Being a Black Student at WVU

When I decided to go to West Virginia University, it was a very haphazard decision. I had applied, I was accepted, and it had a decent reputation…so I enrolled. To be fair, I at least took a tour of the place before paying my first tuition payment. But I did not look into the culture or environment of the school or Morgantown all that much. I didn’t see the need to. After all, my hometown was only 45 minutes away by car.

But I was wrong in the end. Not that I didn’t end of loving my alma mater and my tenure as a Mountaineer; but I underestimated the impact that a college’s culture can have on you. In my case, it was shocking…but I was able to embrace it and grow from my experience. This may or may not be the case for everyone else however…especially Black students.

So for any Black applicant to WVU who is wondering, “Can I be happy at WVU and especially living in West Virginia for 4 years?”…this post is for you. 🙂

First of all, here are some quick facts regarding diversity in WV:

  • The state’s total population is only 1.8 million – which is about the same number of people who live in the metropolitan region of Philadelphia, PA.
  • Only 3.4% of WV’s population classifies themselves as African-American. This is about 1/4 of the national average.
  • WV ranks last out of all 50 states in regards to foreign-born residents — 1.1% of the population. It also ranks the highest for households who only speak English at home.

But before you get too alarmed, consider this:

  • From a cultural perspective, WV is “Southern”…but it’s not. The state was created because the western counties of what was then Virginia did not agree with succeeding from the Union and did not have a strong interest in slavery.
  • WV may not have a lot of Black people…but it doesn’t have a lot of people in general. At 77 people per square mile, it has the lowest population density in the Mid-Atlantic region; and besides Maine and Vermont, the entire eastern United States.
  • 45% of WVU students are from other states; a good portion of them from PA, NJ and the Washington, D.C. area. So the culture in Morgantown is actually pretty distinct from the rest of the state when school is in session.

When I first arrived on campus back in 1998, I was struck by two things immediately: 1) How hilly the place was (which I didn’t think was possible…since my hometown is also very hilly) and 2) How unbelievably friendly people were. The fact that you were Black seemed to matter little. Everyone was just simply glad that you choose to come to WVU and were eager to welcome you into the family (so to speak). Maybe it helped that the tiny native Black population wasn’t big enough to leave any lingering negative impressions though…who knows.

But certain realities also set in when you are a Black student at WVU. Like when it comes to getting your hair done; well good luck with that! Black barbers and hairdressers are non-existent to my knowledge. However there always seems to be some students in the sea of 30,000 who have a knack for doing Black hair. It’s either that or you head up to Pittsburgh; which really isn’t as tough as it sounds. I always had a car, and it was an easy 1 hour drive up I-79. But from what I hear, public transportation is readily available as well and the Megabus is going to be starting a Pittsburgh-Morgantown route soon.

Things have improved immensely for Black students however since my first days in Morgantown. For example, I remember when the cable only showed BET for 9 months out of the year, because they felt like it wasn’t necessary year round (I kid you not). Morgantown Mall was the main shopping gig in town…and boy was it sorry. No large electronics chains like Best Buy to buy computers and TVs and what not; and the hippest place for clothes was JC Penny’s. However now, up by the new Wal-Mart in Star City, they have tons of shopping and restaurants…oh yes, it’s all very bougie now!

When it came to student organizations, there wasn’t much when I was there. For a while, I hung out with the Black Greeks, although I never went on to join their ranks. The Center for Black Culture & Research was there, but I only visited their offices once or twice. They may or may not have had interesting programming….in all honesty, I was so busy between school and two jobs, I didn’t really notice. But what I can appreciate now as an alum, is their Academic STARS program, which seems to address many of the issues that Black students face at WVU. Take a look:

Speaking of being an alum, there is an active WVU Black Alumni group that I’m a member of and they have a lot of programs and events (again, that I’m bad about actually participating in). It is fascinating to hear the stories of Black students who matriculated a generation or two before I did; and how bittersweet their experiences were (and its getting sweeter and sweeter for Black students every year it seems). Interestingly, the university embraces their history, instead of trying to bury it.

So here are 3 tips that I have to offer to Black applicants to WVU:

  1. Don’t focus on what Morgantown doesn’t have or offer. It is not the sticks, but it definitely isn’t urban either. There are things to do and there is transportation to get you around. It may just not be what you are used to having. It is better to focus on what you gain; access to state-of-the-art libraries, recreation centers, sporting events, etc. You’ll have plenty of time after college to be a city dweller…if that’s what you want.
  2. Follow what you love. A sort-of side benefit of being in a place with few Black residents is that you can easily step out of the mold…because there is no mold! In my case, I loved music and Judaism. So my extracurricular activities were focused in on that. And it didn’t make me “weird”. I’m not sure if that would have been the case at a school with a large Black contingent.
  3. Friendship/help/love/etc. has no skin color. Don’t get hung up on the “us vs. them” thing at WVU…it won’t get you far at all. My White workstudy supervisor invited me to Thanksgiving dinner…and it was amazing! My African-American studies professor was from Afghanistan, and it was one of the most enlightening classes I have ever taken…anywhere. I went camping in the woods with my White, WV-native neighbor and her boyfriend. 12 years later, I still remember the incredible fun I had! The point here is if you limit your circle and your experiences based on skin color…then you aren’t going to experience much at all.

This entire post was inspired by a post I saw on Tumblr (which I somehow can’t find for the life of me right now…of course). If anyone has further questions that they would like to ask me, feel free to send a message my way!