Managing my mental health as a student of color

Making the decision to go to college can be tough. In my case I knew I definitely wanted to pursue higher education. I just wasn’t sure where or how. Financially I was more than ready to depend on Sallie Mae. The impending doom of graduating with thousands of dollars in student loans wasn’t my greatest fear. I was the most concerned with finding a community that would make those thousands of dollars feel worth it.  

Originally my plan was to apply to all schools that interested me and fit into all my criteria. There was an entire chart made in Google documents. Alphabetized, color-coded, the whole shebang. Fun fact: the university I decided on was not on my original spreadsheet.  

When deciding on a university I knew being too close to home wouldn’t be ideal. I was looking for a fresh start with fresh faces and the ability to be my most authentic self from the get-go. While my parents lightly encouraged me staying closer to home, they were also supportive of me going wherever I deemed fit. They were not much help in the decision process, aside from giving up their weekends and taking off work to drive me hours away for tours. Just minor things (sarcasm – they are amazingly supportive).  

After spending months doubting myself and my ability to succeed, I came to a decision. My final decision was to attend Hollins University. Ultimately, I was swayed by their generous financial assistance and internship opportunities.  

Clearly the internship opportunity factor payed off since I am writing this article as an assignment for my marketing internship with Family Service of Roanoke Valley.  

When I announced my decision to my parents, I had two very different responses. My dad essentially said, “Cool, you sure? George Mason is 30 minutes away, you could commute.” He was partially joking. My mom was excited for me to embark on this next chapter of my life but a little sad that I would be a few hours away.  

Having had my struggles with mental health in the past, being away from the familiarity and support of my family was intimidating. While my parents are immensely proud of the progress I have made and am continuing to make, we were all a little on edge about college being a possible setback.  

My parents were present throughout the entirety of my mental health journey. This made them just as, maybe even more so, in tune with my triggers and coping strategies. They have always been great at picking up on things I may not notice or choose to acknowledge. For years my dad has been telling me that our minds are like bad neighborhoods and no one should travel through them alone. The last few years I have been improving at not traveling alone but still have days, or weeks, where I choose not to share.  

When I choose not to share, I have a tendency to withdraw into myself and feel as if my problems are solely my own burden. I like to insist that I have everything under control, which leads to me growing quieter as I fixate on any negative outcomes that could occur.

With this in mind, we struck a deal. I promised my parents that I would be honest no matter how I may be feeling and that I would come to them with anything I needed to get off my mind.  

The next few months leading up to my departure were full of lengthy conversations highlighting what Hollins could potentially be like. We attended countless mixers hosted by Hollins to get to know the university a bit more as well as my soon to be classmates.  

A regular topic was the lack of diversity we saw at these events and mixers. Most of the time I would only need one hand to count the number of black people in the room. Going to Hollins I knew I would be challenged by the lack of diversity. But, I was nowhere near prepared for how isolated this made me feel.  

A major challenge I have when maintaining my mental health is avoiding isolation. Being alone with my thoughts is something I find to be comfortable but can be dangerous for me. I get attached to thoughts or ideas and my mind starts to spiral uncontrollably. When my mind is too active and I can’t get myself to focus on one thing, I get overwhelmed.  

At home I had a reliable list of coping mechanisms. Whether it be finding my dog and bothering her for a while, going to the gym, or finding one of my parents to talk to, there was always somewhere to turn.  

Going to Hollins I was not as confident in my ability to maintain or develop new coping strategies. It was easier to isolate myself when I wasn’t sure where my place was within the Hollins community. The lack of diversity made it harder for me to want to find my place.  

Struggling to find my place took me down a cesspool of negative thought processes. I began doubting myself academically wondering if I would be “smart enough” to keep up in my classes.  

I considered paying a visit to the on-campus counselor to work through my anxieties surrounding my first semester, but I was hesitant.  A major part of my anxiety came from the lack of diversity throughout campus. Not so shockingly, the counselors were all white. While there is nothing wrong with seeing a counselor outside my race, I knew I would feel more comfortable with someone who can personally attest to the black experience.  

Not only does the student population at Hollins lack diversity (26% students of color), the staff is also predominantly white. As of fall 2018 semester, we had one black professor. I had the privilege of having him as not only a professor but also an academic advisor. I credit his class for teaching me about the legendary Billie Holiday, but more importantly for helping me start to find my place around campus. 

I made my first friend in his class, which gave me the confidence I needed to start being more sociable and leave my room for more than meals or class. This one friend started a chain reaction of me being more transparent with my peers.  

Through on campus organizations such as the Black Student Alliance as well as the Culture and Community Engagement department, I was able to find community in an environment where not a lot of people look like me.  

Outside of forming new friendships I also made an effort to maintain a regular self-care routine. Picking at least one or two nights a week to set schoolwork aside for a little pampering can help to put a mind at ease. Sometimes this can manifest as taking the time to be alone with your thoughts through journaling exercises. I personally like to shut my mind off for a bit and give myself a manicure while watching a show or movie on Netflix.   

Managing mental health as a student of color (especially on a campus lacking diversity) means there are a few extra hurdles, but I have found ways to manage and thrive in my first semester. With all the love and gratitude in my heart, I credit my successful first semester to finding my group of people at Hollins.

Tayah Frye is currently wrapping up her J-Term internship with Family Service. In the spring she will be headed back to classes at Hollins. She plans to declare her major as communication studies with a minor in philosophy.