Old Main, building

Old Main on Monday, May 31, 2021 in University Park, Pa. 

Some Penn State students in marginalized communities said facing discrimation on campus isn’t a new experience — hearing jokes and generalizations about one’s food, clothing or culture has become commonplace, they said.

According to some students, these experiences can have lasting effects on their mental health.

Jaelyn Monroe, the second vice president of the Penn State Student Black Caucus, said she’s encountered discrimination on campus multiple times.

Monroe (junior-political science) said her first time experiencing discrimination on campus was during her freshman year when she ordered food from Qdoba Mexican Eats.

She said the delivery person was “really nice” over the phone, but once he saw she was Black, he threw her food on the ground.

Monroe said another time she experienced discrimination was when she was with her roommates walking around “fraternity row” and waiting to get into a party.

“The people at the fraternity told her friends they had reached full capacity,” Monroe said, and then “continued to let other people in because they were white.”

When she was working on a group project for a class, Monroe said she was the “only person of color in the group,” and when she suggested ideas to her peers, they would ignore her and try to meet on days she wasn’t available.

Experiencing discrimination has “definitely” affected Monroe’s mental health, she said.

“I get really upset with a lot of things, but I’ve experienced discrimination and racism for a very long time because when I was younger, I was in a lot of spaces where I was the only Black person in the room,” Monroe said. “I’ve learned to adapt and handle myself and use the situations to strengthen me and make me stronger mentally.”

Monroe said the first time she remembers experiencing racism was when she was 10 years old.

“I felt really weak and wanted to give up,” Monroe said. “My dad had to reassure me that ‘you can’t give up.’ People want you to give up just because of the color of your skin, but you can’t do that.”

Monroe said she uses every situation as “motivation” to do better.

“Don’t let what somebody says to you [or] how somebody looks at you be a determining factor of who you are,” Monroe said. “A lot of people take those situations and allow it to form who they are, [but] don’t allow those situations to limit you or make you feel like you are less of a person.”

Joshua Kouassi, the Sankofa Chair for Black Caucus, said his first time experiencing discrimination on campus was on the second night of his freshman year.

Kouassi (junior-political science) said he was waiting outside of a fraternity for his friend, and the fraternity wouldn’t let him in for “specific” reasons.

Downtown fraternity houses have a “reputation for not permitting Black people into their parties,” according to Kouassi.

Kouassi also said when he is with a group of all Black people, his friends usually don’t get in, but when the group is “mixed,” he said he believes there is a “50-50” chance.

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The experience at the fraternity house “set the tone” for the rest of Kouassi’s experience at Penn State and reminded him of “reality,” he said.

“Everything that happened last year took a toll on me because having an entire demographic deny your hardship or your experiences just because it makes them uncomfortable really does a number on you,” Kouassi said. “It’s still continuing right now. It never really stopped, and it never really started. It’s been going on for centuries.”

Kouassi said he surrounds himself with “like-minded” and “like-skinned” people, so it’s not as prevalent a problem as before.

“I don’t want to put myself in an echo chamber and only surround myself with one kind of person,” Kouassi said. “But at the same time, it’s important to make sure that I have a safe space for myself where I can express my thoughts without being attacked by someone who is ignorant or racist.”

Kouassi said he’s noticed Penn State take some initiative, which he said he appreciates, but he said he wishes the university would be more “proactive” and not wait for a national or global-wide movement to take action.

Penn State spokesperson Lisa Powers said in a statement the university “is committed to [its] communities of color and to creating a diverse and supportive environment free of hate and discrimination,” and offers various resources for those in marginzliaed communities.

The university’s Counseling and Psychological Services offers a Racial Stress, Trauma and Empowerment Group, and it works with Penn State’s Multicultural Resource Center to facilitate a Women of Color Empowerment Group and Black and Latino Male Empowerment Group, Powers said.

“CAPS, as well as other units across the university, [is] aware of the needs of our students of color and continue to look for ways to provide them with the support they need and deserve,” Powers said.

Powers said a “critical hire this year” within CAPS was Baron Rodgers, who holds a new position focused on the “needs of Black and African American-identified students.”

Kouassi’s advises students dealing with instances of discrimination to become active in Black campus organizations, and he encouraged students to step outside of their comfort zone.

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He said he joined Black Caucus his sophomore year and made friends almost “immediately,” which helped his mental health.

Akash Samad, a member of Penn State’s Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Caucus, said his first encounter with discrimination on campus was during his freshman year when he had more traditional “wear” on in the HUB-Robeson Center. He said he noticed eyes “peering” at him.

Samad (senior-economics) said he has mostly experienced subtle microaggressions on campus and experienced other instances of discimination in middle school.

And, Samad said experiencing discrimination has “definitely” affected his mental health.

When he was in middle school, Samad said he was treated for depression “early on” and then eating disorders due to his experiences with discrimination because he “felt like nobody wanted [him].”

“It's taken me a while, but I definitely turned around the working out and eating habits to be more healthy,” Samad said. “[I’ve] learned to establish myself with a group of friends again, and they’ve been pretty supportive.”

Samad said he suggests seeking help from people who could be able to do something early on and try to find a supportive friend group.

Cindy Choe, a member of APIDA Caucus, said she believes there have been interactions in which she was treated a “little differently.”

Choe (junior-psychology) said she hasn’t encountered a lot of explicit discrimination on campus but rather “racially charged jokes about Asian women and sexuality.”

She was waiting in the lobby of Beaver Hall, and there was a group of people joking about how “Asian [female genitalia] would taste like fried rice,” Choe said.

Choe said she wasn’t “incredibly shocked” since she is used to microaggressions and hearing those kinds of jokes.

“I feel like a lot of people who grow up as minorities — it’s not their first time experiencing [discrimination] when they come to universities,” Choe said. “I know the way they approach me isn’t going to be the same as what they say between themselves. Even if they apologize, I don’t know how legitimate that is.”

Choe said some of the ways she handles experiences of discrimination is by trying to put her attention away from it and work on self-care and exercising.

“I find that it’s normalized to repress those feelings or not express it, so I think it's really good to raise awareness of how students can work on finding help or self-care.”

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