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As diversity grows at New England College, so do ‘teachable moments’

  • Junior Nadiyah Roberts-Green, of Connecticut, talks about her experiences attending school at New England College in Henniker on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Graduate Breana Ramirez, of New Jersey, talks about the growing diversity she has seen in the student body during her time at New England College in Henniker on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Samelly Alejo, of Massachusetts, talks about her experiences attending school at New England College in Henniker on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Freshman Rhonda Bennett, of New Jersey, talks about her experiences attending school at New England College in Henniker on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Jordan Bethea talks about her experiences attending school at New England College in Henniker on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Freshman Alexander Serra, of Maryland, talks about his experiences attending school at New England College in Henniker on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Freshman Akila Sansculotte, of New York, talks about her experiences attending school at New England College in Henniker on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Sophomore Destiny Black talks about her experiences attending school at New England College in Henniker on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Students walk through campus in between classes at New England College in Henniker last winter. As enrollment continues to grow at the small-town college, so too has the number of Hispanic and black students enrolled. In a state that’s 94 percent white, about 35 percent of the college’s students are people of color. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor file



Monitor staff
Friday, January 26, 2018

Six years ago, when Breana Ramirez arrived at New England College in small-town Henniker, the Paterson, N.J. native felt out of place.

“I was one out of 10 Hispanic and black students on this campus. So it was a big culture shock,” she said. “When I went to Walmart I was looked at as if I was something different. Like I had six heads.”

A lot has changed since. The college has aggressively recruited first-generation and minority students. Now, in a state that’s 94 percent white, about 35 percent of NEC’s students are people of color.

“We believe that our student population should reflect our country’s population,” said Michele Perkins, the college’s president.

Thanks to the school’s recruitment efforts – and, now that a critical mass of students of color are on campus, word-of-mouth recommendations – with every successive freshman class, the school has gotten more diverse.

“Now, I blend in,” Ramirez said.

Students of color interviewed spoke positively about their experiences at the school, complimenting, in particular, the college’s small classes, open forums, and faculty and staff who actually took the time to check in. But most could also rattle off a list of racially-charged incidents they’d dealt with since coming to New Hampshire, especially, though not exclusively, off-campus.

On Facebook, some of the town’s residents openly said they don’t like what they see.

“They are entitled, act like ghetto punks, have poor grammar and need to go back to where they came from,” one woman wrote on a Facebook community page, grousing about poor tips from minority students when waitressing in town. “I get plenty of white kids who tip like crap too – but it’s almost always the minorities who don’t,” she added in another post.

Another resident, Emily Houghton, flagged the woman’s comments with the administrators of the group, which includes over 1,000 members, and asked them to address them. Instead, they kicked Houghton out.

“This behavior is not acceptable in any place, and to see it in my backyard is unthinkable,” she said.

Judging from students’ experiences, that behavior isn’t isolated.

Ramirez, who recently completed her master’s degree, said people still give her funny looks at Walmart. Last year, while in the store’s parking lot with three other students of color, a man even yelled the n-word while driving away in a pick-up truck. And while Ramirez was walking with black and Hispanic friends to an off-campus party, another group of party-goers, who were white, bemoaned out loud, she said, that “the black people are coming.”

“They’re like ‘not you, Bre.’ And I’m like, what are you talking about?” she said.

Jordan Bethea, another student, said she was going to a party with a group of friends when the people at the door turned them away, saying they weren’t 21. Strangely, they said one member of the party could enter – incidentally, the lone white person.

Then, to make the insult explicit, they added this: “What you need to do is go back to the ghetto,” Bethea recalled.

But often, being a person of color, especially in an overwhelming white context, just means explaining the basics to people. Rhonda Bennett, a freshman, was volunteering at the White Birch Community Center when a child asked why her skin was black.

“I didn’t really know what to say,” she said.

Moments like these can be disorienting. But they’re also opportunities to engage, students of color said, and educate their peers – or superiors.

Akila Sansculotte, a freshman, was struggling with what to write for a research paper when another student joked in passing that she didn’t understand why it was considered offensive for white people to wear afros when black girls wore weaves.

That’s when the concept of natural hair discrimination – when people of color are pressured into straightening their hair to appear professional – really clicked for Sansculotte. She researched the topic and wrote her paper on it.

“My comp professor was like ‘Wow, I didn’t realize there was such a thing as natural hair discrimination’,” she said.

Nadiyah Roberts-Green, a junior, grew up playing softball. She’d often get the same question from her white teammates: why did she need to put on sunscreen?

“Just coming to college, I thought it would be different. I thought everybody would know what’s up. And they didn’t,” she said. But people will surprise you in different ways, too, she said. One of her teammates can do “cornrows better than my aunt.”

“So you get a mix of everything here. Definitely, teachable moments do not stop,” she said.

Listening to Roberts-Green’s anecdote, Samelly Alejo, a freshman, perked up. She had grown up playing softball too, she said, and had been looking forward to playing in college. She was dissuaded from doing so, though, when several people told her the team wasn’t welcoming to students of color.

“You can’t play. Everybody’s white. Everybody’s white,” she recalled people warning her. “So it’s interesting that she says that. Because now I’m just like – oh yeah, so I could join?”

Despite the college’s relative diversity, students of color often still find themselves being the only one in the room of their race and ethnicity. And just that fact alone is alienating.

In her business classes, Roberts-Green said she’s consistently been one of the few, if only, black women in the room. That’s often made her nervous about speaking up in class. And when it’s time to do group work, she waits until everyone has sorted themselves and then just goes where there’s an empty spot left. She assumes she’s not entirely wanted.

“And this is not in my head, because I’ve overheard certain things that were not appropriate,” she said. “I love NEC. But it’s little things like that. Little teachable moments. Group projects to work on. I feel like people, low-key, learn a lot from when they actually have a conversation with you.”

And for Alejo, that’s also why she’s glad she’s at NEC – because she knows just being there will make it more likely prospective students of color will choose the school.

“People are going to have the tour, they’re going to see my face and they’re going to be like ‘okay, I see someone like me’,” she said.

 

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)