Navigating through academia as a student of color can be a challenging experience which can include self-doubt and a lack of access to mental health resources like counseling or therapy, IU graduate student Nelson Zounlome said.
Zounlome wrote about the challenges students of color face in a book titled, “Letters to My Sisters and Brothers: Practical Advice to Successfully Navigate Academia as a Student of Color” which was published in the fall.
Zounlome, who is a counseling psychology doctoral candidate, said he began writing his book about two years ago to create a resource for Black, Indiginous and other students of color.
Zounlome said many students he talked to when conducting his research said they felt as if they were not good enough to thrive in academia.
“A lot of issues students of color face surround being made to feel they are not qualified in interactions with white professors and white peers and make them question themselves,” Zounlome said. “They feel as though they are not credible or smart enough to be in academia.”
Freshman Desirée Taylor said she often feels intimidated in her classes.
“I feel if I ask a question or I don’t understand something, I will be ridiculed by others,” Taylor said. “In one of my classes, I am the only Black person in my class, and I just feel intimidated because my peers might be ahead of me or know more than me.”
When navigating academia as a student of color, Zounlome said it is important to find a group of people who look like you and value you. For Black women in particular, Zounlome said he found it is difficult to bridge the gaps of intersectionality.
Freshman Trisheena Harris said coming to IU was a major culture shock for her.
“I am used to having a diverse community around me, and coming here I have faced a few challenges with making connections with classmates since this is a predominantly white school,” Harris said.
Harris also said there have been several occasions where she faced racism at IU.
“This idea, especially true for Black women in academia, of being made to feel as if they had to choose between their Blackness and being women, is a common challenge among the group,” he said.
The book includes sets of activities and coloring pages for self-care and tools for strengthening mental health.
“Each chapter, at the end of it, has an activity that allows students to engage with the book and chapter topic more,” Zounlome said. “There is a self-love activity that has students go through and complete different affirmations and questions about what they love most about their identity, culture and accomplishments.”
He also said students of color should listen to their minds and bodies.
“It is really about thinking about yourself more holistically. You are more than a student,” Zounlome said. “Make sure all of our buckets are filled, and do not just focus on the academia bucket.”
Students should seek out therapy if needed, Zounlome said.
“I definitely feel access to mental health resources could be better,” Harris said. “Currently, there are not enough. I believe a lot of minority students go through a lot, especially freshmen, and access could be much better.”
While there is often stigma surrounding therapy, Zounlome said therapy is simply having a conversation with someone about challenges in their life.
This book is more than just a compilation of stories and experiences, he said. It is a guided resource to self-care and mental wellbeing.
Zounlome said he wishes he had a similar resource growing up and that he believes the book will serve as a much needed resource for other students of color, helping address mental health issues and to realize their value in academia.
“There was never a resource I saw and said ‘this is a book for me,’ and that is what I wanted to create,” Zounlome said. “I want students who pick up this book to see themselves reflected in it and realize they can overcome anything that stands in their way within academia.”