Dear freshman of color!
So you’ve joined the GDS community. That’s fantastic! Welcome to a school full of the most wonderful people you’ll ever meet (the kind of people you’ll brag about knowing someday; they’ll brag about you, too). High school is a wonderful place for growth, exploration and self-discovery. However, it would be misleading to imply that high school—and freshman year in particular—isn’t as difficult as it is great.
For all freshmen, entering high school creates a mix of nostalgia and excitement, fear and determination, insecurity and confidence. But for us people of color, trying to forge for ourselves the idealized high school experience at a predominantly white institution (known as a PWI) requires dealing with the additional, omnipresent element of race and the unique obstacles—and beauty—that come with it for us.
Maybe you were binging coming-of-age movies before orientation and idolizing the high school stories of Cher from Clueless or Ferris Bueller from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or so many more iconic teen characters. Those characters’ high school experiences aren’t relatable to most people, but when you’re not white, they can feel outright otherworldly.
With this open letter, I’m offering some advice based on my experiences and the advice I received my freshman year from upperclassmen of color, in the hopes that you won’t have to learn these things the hard way and can have an even better freshman year than we did! So here are four pieces of advice for you to have a fantastic year.
1. Find your tribe.
The best advice I ever got in my freshman year was to find people to look up to and find people who make you feel safe. It’s best to avoid pressuring yourself to be surrounded exclusively by white students in an attempt to fit in, or do the opposite and create a bubble with only people similar to you. The most fulfilling social lives have a mix of people who you’re very different from (to learn from them while they also learn from you) and people you’re similar to (to be able to just talk without needing to explain every reference to your identity).
2. Make your voice heard.
You’ll often hear people say that GDS is an echo chamber, referring to the liberal ideas that are often prominent and often unchallenged in the community, but I heavily discourage you from internalizing it. I’m not going to lie to you: For the most part, GDS students find themselves somewhere on the political left. However, just because a student leans left, it does not mean they are inherently anti-racist—or even not racist.
It’s important to speak up when you encounter a red flag, even if you are disagreeing with someone who generally aligns with your political views. Don’t be afraid to make waves. Participate in difficult conversations with your friends. Don’t shy away from confrontation. And if your teacher says something you disagree with, speak up then, too!
3. Join a racial affinity group!
This article is probably not the first place you’ll hear about affinity groups, nor will it be the last, but joining an affinity group may be one of the best things you can do in your freshman year. It’s a fantastic way to meet friends with whom you always already have at least one thing in common. It will give you a surefire opportunity, at least a few times a semester, to be unapologetically yourself, which can be rare at a predominantly white school like GDS. It’s refreshing to have a set-aside chance to vent, celebrate your accomplishments and look out across a table of people who look like you! Being in an affinity group can remind you that you’re not the sole representative of your racial identity and that you’re not alone.
4. Pop the GDS bubble.
I’ll let you in on a little secret. The concept of the so-called GDS bubble, where no racism, sexism or homophobia exists, is a complete myth. I can’t tell you how many times during my freshman year I’d be speaking with a white upperclassman who would remind me not to feel too safe because racism exists outside of these walls. News flash, upperclassman: Racism exists inside these walls, too.
Pretending that GDS is a perfect oasis of complete tolerance is why accounts like @blackatgds are created. Most students and faculty think they do their best when it comes to anti-racism. But someone will still make a weird comment about your hair, or maybe your culture, and that will feel bad. Recognize that, and maybe we can create the unprejudiced paradise GDS has a reputation for.
These four tips won’t transform your GDS experience, nor can they make it perfect. However, keeping them in mind can help you avoid some unnecessary pain that some of my classmates and I have experienced. High school can seem scary, especially when you’re a person of color among mostly white students, but always remember that you are not alone and that there are students and faculty of color there to support you—like me!
Jacqueline Elna Metzger ’23