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The Guardian USA

Updated: Feb 8, 2021

Campus concerns: the election issues unsettling students in Virginia

BY: Megan Carpentier

Sianni Cabello, 21, political science major. Cabello is keenly aware that older Americans don’t put too much faith in people her age. “I think that what they believe is that we just jump right into things without having a clear, thought-out process. I think that they think that we’re airheads, basically – just doing things for the heck of it.”

In the second of a series of election year discussions, African American students discuss job anxiety, concerns over police and the pressure of student debt by Megan Carpentier

“Ithink the reason that so many people dislike millennials right now is because it’s such an integral point in time, and they don’t trust us,” Anas’a Dixon said. “They really do think that we’re a liability to the country right now.” Dixon, a 19-year-old political science major at Hampton University in southern Virginia, doesn’t look like a “liability to the country”. On the last day before finals began at the school – when most of her peers at any given American university would be explaining rumpled clothes and greasy hair – Dixon joined a discussion group of Hampton students wearing an office-appropriate dress. Her equally well-dressed political science department classmate, 20-year-old Sianni Cabello, is also keenly aware that older Americans don’t put too much faith in people their age. “I think that what they believe is that we just jump right into things without having a clear, thought-out process of, ‘Yes, I want to do this, I’m going to do this,’” she said. “I think that they think that we’re airheads, basically – just doing things for the heck of it.” Cabello and Dixon were talking in a nearly empty student union on the campus of Hampton – the historically black university (or HBCU) once attended by Booker T Washington. Three other students joined them – graduating senior Danielle Hawkins, 21, who majored in broadcast journalism and was a 2015 White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities All-Star; Miles Jenkins, 20, the school’s other 2015 HBCU All-Star and a business management major; and Clark Bogan, a 21-year-old business finance major who is funding his education with a navy reserve officers training corps scholarship. Anas’a Dixon, 19, and Clark Bogan, 21, discuss the presidential election. Photograph: Bastien Inzaurralde/The GuardianAdvertisement As the end of the 2016 election primary season gives way to months of Clinton v Trump, they had a few issues on their minds: jobs – the prospect of endless internships on a road to nowhere, and prejudice which might hold them back; a genuine anxiety about the behavior of police officers; and of course, debt. It all adds up to a feeling of trepidation about the world beyond their historic campus. The school sits almost at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, close to the naval base of Newport News. During the American civil war, the land on which the campus sits became home to the first self-contained African American community in the US after nearby Fort Monroe remained in Union hands and Maj Gen Benjamin Butler refused to return African Americans to enslavement if they entered territory under his control. Thousands of enslaved people sought freedom at the fort - in 1861, a school to educate the residents was established in violation of a Virginia law that forbade the educations of African Americans, free or enslaved. One of the top HBCUs in the country, Hampton is now home to just over 4,200 students, more than 90% of whom are African American; almost all of them, with finals about to start, were studying, not passing time in the student union. For many African American students, attending a historically black college like Hampton is an opportunity to be in a campus environment in which they are the racial majority, surrounded by other students looking to overcome statistics that suggest that, even when African Americans have similar educational achievements as white Americans, their unemployment is twice as high. Hawkins, for instance, said: “I look at my classroom and I see young black faces just as mine, and I know that I’m looking at somebody who’s just as ambitious as me, so that motivates us to know that, despite our skin color, we can be successful, we can uplift each other.” Like her classmates, Hawkins worried about her ability to get a job after graduation. “Education is important, having that degree is important, and we’re pretty much at that point to where having one degree is not enough,” she said of her not-inexpensive Hampton education. “But even for these internships now, it’s just like, you need two more internships before you get to that internship, and it’s just like ... what do you want from me?” Dixon, who still has a couple of years left before graduation, has had the same experience as Hawkins, and was trying to fill out her résumé while completing her education in the hope that something would distinguish her from other applicants down the road. “You need – for a job where you’re just interning – three years of experience,” she said with a sigh. FacebookTwitterPinterest Danielle Hawkins (left), 21, and Sianni Cabello, 20, discuss the presidential election. Photograph: Bastien Inzaurralde/The GuardianAdvertisement Jenkins thinks students his age are running up against prejudice in the job market because of their age. “I was doing research on human resources and certain industries in terms of the ageing workforce, and a lot of baby boomers, they feel like millennials are not really prepared to take on certain tasks in certain industries because of some of those stereotypes.” Bogan agrees that some of the people doing the