An Urban Afro-Latina’s Experience at a PWI


I was a poor, hard-working, Afro-Latina college student. It was my second year at Sunny University (SU)[1] and I had successfully completed and submitted my application into SU’s prestigious, competitive, communications college. As an incoming freshman, I was not accepted into the communications college but was fortunate enough to pick up Magazine Journalism as a second major by my sophomore year. I felt unstoppable. During this time, I thought future me wanted to write for a magazine—ideally for Allure or Cosmopolitan. All I had to do was get good grades, graduate, and apply…right?

Element5 digital j CI Mc Op F Hig unsplash

SU had a way of inspiring me to dream BIG while simultaneously shutting me out and putting me down. You see, as the only student of color in most of my classes, with no prior communications experience, I always felt left behind (especially in my communication courses). I was taking classes with students who had prior high school experience in news and magazine publications. Whose parents were CEOs, directors, and leaders in communication companies/industries. While my classmates knew how to write a newspaper article, I was stuck trying to figure out proper news writing style. One of my most defining moments at SU that changed me forever involved an introductory newspaper writing course and a white man (who was my professor). This particular professor called me into his office hours to discuss my current progress. I remember dreading this meeting because he was mean. During class, he displayed our assignments on a projector and the entire class was charged with providing constructive criticism. I already felt different, and these classroom exercises magnified it. During this meeting, he talked about my writing style and told me that I struggled with his assignments because Spanish was my first language. I was appalled.

Did it never occur to him to ask me if feeling marginalized affected my classwork, or to think about my nonexistent communications experience, or even to ask himself if his teaching style was effective for all of his students.

He continued by suggesting I work on my writing if I wanted to do well in his class. I had never in my life felt so small. Where others looked at it as a privilege to know two languages, this white man was telling me it was a disadvantage. As a young scholar, I did not know how to respond so I shook my head and left his office. I cried the entire walk home. My dreams of writing for Allure and Cosmo were crushed by a professor I was supposed to admire. All I kept thinking was I have to work harder.

After that terrible meeting, my grades improved. I worked closely with a few of my peers that I forced myself to befriend and asked them to edit my work. This experience amplified my imposter syndrome feelings causing me to hide my true self and code-switch. Code-switching allowed me to suppress my urban, bilingual identity and become someone else; someone more analytical, who could keep up with her studies (despite working full time) and appease all of her superiors. Although a necessary skill, I was super unhappy at SU. At the end of that semester, I left an honest, raw evaluation for my professor in hopes that he would absorb my feedback and make some changes. I advised him to never make assumptions, as assuming a student struggled in his class due to being bilingual was racist. Future professors, administrators, and employers should always consider how their teaching/leadership styles could hinder their students/employees progress.


An effective leader (in the classroom, company, or even nonprofit organization) will create inclusive working spaces where everyone feels supported and cared for. And when appropriate, leaders should ask for feedback on their leadership style/working environment and incorporate changes to address relevant issues. I believe that I would have enjoyed my time at SU if my classrooms were more diverse, if all of my professors had bias training, and if I was wealthy. By the end of my junior year I realized that the communications world was not for me. Besides the inherent notion that a student needed 2-3 unpaid internships to be considered for a job within the communications industry (which as a poor student I could not do), my news ethics course turned me completely off from furthering a career within this field.

At the end of my four years at SU, I graduated with my bachelors as an English and Magazine dual major and pursued my masters in Higher Education right after. I am currently pursuing my doctorate in Contemporary Learning and Interdisciplinary Research. As a PhD student, I aspire to work at predominantly white institutions for students who are different—to uplift, celebrate, and encourage them to be their best unique selves. I hope to continue to explore this idea of student belonging and the resources/tools disadvantaged students use/need to be successful. Today, I am proud of how far I’ve come despite all of the bias, discrimination, and microaggressions I have endured due to my appearance and bilingual accent. I’ve accomplished all of my goals thus far despite the odds.

[1] Not a real university. Changed name for anonymity purposes.

About the Author

My name is Nerisa Arias, I am the Assistant Director for the Higher Education Opportunity Program at Fordham University. I am also a 2nd year doctorate student at the Graduate School of Education (CLAIR Program) at Fordham University and my email address is