, clad in dark robes and colorful stoles made of traditional African kente cloth.

Looking out at his peers on a sunny May day for the occasion, Duwain Pinder, a Harvard Business School graduate who spoke at the commencement, candidly talked about his feelings about the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. He made people laugh when he said they have all had to explain that Africa isn’t a country. And he returned to the “microaggressions” so commonly associated with higher education, black students, and Boston — but this time, there was a tinge of hope.

“We have endured the constant questioning of our legitimacy and our capacity,” he said. “And yet, here we are.”

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