Updated: Sep 15, 2020
NOTE: This article is meant to be read along with or in addition to listening to the podcast linked!
As UIUC students, we wanted to write a collaborative piece on what we feel it means to be Latinx students on campus. The overall college experience is something to be proud of and differs between person-to-person. What you should take from what we have written is that every experience matters and helps shape who you are. Being Latinx in a PWI- as intimidating as it may be- is an achievement in itself. We have compiled several experiences, resources and general opinions about our time being at UIUC which we hope gives you an unfiltered understanding of being a college student in general. Know that you are not alone and don’t forget to check out our UIUC Unfiltered podcast here!
Culture Shock and Representation:
One of the biggest experiences that many of us faced was the culture shock of coming into a school where POC are a very small percentage of the population. In many cases, we’re coming from schools that were predominantly POC, in terms of students and teachers. As Nancy noted, her Latin American literature class was taught by a white professor. Not only can this introduce problematic situations in the class, but it also reduces the amount of representation and job opportunities for Latinx people. Fatima says “It was intimidating to walk into a class where the professor doesn’t look like you or you were encouraged to make a relation with them but you didn’t feel a connection. I felt intimidated to even be in the class” because Latinx representation is not seen. These uncomfortable situations can, and even have, snowballed quickly into dangerous situations where Latinx students are forced to educate others about their culture, proper language and terminology, and even basic respectful practices/principles. It is not our job to do any of these things, particularly in an environment where we come to learn. It is even more discouraging in situations where professors and advisors might discourage students from going into a specific field in which they could really make a difference, like what Fatima describes here:
“A moment that still sticks with me was during spring semester of Freshman year, I went to go talk to a Political Science advisor for the first time (still was undeclared), and they made me feel like complete shit about myself and my direction after graduating.”
Marlene mentions she’s noticed “The higher you go in education the less POC representation as staff there are.” This should not be the case at all, particularly at a University like ours that touts diversity as a selling point. This attracts prospective students, the idea that people that look like them are actually present and heard on campus. When in reality, we’re still having issues of representation in many departments across campus.
Additionally, the surrounding area around campus can be difficult to navigate and become accustomed to as well. Patricia noted “It's hard not having many restaurants or grocery stores that sell Hispanic food and that was sort of a culture shock.” She also says “I went with friends to Walmart at school. One of my friends said something in Spanish and someone by us heard and gave us a look.” This can be hard, particularly because there isn’t really one solid way that we can fix this. We recommend bringing pieces of home with you to campus so that it helps with this new transition, as Marlene describes when she would bring food from home back on the Amtrak train. (We also can say that you shouldn’t be shamed for speaking Spanish anywhere. The United States does not have an official language, so if anyone would like to debate that we would gladly be willing to talk if you contact us. 😊)
All these situations come together to form real problems of culture shock and representation in our community on campus that many are not accustomed to in the first place. While discouraging and angering students might seem like a small issue, at worst these problems could really create dangerous situations that students find themselves in. As Nancy says "It can really make us believe we don’t belong." We do. You do. As a Latinx person on campus, and as a student on campus, YOU belong and your thoughts and experiences matter!
Despite all our initial and continuous hardships of alienation on this campus, finding places and people that allow us to express these feelings is also a huge accomplishment that makes this college experience tolerable, and even one of the best things about being here. As Gabby stated:
“It’s hard to explain this connection. A good analogy is like going back into your house after being outside in the cold. That feeling of comfort.”
This sense of belonging is achieved through many outlets! For example, one of the biggest spaces provided to Latinx students, La Casa Cultural Latina, is a wonderful resource that we will continue to praise. La Casa is constantly hosting different events and panels that allows students to gain important skills - such as resume reviews or learning about financial aid - to fun events such as Latin Dance Night (check out our article here). La Casa also does Lunch on Us, where they provide students with free food (!!) just by showing up. And at the bare minimum, La Casa is a free space for students to go study or meet up with friends. La Casa provides so many resources and opportunities for students that makes it possible for our community to succeed and in general understand that we are not alone in this difficult environment.
Apart from La Casa, Registered Student Organizations, RSOs, are another great resources for meeting new people and to talk about these topics without fear of repercussions (like how we’re doing here!) Gabby stated that she had not “Met many Latinx people anywhere other than in RSOs like NUVE or LSA.” Additionally, Patricia added that “It's nice to have a space in NUVE [and other RSOs] where you can relate to each other.” We highly encourage you to not be afraid to seek out different RSOs and to go to events! Patricia states that “there are so many resources for the Latinx/Hispanic community and activities that occur and whenever I go, people are always extremely welcoming.” Stepping out of comfort zones, especially when we already feel alienated, can be difficult, but in our experiences, the outcomes are always worth it! You also gain new experiences and friendships.
We highly encourage you to apply this into your academics as well! Many of us as first-gen students do not know what we’re doing, and that’s okay! It’s very important to seek advisors and professors that understand your perspectives and cater to your needs. Fatima expresses her own experience and how “Seeing the difference between having a Latinx advisor and a non-Latinx advisor [makes] you feel so much better about yourself when you can relate and feel like you belong.” We’ve also listed a couple more resources to help you out academically below and more on our website under UIUC Unfiltered!
Managing Life on Campus and Resources:
Finding what works for you in terms of managing your workload is something that you will continue to develop as a skill throughout your college experience. We have found that seeking resources such as the Office of Minority Student Affairs is an extremely helpful and valuable resource. Nancy explains that at OMSA “they have tutors, hold workshops, and help you get accustomed to college life and how to time manage, self-study, and much more.” (More information on OMSA here) La Casa Cultural Latina is another helpful resource that was mentioned above. They are extremely welcoming especially if you need a place that feels like home. Another helpful tip as Fatima mentions is “Constantly changing your study habits and time management skills. Finding new ways that work for you.” Many will realize that what used to work for them, no longer works now in college and constantly always working on your skills is very common and almost necessary to succeed. Julissa encourages “To make group chats with people in your classes” as it helps to have people who are struggling like you and they may even have answers to things you are looking for. This is also a great way to meet new people and develop different types of relationships and/or connections. Fatima adds on that “Facebook pages also create group chats for classes” if you are looking to find people on social media. Whether you find a group online or form your own group, seeking help from your classmates is very beneficial especially since you are able to relate with them more.
Partying is a huge aspect of what college life is, particularly since this is the common stereotype depicted in many movies, shows and what not. As Fatima says “there’s a lot of hype with partying” and sometimes when coming into college, there is a sense of pressure that as a college student you need to go out. However, the party-scene is not for everyone and that is okay. Gabby mentions how she has “Never seen the value of going out. There’s more important things than that.” Others have gone out and have felt that as Latinx people, there is really no place for them. “Frat parties are not for Latinos personally” as noted by Nancy. Most parties and bars are catered to the white population and are not catered to Latinx people as they do not play Latinx music. Nancy adds that “Being with a close group of friends is better and fun.” While everyone's experiences are different, a definite agreement is that you have to be careful and surround yourselves with friends you can rely on!
Like Sophia says:
“There’s an infinite number of ways to do things in college. There’s no one right way to do something. This whole experience is yours to create! We’re all in our own journey. Find what works for you and try not to compare yourself to other people. If it feels right for you, it is right.”