Alex Williams, Stephen Berkemeier, Dr. Terri Wright
The following is an abridged and slightly edited transcript from a recent podcast by the Steve Fund, the nation’s only non-profit organization focused on the mental health and well-being of students of color. The podcast was part of a month-long awareness campaign by the Steve Fund as part of Minority Mental Health Awareness Month.
Steve Fund Executive Director Dr. Terri Wright talks with two students of color, Alexandra Williams, and Stephen Berkemeier, about their experiences with mental health on campus:
Dr. Terri Wright: Alexandra, can you give us a few examples of what you observed while you were a student at Yale?
Alex Williams: One of the first things I noticed while being at Yale was that my friends of color felt this sense of constantly needing to prove that they belonged on this campus of this really elite institution, that they didn’t just get there because of affirmative action or that they were less worthy than their white counterparts. And because of that, it would make it harder for them to admit when they were dealing with mental health issues such as depression or anxiety or eating disorders. They were less forthcoming in acknowledging a problem in their life because they thought it would amount to some weakness that would also discredit their space on our campus.
TW: Stephen, can you share any examples from your experience at the University of Michigan?
Stephen Berkemeier: When I first came to the University of Michigan, I felt this need to really demonstrate that I wasn't there because of affirmative action. I had a couple of friends who had gone through some difficult experiences and not getting the scholarships that they expected, and they tended to brush off my achievements as saying, “Well, that’s just affirmative action; you got in because you’re Latino” and that really hurt. Fortunately, we were able to talk it through, we are still friends today and they understand better. But my own accomplishment gets brushed away because of the color of my skin or because of my culture.
TW: What would you have liked your respective universities to do differently?
SB: Going straight into my freshman year at the University of Michigan, I was incredibly fortunate. We received a phone call at my house from this group called ALMA (Assisting Latinos to Maximize Achievement). It was this great group that was bringing Latino students in. They would move in early before the official moving date. We would get together; it would be an empowering movement to help us understand what it’s like going in to the college and preparing for the classes.
Because again, many of the students were first generation—no one in their family had gone to college before. But there were also some issues that presented themselves in that experience. I remember the largest being that it seemed like we were being pigeon-holed as students of color or Latino students. Instead of just being students who are Latino, we were “Latino students.”
AW: It would be great if an administration could be proactive in supporting their students of color and creating the resources necessary to support their mental health and daily existence on campus rather than it being a reactive response to students of color in big demonstrations. One of the things that I think is great that Yale does now—that I hope other institutions would do—is that they bring the staff from the counseling and psychological center to the cultural centers, to spaces where students of color often hang out or often do work or have extracurricular meetings.
So, now that makes seeking services a lot more accessible, which I think was one of the major barriers before in terms of students of color accessing help. I think another big thing for my university in particular—and I’m sure many others—is hiring more psychologists and therapists of color. I imagine that for some students, it’s harder to feel like someone who doesn’t identify as a person of color can necessarily relate to some of the experiences they might be having that is impacting their mental health.
TW: We thank both of you tremendously for the contributions you’ve made over the years to the mission and the work of The Steve Fund and you have our utmost support and admiration and best wishes for a successful next chapter. I hope that you will stay in touch and let us know what you’re doing.
Listen to the complete Steve Fund Podcast at www.stevefund.org/podcast.
The Steve Fund is the nation’s only non-profit organization focused on promoting the mental health and emotional well-being of students of color. It works with colleges and universities, students, non-profits, researchers, practitioners, and with groups serving diverse populations.