Guest blog by Laura Holguin, M.A., P.P.S., counselor at Leadership Public Schools: Hayward

“What is it that you are looking for in a college?” a question I often ask students on a daily basis. Their responses vary: a specific major they are interested in pursuing, a college that offers resources for first generation students, a college near home, a college away from home. There are many factors students consider when choosing the “right fit” for college. As their college counselor, I believe it is my role to ensure students choose a college which fits their needs. This need includes a sense of belonging and feeling welcome and safe.

“Imagine Yourself Here!” is a common slogan used by various colleges to attract prospective students. I have seen this multiple times on pamphlets, brochures, and other material. Leadership Public Schools Hayward, a public charter school serving many low-income, first generations students in the Bay Area, wants to ensure students have the opportunity to experience what it is like to be on a college campus. We do so through multiple college tours; including an eleventh grade, five-day, six-night trip to Washington. The purpose, to expose students to college campuses they might not otherwise have the opportunity to visit.

Stepping on a college campus is supposed to be a positive experience for prospective students, or so one would think. This February LPS Hayward took 45 students to Seattle, Washington as part of our efforts to provide students with college options. Imagine our dismay when we stepped foot on a college campus that was not as welcoming as we would have hoped. Our day began with a tour of the beautiful campus with large brick buildings. On our tour students observed their surroundings and unfortunately began to hear comments that were not too welcoming, including “get that trash out of here.”

Students began to feel discomfort on the campus, but it was the next experience in the bookstore, which left many of us speechless. Student’s being followed throughout the store, being told to put things down because they had “greasy hands,” and told that they needed to leave because there wasn’t a chaperone present. Even after speaking with two of the chaperones, who were present, the store clerks continued to make our handful of students in the store feel uncomfortable. This all having happened in the span of our one hour visit, our immediate response was to get these students off of a campus where they did not feel safe or welcome. This led to conversations about the overt racism we experienced on the campus and important factors, such as safety and a sense of belonging, to take into consideration when visiting campuses and choosing the right fit.

This encounter makes me wonder how many times a student has felt unsafe or unwelcome on a college campus. According to Amanda, a second-year student at the university, this is not an uncommon feeling at her campus. While Amanda is working to make a change on this campus so that all current and prospective students feel welcomed, this is not the reality of all college campuses. Many times students feel alone and decide to return home. These experiences are yet another barrier especially for many first-generation college students. While this issue is much larger than what happened on this campus, we must stand against this. Experiencing this first hand for many of the juniors at LPS Hayward, has opened their eyes to an important topic: Factors to Consider in Choosing a College. As an educators I want students to succeed and attain the life goals they have set for themselves; after having witnessed such disturbing actions, I have realized that an important part of that is making sure everyone feels a sense of belonging at whichever campus they decide to attend. Needless to say, LPS Hayward will continue supporting students in the process of choosing the right college for each individual.