Minority students’ mental health: “I just want to be a student”

By Maria Mattingly
Executive Staff

For minority students, Sewanee students yelling racial slurs at Emmanuel College men’s lacrosse team at a match on Saturday March 13 is yet another display of racism on campus. The protest that followed on Monday March 15 demonstrates symbolic support, but almost two weeks have gone by with no sign of changes being made and the University’s investigation still unresolved. Off campus, the anti-Asian hate crimes of the Atlanta spa shootings on Tuesday March 16 serve as a reminder of rising hate crimes and hate speech targeting BIPOC. These racial aggressions coincide with reaching the midpoint of a semester without a break, and students belonging to minority groups in particular feel a toll on their mental health.  

When asked how these recent events of racism have affected her well-being, Jasmine Huang (C’21) says, “I don’t really know how to feel. As a senior now, everything that has happened in the last week has been repeated over and over again.” 

Peggy Owusu-Ansah (C’23) explains how she is not surprised by Sewanee students’ yelling racial slurs at the lacrosse match: 

“I think what a lot of people don’t get about the lacrosse game is that it wasn’t like it was unexpected…it was just kind of frustrating,” says Owusu-Ansah.

When describing his reaction to recent events of racism on and off campus, Ashraf Haque (C’22) says, “At this point, I have become numb to a lot of these things.” 

The protest on the quad on March 15 following Vice-Chancellor Brigety’s announcement regarding the incident felt all too familiar for Owusu-Ansah, Haque, and Huang. 

“We once again had to go to demonstrations,” says Owusu-Ansah. 

Haque questions the effectiveness of such gatherings: 

“Attending events like this, leaving your gown at Convocation as a symbolic protest, I honestly don’t know how effective that is…it just felt a little repetitive and pretentious to me,” says Haque. 

When reflecting on the protest on March 15, Huang says she “[doesn’t] know if any substantive change will emerge from that.”

Owusu-Ansah describes how the incident at the lacrosse game has impacted her well-being and ability to focus:

“I didn’t think it affected me until I realized I had to go to class on Monday,” says Owusu-Ansah. 

She continues, “I just want to be a student.” 

Owusu-Ansah speaks on what it’s like to be a minority student at Sewanee in general, saying, “We always feel like we have to be on the defense. That has caused a lot of widespread anxiety being in public places.”  

Huang sheds additional light on the emotional impact of being a minority student: 

“This emotional, cognitive distress is something that a lot of minority students deal with on a regular basis,” says Haung. 

She adds, “At Sewanee, I don’t think I’ve ever been able to advocate for myself as an Asian-American.” 

Huang continues, “There are people I avoid, there are places I avoid, and there are specific classes I avoid in order to maintain my own well-being.”

Finding emotional support on campus proves to be challenging, especially while COVID governs students’ ability to go home or have a break during the Easter 2021 semester.  

Huang points out, “I don’t think a lot of people realize that some students who want to leave can’t leave for a variety of reasons…if I could, I totally would.” 

Image of Jasmine Huang (C’21). Photo by Maria Mattingly.

Haque shares how he seeks support on campus:

“Growing up in an Asian community, going to a counselor to seek support has always had a negative connotation,” Haque explains. 

He continues, “For me, mental support looks like being distracted by other things.” 

For Haque, having this kind of support at Sewanee feels of little importance.

“From my point of view, I’m not going to stay here forever,” says Haque. 

When asked how she has coped with mental health challenges at Sewanee, Huang says, “In previous years, I don’t think I ever really found a way to do so.” 

Owusu-Ansah describes talking to various professors or leaders on campus as a way to seek mental support, but finds that “Whenever I talk to them, at times they feel as helpless as I do. Unless you are a dean or administrator, you feel like you have no power on this campus,” says Owusu-Ansah. 

Owusu-Ansah offers her thoughts about the administration’s response to the incident at the lacrosse match: 

“They put things in the hands of the students, and that has caused a lot of helplessness,” says Owusu-Ansah. 

Huang shares her experience with trying to take concrete steps to combat racism on campus: 

“When I have had issues of racial slurs or specific microaggressions that happened during class, I reached out to people and they didn’t know what to do; nobody could really help me,” says Haung.  

In regards to the hate crimes that happened in Georgia, Huang says, “It’s been really disappointing to see how little people have cared about that.”

She continues, “The reluctance to engage with greater social issues beyond your immediate circumstances is an issue I see in so many people around me on this college campus, and it’s very disheartening.” 

Moving forward, the fact that racism is so pervasive at Sewanee is “not going to change unless you break it down and rebuild,” says Owusu-Ansah.