How can I give back?

Photo of Nick Brathwaite

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When I was younger, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to be. When I first received my acceptance to UC Berkeley, I was ecstatic. Growing up in the Bay Area, I hoped for the opportunity to attend the prestigious university my family always talked about. Since I was young, my family made it clear I was expected to do well in school so I could go to a prestigious university and ultimately end up with a good job. As someone who was later inspired to pursue computer science, I was excited at how I imagined UC Berkeley would help prepare me for my future career.

Walking on campus my first day, however, my excitement and fervor transformed into anxiety and discomfort. Immediately, I felt like I stuck out as I struggled to find peers that looked like me. My feelings of awkwardness worsened when I was in my classes. As one of the only Black students, I was hyperaware of others’ perceptions of me and felt behind compared to my peers, who had already had the opportunity to learn the foundations I was being taught for the first time in most of my courses. It was difficult to connect with classmates, which made it hard to find support. There were many social and professional events and opportunities that I missed out on because of my lack of access to news and information. 

As I struggled to get accustomed to the workload and pace of my classes while fighting the continued feeling that I didn’t belong, it was the UC Berkeley Black community that gave me the support I needed to continue to strive. I made lifelong friends at events within the Black community and I joined organizations such as the Black Engineering and Science Student Association, or BESSA, that helped me progress academically and grow my network. As a collective network, reaching out to the Black community, we kept each other informed about events, resources and any campus opportunities. 

Even with the support of the community, however, I still suffered from imposter syndrome among my classmates and had difficulty keeping up with the rigorous work. These experiences of feeling like I didn’t fit in are not just my own — they are mirrored in the collective Black student experience at UC Berkeley. I became frustrated at the pessimistic Black student narrative regarding the graduation rate of Black students and the additional work it took for us to succeed. Ultimately, I came together with several Black students to figure out what we could do to change it. Together, we used our frustrations as fuel to motivate our search for a viable idea. We turned to the history of the Black community to learn how the Black students before us navigated UC Berkeley. Through our research, we learned about the period of time some Black alumni describe as the peak of the Black community.

In 1988, the Black student population made up 10% of the UC Berkeley community. Today the Black student population makes up just 2%. It was these years that Black alumni remember fondly as a great time to be a Black student at UC Berkeley. In conversations with Black alumni, the co-founders and I were able to get an idea of what resources were available at that time. In order to support the Black ecosystem on campus, the African American Student Development program worked with the community to organize the African American Student Handbook, commonly referred to by its nickname, the “Black Book.” Through their efforts, this community tool served as a centralized touchpoint where students could gain access to aggregated campus resources, information on Black student organizations and affinity groups and Black faculty to support them as they navigated UC Berkeley. The Black Book empowered the Black community with vital knowledge, allowing the community to achieve all that it did.

Today, the Black student population faces new and similar problems from our past. Similarly to myself, Black students are finding it difficult to gain access to information and opportunities, hindering their collegiate journey. Similar to how this handbook once supported a thriving Black student population, our team was inspired by the ideas of our predecessors. We set about revolutionizing the original Black Book by utilizing today’s technology to reimagine the Black student experience. 

Our team is now developing an open-source collaborative application and software interactive platform geared toward providing information for the elevation of the Black student experience. The platform, Blackbook University, will facilitate communication and organizing between undergraduate and graduate students, student organizations and local affinity groups. Our platform aggregates networks to foster a digital community while providing access to centralized resources and opportunities to support the individual student experience. Blackbook University will be able to change the way students organize, share information and manage events in a virtual community. 

With the access to this information, we imagine this platform will help bring about a better experience for Black students navigating their time at UC Berkeley. One where we won’t feel as isolated and instead feel empowered to become the best version of ourselves.

Nic Brathwaite is a Black creative from the Bay Area.