The most afraid I have ever been of my mom was when she found out I was selling my Halloween candy to help with the household bills. She sternly told me that my only job was to be a student. Focusing on school paid off—in sixth grade, I was accepted into a rigorous college preparatory program. For the first time, I knew I wanted to go to college. The caring adults in my life had always told me that education was my ticket to greatness beyond my neighborhood in Hartford, Connecticut. I wanted nothing more than to bring opportunities back to my poverty-stricken community.
During my first year at Clark University, I was flooded with expectations, deadlines, projects, and feelings of impostor syndrome. I prioritized my studies over everything else to pursue a degree in psychology. Aware of how much my parents had sacrificed for my education and experiencing the pressure of being a Black woman on a predominantly White campus, I aimed to get all A’s. I felt as if I were under a magnifying glass and that I had to work twice as hard to prove I deserved to be there.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, many students had to return to communities that they had intentionally left in order to access essential resources on campus. At home, I tried to focus on my academics, but everyone was in financial and physical survival mode. My mom, an optician at a large store, worked overtime to support our family. I tried to make sure everyone was taking precautions to stay healthy, but my mom, uncle, great-aunt, and I still contracted COVID-19. Despite being sick, I was able to nurse my mother, but my uncle and great-aunt died. I felt so much anger and pain. I had no control over the pandemic and its devastating effects on my family and other Black Americans, who are experiencing one of the highest COVID-19 mortality rates nationwide.
I did, however, have control over what I did next.
I requested emergency funding and academic support from the university, pushed for incompletes and deadline extensions, sought mental health support, and simply told some people “no.” I even used most of my savings to move to an apartment near campus, a hard decision that was central to regaining my purpose and motivation. My goal is to establish a private practice in psychology for Black-identifying individuals, and I could not possibly achieve my dream without focusing on self-care.
I reassured myself that I deserved healthy boundaries between what I needed for my health and what others needed from me. I carried with me the unrealistic expectations about sacrifice and overachievement that Black individuals often internalize to maintain a high level of success in predominantly White environments. Often students of color feel pressure to create upward mobility for their family and community and simultaneously invalidate biases; if they take a break from their hyper-academic focus, they can feel like a failure.
Good mental health is necessary for finding true success, and universities need to have safe spaces for students like me to be vulnerable and be able to say that they are not doing well. Mental health specialists of color should be part of these safe places.
Today, despite challenging circumstances, I prioritize peace amid the storms of life. This radical self-care gives me the strength to live to my fullest and pursue my goals.
Image credit: ReBloom, a self-portrait by Jadea T. Harris. “I focused on themes of peace, vulnerability, and radical self-care, especially in the context of being a Black woman,” Harris writes. “In a good meditation practice, I feel like I am alone in a field surrounded by floral scents and gentle breezes.”