“Culture shock” still seems like a bit of an understatement when describing my first few weeks at Merrimack College. I arrived on campus to start my 4-yr undergrad campaign in August, 2016. Going into my freshman year, I had already asked all the credible people I knew what I’d thought were the appropriate questions. “How does the workload compare to that of high school?” “Do we have a homeroom?” “How’s the food?” I assumed college was going to be like high school with more freedom and more time for sports. I was recruited to run track in college as well, so finding or trying to come up with my own identity on campus wasn’t ever really a difficult task seeing as a label was kind of already given to me upon arrival: Athlete.
I graduated from Malden High School, statistically the most racially diverse high school in Massachusetts that year and a few years prior. I’d attended Malden Public Schools from 1st grade to 12th grade, so it was kind of all I had known. For many years, faculty members would preach to us about how lucky we were to be a part of such a beautiful, diverse student body, and I never really thought much of it. Like I said, it was all I had known, so I got so used to it.
I barely remember the first week of classes at Merrimack or what we even did in those classes. One thing I remember was the walk to the academic buildings. I remember walking and looking at all of the white faces avoiding eye contact with me. I remember holding the door open for a group of white students who seemed to have already known each other. Every single person was speaking English. I remember feeling alone and out of place. I remember missing Malden.
My first track practice didn’t really change much in regards to my feelings towards the school in general. I actually realized that the school wasn’t actually all white students. I noticed, while making my way to the athletic complex where all of the locker rooms are located, there was a decent amount of black students on campus. They were just all on the football team. My team lacked diversity as well, which didn’t surprise me much but I wasn’t as bothered by it. Things had been going just fine for the first few practices. I wasn’t uncomfortable or lonely. I kept quiet for the first few days until one of the seniors on the women’s team asked me a question after practice that I didn’t think I’d ever have to answer: “Why do you dress like that?” I was wearing baggy sweatpants, a hoodie, and a durag. “Because it’s mine” I answered sarcastically. My teammates laughed at the response and, for the first time, I was able to bond with them after practice. We played basketball and had dinner together and talked about anything and everything.
A few days later, my coach asked me to come to her office to discuss my experience with the team up to that point. She asked if I was having trouble getting acquainted with my teammates because she could tell I didn’t necessarily look or act like most of the people on the team and it showed. We both even referred to a time where I used the “N-word” while singing a song in the vans we took to practice and how everyone’s faces were sort of flushed and shocked to even hear the word spoken out loud by someone so close to them. I told her I was a little nervous about being 1-of-6 black guys on a team of 120 athletes, but I wasn’t going to let it bother me.
I stood out at Merrimack early in my career. My roommates were white. My teammates were white. My professors, RA, and coaches were almost all white. I still wasn’t going to let it bother me, and most importantly, I wasn’t going to let it change me. I figured if I was going to be different, no matter what, I’d embrace it.
I’m now in my fourth year at Merrimack. As a senior, I’ve been named a captain of the men’s track and field team for 2 years in a row as a result of my ability to influence, inspire, and effectively lead my teammates in the best way that I know how. I’m proud to say I didn’t let the abrupt changes in culture and surroundings affect me negatively. In turn, I did my best to put into the world around me more than I anticipated receiving. I stayed true to myself and I’m happy to say I made the best out of my time at Merrimack.