Away to College, and a New Culture

Youth Radio contributor Bianca Butler is from a working class background. When she went away to Sarah Lawrence College she suffered culture shock. She discovered that most of her fellow students came from a world she couldn't relate to. She shares this essay about trying to fit in.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

For our freshmen arriving at college this fall, getting good grades is a big concern. Youth Radio's Bianca Butler thought she was prepared for her first year at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. She'd made top grades in high school. But all her college prep courses didn't actually get her ready for the biggest challenge.

Ms. BIANCA BUTLER (Youth Radio): Here are some new concepts I learned during my first year of college: tokenized identity, racial consciousness and cultural capital. You might be wondering, was this in Freshmen Sociology of Education or Ethnicity in the U.S. 101? No. I learned about these ideas firsthand through interacting with other students.

I grew up in a working-class black family. Only a handful of kids from my urban public high school went to college out of state, and I was the only one who went to an elite private college. Before I left, no one sat me down and told me what it will be like to enter that world.

From the very beginning of my freshmen year, it was obvious to me that I was the exception. I was one of very few working-class black students on campus.

One of my roommates had spent a summer exploring Moorish temples in Spain. My other roommate hung out with reality TV personalities, had a vacation home, and partied at upscale New York nightclubs. My only exposure to celebrities was the tabloids at the grocery stores checkouts, and the only foreign travel stories I could share came from a day trip to Tijuana. I know that getting to know different people is a part of the college experience, but I didn't expect the intense feelings of alienation that came from knowing people with lavish lifestyles.

I began to feel very conscious of my social class, so I avoided giving details about my background, like my parents' occupation and the fact that I was the first generation to attend college. Everyone I met was friendly enough, but our conversations were often superficial.

One white girl who loved hip-hop couldn't understand why I was offended when she used the N-word, and I didn't bother to explain because it was too complicated. One day I glanced through her high school yearbook. Looking at photos from her graduating class, I was shocked that there weren't any students of color. Maybe I was being too judgmental, but that alone made me feel like it would be impossible for us to really click.

I chose the school, in part, to get outside my comfort zone. Colleges like these aren't designed for kids like me, and I didn't show up with all the tools I needed to succeed. I graduated from high school with honors, but I wasn't fully prepared academically for the demands of college. And even though I found a supportive circle of college friends, I still struggle with culture shock.

Now that I'm a sophomore, I know what I'm in for. Bear with me while I quote from Audre Lorde's "Sister Outsider." The master's tools will not tear down the master's house, but I'm going to need those tools to navigate this experience. I spent my freshmen year convincing myself that I deserved to be here and now I'm going to spend my sophomore year proving it.

CHADWICK: Bianca Butler's story came to us from Youth Radio.

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