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Living Black at University blog series: How Black students’ experiences with student housing shaped their time at university

On Thursday, June 9, 2022, HEPI is hosting its annual conference, ‘Challenges for the future? Student experience, good governance and institutional autonomy”. Register here.

The third in this series of blogs on Living Black at University was written by Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, Vice President for Higher Education at the National Union of Students.

“I was the only black person in my hallways.”

“I didn’t know where to get my hair done or buy cultural foods that I ate at home.”

“My roommates keep touching my hair and commenting on my food, my clothes, my past.”

These are common things you hear from black students about staying in college accommodation, settling into their new surroundings, being surrounded by people they’ve never met. When students apply to college, they are often faced with glossy flyers showing extremely diverse student populations and students who look like they are having the time of their lives. For some students this is a reality, but for many others, especially black students, it is not.

The choice of housing depends on affordability, access to services, demographics and much more. These elements are crucial to creating an environment in which students can thrive or survive. For black students, accommodation choices shape their first taste of college. It is common that where black students have been the only black roommates in their apartment or even hallways, they have been questioned about their hair, cultures and backgrounds – and have often felt intimidated by the presence of security in corridors. , often wondering about their affiliation. This is often not the welcoming environment in which they are told they come.

Academic impact

It is for this reason that we often hear from black students about generally difficult college experiences. Where they live should be a place where they feel safe, free and open to being themselves, but when they are subjected to such a negative experience at home in college, it puts the rest of their experience at risk. Lectures and navigating the academic experience are more about proving the validity of their experiences than valuing their voices and points of view. It creates an environment that tells them “prove your worth here” rather than “you belong here and have the same power to contribute to this space.” We see the academic impact of the college experience on black students through attribution gaps and adverse impacts on post-college outcomes. The disparity of black students continuing their education, as highlighted by the Leading Routes’ The Broken Pipeline – Barriers to Black PhD Students Accessing Research Funding report, is perhaps the most glaring indicator that students are struggling to settle into the academic communities of which they are a part.

Mental Health

Mental health is also strongly impacted. The language of mental health is different both in the vocabulary used and in the behaviors exhibited. Where black students have negative housing experiences, loneliness and isolation are heightened. Black students spoke about how the lack of community and lack of culturally competent care they experience in college impacts them. Often the barriers that black students face are not only racialized experiences, but also related to cultural differences. Ways to navigate mental health have been difficult for Black students who often do not see other Black staff or counselors, and cannot afford to engage with support services from a way that is accessible to them. It’s only recently that initiatives like Black People Talk have made great strides in establishing new and open ways to break down the stigma surrounding mental health in the Black community. In housing, the mix of settling in, dating and living together can be an intense experience for all, but particularly for black students, it’s been an experience that hasn’t been as positive in the support that has been provided. over the years.


Finally, it would be remiss not to speak of the levels of racism, discrimination, and prejudice experienced by students during their time at university. In large part, many black students spoke about their time in accommodation, with roommates making them uncomfortable with comments about hair, food and culture, and being inappropriate. In the student unit Living black in college report, 54% of black students spoke about their experience of having been the victim of racism. Racism can often be equated to interpersonal interactions, but it is often enabled by environments that allow ignorance and lack of safety and protection for minority students. In 2020, security personnel allegedly racially profiled a University of Manchester student. Racism also occurs in interactions with roommates and classmates where Black students often feel excluded or hyper-scrutinized, and staff teach programs and practices that exclude non-Western culture and narratives, and say as absolute truths.

Accommodation experiences are a formative part of shaping every student’s time in college. Black students have, for years, struggled to feel a sense of belonging when they moved from home to student accommodation, and it set the tone for their time at college. For many, it awoke racism in a form that felt more direct and visible than they had ever experienced before. For others, it had staged an uninclusive, unwelcoming, and painful time navigating a space they were now a part of.

We all have a task to do more and do better to support Black students beyond mentorship programs and unconscious bias training. We must identify the structural and systemic barriers that replicate these experiences, and we must expect, with students in the lead, a more welcoming and accessible college experience for Black students, with an accommodation experience setting the right tone for thriving at university. .

Register here for HEPI’s annual conference on Thursday, June 9, 2022.