Learning to navigate while Black at a PWI

BSA President shares tips on finding an identity support staff to optimize your experience at Wake Forest


Jacob Thomas, President of the Black Student Alliance

Although my high school was a predominantly white institution (PWI), there is no doubt I experienced a culture shock when first stepping on Wake Forest’s campus. Finding and building community on campus was difficult with social barriers ranging from academic rigor to the predominance of traditionally white Greek life. Halfway through my first year, I began to fully appreciate what Wake Forest has to offer. It was not until I immersed myself in different multicultural organizations and took advantage of the myriad of opportunities available that I began to truly build community. In this piece, I hope to offer a bit of advice to ease the transition to college while acknowledging the reality of being Black at a PWI.

While there is no set period of time nor formula by which you are guaranteed to find your stride, rest assured that there is likely a social niche here for you. As a Black first-year, it is easy to look at other people and worry they have an established group when in reality most friend groups in college are open and dynamic. To some degree, you have to look inwards to know where and with whom you feel comfortable. It’s important to acknowledge that meaningful relationships are organic and can start anywhere, whether it be a party, the Intercultural Center (IC) or the classroom. Of course, I’m inclined to shamelessly plug the Black Student Alliance (BSA) events as a great place to start meeting other diverse students — you can find our events listed on Instagram @wfu_bsa. Additionally, there is a lot of socialization that occurs in the first-year residence halls, so reach out and build connections with those who live near you and some fun opportunities may ensue.

Whether it is caused by academic or social pressure, there will be times when you are likely to experience imposter syndrome, or a fundamental skepticism of your own talents and capabilities. To further complicate matters, receiving ample support may feel like a weighty undertaking as a Black student. Know that you do belong and you are not alone on this journey. Many have come before us, and many will follow. Although some first-years might be intimidated by the upperclassmen, it was not long ago that we were in your shoes. Most of us are more than happy to offer you advice, discuss our experiences or grab lunch when asked. Perhaps even wiser than the upperclassmen are the Black alumni, faculty and staff willing to guide you through. When you have questions about something, don’t hesitate to reach out — we will help you.

Now that you know you have a support system in place, let’s talk about how you can thrive at this PWI. When I was a first-year, a senior offered me some advice that stuck with me: finesse. Interpret that how you may ​​— but don’t get caught up. Let me expand on his thought a bit: seek out and take advantage of the multitudinous opportunities Wake Forest has to offer. There are programs and fellowships to travel virtually anywhere you can imagine. Students here come from a wide range of places and backgrounds. Professors that conduct research in nearly every field are at your fingertips. If you dream it and work for it, you can make it happen. It is increasingly important you know that the opportunities and funding are often there if you look in the right places. Again, don’t be afraid to ask for help.

In college, every student faces trials and tribulations. Of course, marginalization can amplify and nuance those unfavorable incidents. Protect your peace, stay the course and lean into the growth that you are bound to experience from the unrivaled opportunities here. The Black upperclassmen, alumni, faculty and staff are rooting for you. We are excited to welcome you to campus shortly and usher you into the next chapter of your life. It’s okay to be a little disoriented and overwhelmed when you arrive, but try to derive a thrill from the novelty of it all. Know that your journey here will be exciting, unique to you and unforgettable.

P.S. If you need anything, please feel free to reach out to me, or the other members of the BSA executive team via email or Instagram Direct Message.