‘People are going to ask to touch your hair, a lot’: advice for students of color going to college
Going into his freshman year at the University of Washington back 2001, Lull Mengesha felt like he was prepared. Mengesha went to Rainier Beach High School in South Seattle. He was an honors student, he was on the cross country team and he was part of a student leadership group.
“I was really involved and ambitious,” Mengesha said.
Mengesha’s family is from Ethiopia. At Rainier Beach, there were a lot of students who looked like him. But his confidence took a huge hit after taking UW’s math placement test.
“Everybody has to take that placement test going into UW and it places you into, you know, pre-calculus or calculus or algebra, whatever,” Megesha said.
When Megesha took the test, he didn’t do well. He was placed in a remedial, no credit math class.
The test results were proof that the good grades he got in high school didn’t actually prepare him for UW.
“That was like the first blow in college. Realizing that now, even though everybody kinda knew I was smart in high school, that just didn’t matter anymore,” Mengesha recalled.
But Mengesha didn’t settle for taking a remedial math class.He found free tutoring on campus, took the test again and got into a higher level math course.
Then, a new stressor emerged: Mengesha found himself surrounded by very few black students in his classes.
Strangers asked to touch his hair, students avoided sitting next to him in class and when Mengesha helped a friend retrieve keys from the friend’s locked car, police mistook him for a car prowler.
Each obstacle — and his solution or workaround — is documented in his book, "The Only Black Student." He wrote it after graduating from the University of Washington with a degree in economics. He went on to get a master's in science and information management.
Mengesha wanted to share his experience so that other students of color would have an easier time.
In this story, Mengesha speaks with recent Rainier Beach High School graduate Royce Kelly. Mengesha and Kelly talk about what it’s like to move through predominantly white spaces and the burden that students of color have of trying to make the people around them feel comfortable.