hiring perhaps don’t quite understand how much has changed. “Being 20 years old in the 1970s was a lot different from being 20 years old in 2016. And the mind has been programmed to work differently,” he said. “School runs a lot differently now than it did 40, 50 years ago.” The differences between their parents’ university days and their own are particularly palpable when the students at Hampton – where Money magazine says the net price of an undergraduate degree is nearly $145,000 – look at their burgeoning student loan obligations. “Why do we have to be so in the hole? Why are students loans so much?” asked Hawkins rhetorically. “It could be a lot coming out of college and having a whole car note before you even get started with your life.” Jenkins, whose parents are helping him pay for his students and who hopes study for a graduate degree, is worried about his ability to pay back the education he’s worked so hard to obtain. “When it goes to mapping out how that’s going to work, it looks kind of scary because, like I said, [there are] tuition increases each year, it seems like, and a lot of people of color specifically are struggling with paying off student loan debt.” Jenkins is right: African American students are more likely to have student loans than their white counterparts and the average African American college graduate holds $37,000 in student loans, compared with $28,051 for the average white college graduate. Even accounting for family income levels, African American students from well-off families are 30% more likely than their white classmates to take on student loans and then borrow, on average, 10% more than white students – a problem exacerbated by the enormous household wealth gap that exists between white and African American families. But it’s not just the racialized wealth disparities raising concerns for Hampton’s high-achieving students. “I just know when I settle down and have a family and bring up children, I would want them to feel safe in the country that they live in,” Jenkins said, when the topic of police brutality came up. The native of Owens Mills, Maryland – just outside of Baltimore, where the 2015 death of Freddie Gray spawned weeks of protests – added: “And to be able to trust in police and authority figures, but also be able to respect them as well.” Miles Jenkins, 20, a student at Hampton University. Photograph: Bastien Inzaurralde/The GuardianAdvertisement But when the soft-spoken young man was asked if he felt safe, the best he could muster was: “Most of the time.” Bogan, from Tallahassee, Florida, whose scholarship requires that he serve in the navy for several years after graduation, was less positive about his safety when dealing with police officers. “Being in this community, being surrounded by people of my color and sort of in the bubble of Hampton and a college campus, I feel safer than just being in public.” Dixon, who grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina, concurred that she felt safer “surrounded by essentially people who look like you and you feel like other people kind of share your views” while on campus. Her parents taught her that she couldn’t act the same way in certain circumstances as her white friends. “I know for me, personally, the best way to put it is while some of my Caucasian friends might feel comfortable saying something back to a police officer, I won’t,” she explained. “My father has taught me to put my hands on the steering wheel. You move with slow movements [if you’re stopped by the police].” Hawkins, who said, “I don’t want to walk around scared all the time,” said the increasing news coverage of police brutality highlighted the fears with which she was raised. “There was an instance when I did get pulled over here for speeding, the cop was white, and I would have to say my heart literally hit the ground because all I could think about was Sandra Bland [who died in police custody after a traffic stop].” “I kept my hands on the wheel,” she added – an echo of Dixon’s father’s advice. Let off with just a warning, she feels lucky. “I do think it’s important for black people to be aware when they do come across a white cop, just to ... know how you will [act in an] encounter.” All of the students were keenly aware of how the presidential candidates had addressed police brutality and race in the course of their campaigns – and whether they could be taken seriously. “Look at past traditions, look at how this person behaved in the past and how does it reflect in their debates and in their speeches today,” Cabello said. “Because I want somebody that I can trust.” Bogan agreed. “Of course Donald Trump but also Hillary Clinton – she’s been back and forth, especially with the 1994 [crime bill] that Bill Clinton signed, she’s been catching a lot of flack for that.”

Hawkins said Bernie Sanders was the only one she felt had really addressed race and policing. “Hillary Clinton, she’s very so-so with it.” “Donald Trump, on the other hand, he thinks that it’s a joke,” she said Advertisement Dixon added: “Some of the diction he uses, some of the language he uses, may be offensive as well as a generalization of an entire group of people.” She said his comments about Mexicans being rapists were “kind of appalling – and it might make you take a step back and say ‘Well, how do you feel about other minorities or other groups of people?’” Hawkins said she didn’t feel comfortable with the state of the election race. “I’m scared about who’s going say what and I’m just going to be like: ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe they said that’... It seems like it’s like a high school popularity contest, in a way.” “What is is that we’re fighting for?” Cabello asked. “What is it that we’re trying to fix?”

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