Michael Suguitan / Sun Staff Photographer

Black Students United and Building Ourselves through Sisterhood and Service have been creating space for Black students as they continue to face systemic racism while under the stress of the pandemic.

December 7, 2020

Signifying the Strain of Systemic Racism During COVID-19, Black Students Tackle Mental Health Concerns

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In addition to coping with the mental health challenges posed by the pandemic, many Black students are also grappling with the stressors of systemic racism. 

“I feel like for a lot of people of color, there are certain experiences and certain things that we encounter on a daily basis that non-POC don’t even have to think about,” said BSU co-chair Nnaemeka Nwankpa ’22.

In order to support their peers as they deal with these challenges, student leadership of Black Students United and Building Ourselves through Sisterhood and Service are working to create spaces for discussions and frameworks for one-on-one support. 

For Nwankpa, the Black student community has been a vital source of support as he and others have wrestled with current events related to COVID-19, police brutality and the current political atmosphere — all have disproportionately impacted the Black community. 

Seeing pro-police slogan Zoom screen names during the Nov. 19 Student Assembly meeting discussing Cornell Police disarmament was stressful for Nwankpa because of his own experiences with police officers growing up on the South Side of Chicago. 

“I know people who have died at the hands of officers and I walk around with that in the back of my mind,” said Nwankpa. “At the end of the day, there may be a chance that I’m just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

According to Karly Mondaizie ’22, who is Mental Health Summit Chair for BOSS, the organization’s annual mental health summit will happen virtually this spring. While the summit usually happens in the fall, the pandemic made planning the event more difficult. 

BSU and BOSS leadership facilitate one-on-one check-ins to make sure other Black students are receiving the support they need. Through BOSS’s mentorship program, freshman and sophomore women can be paired with juniors and seniors to receive support and guidance. 

Mondaizie hopes that this mentorship structure can create spaces for women of color to discuss mental health challenges and have adequate support. According to Mondaizie, there is often a perception of women of color not needing support because they are “strong” — she hopes to deconstruct this belief through discussion, education and mentorship. 

Nwankpa said he and other BSU leaders keep an eye out for one another and for other Black students if they see someone struggling.

“We aren’t therapists or anything of that nature, but we would have that conversation just to gauge the headspace,” Nwankpa said.

Nwankpa said he and others do their best to connect students with resources, both for mental health care and to address potential major stressors in their lives. One major concern he has seen from other students is financial difficulties, including delays in receiving financial aid.

For Abena Gyasi ’22, the cost of textbooks have been one of the many financial stressors she has faced during college.

“I take a bunch of STEM classes and for those classes, you need textbooks, you need to buy access to your homework and that kind of thing,” Gyasi said. “That’s already just one financial barrier that I don’t know if professors think about.”

Nwankpa, Mondaizie and Gyasi offered advice for their non-Black peers and professors who want to make campus more welcoming of Black students and better for their mental health. 

Nwankpa recommended that before trying to advocate for solutions to the issues that Black students face, non-Black people should talk to their Black peers first. 

“Create an environment where you’re listening to people, and you’re listening to their experiences, and not invalidating people’s experiences, just because you have experienced something different,” Mondaizie said.

Gyasi encouraged people to act with empathy and to listen, especially when discussing issues they have little personal experience with. 

“I personally think something that makes discussions of racism better is just having the people that are in the majority listen. You don’t need to input your opinion when it’s not relevant to the conversation.” Gyasi said. “I think just having people listen and take in what was said is helpful.”

Omsalama Ayoub ’22 contributed reporting.