Interview: The Isolation Underrepresented College Students Can Face

Jan 19, 2017

UNR Assistant Professor of Voice and Opera Albert Lee.
Credit University of Nevada, Reno

Albert Lee teaches voice and opera at the University of Nevada, Reno. On Saturday, he'll be delivering a talk for Tedx, a local, live version of the popular TED talks program, which strives to share powerful ideas.

Lee can't divulge too much about his topic, but he did meet with our News Director Michelle Billman to share some of the life experiences that have led him to this opportunity, including his work mentoring college students. 

KUNR: Albert Lee, thanks for joining me.

Albert Lee (AL): Thank you for having me.

KUNR: You’ve had a unique experience of delivering keynote addresses at various UNR cultural graduation ceremonies. Can you tell me what a cultural graduation ceremony is and why it’s such a critical practice?

AL: Sure, UNR does what I think is a really incredible service to the community and service to its students who come from underrepresented populations in recognizing the special, unique challenges they might have when they are first-generation college students, when they are LGBTQIA+ students, black students, Asian students, Latino and Latina students, in recognizing the tricky way in which a student has to navigate being underrepresented on a campus—not seeing faces often that look like you, not encountering people who have your experiences.

There’s a certain level of isolation that even I felt when I moved here in the summer of 2012. I was able to navigate it because I’m a little older and a little more mature, but for the 18-year-old who shows up on the campus, the fact that they can navigate it should be celebrated.

KUNR: For someone who is not underrepresented, help us understand how that sense of isolation can set on?

AL: When you walk into a classroom and you look around the room and you see no one that looks like you, it becomes jarring; it becomes very jarring. It can be difficult to make connections to other students. It can be difficult to make connections to your professor. There are times, points, where faculty members—not consciously—will say and do things that will add to the sense of isolation that a student experiences.

KUNR: And you’ve taken it upon yourself to serve as a mentor for a lot of these students who reach out to you.

AL: When a student reaches out to me, I try to make sure I take the time to connect with them in some way. I think it’s crucial. There were faculty members who did the same when I was going through undergrad and going through my master’s program, and so I make a point to pay it forward in that way.

KUNR: What are some of the key ways in which you help somebody? I mean, it’s nice to meet with somebody, but what are the concrete things you can do for them?

AL: Sometimes, allowing them to share their experience, to share their frustrations. I’m also pretty hard on them. You don’t get to not show up for class; you don’t get to not turn work in on time and then complain about what’s being done ‘to you.’ We also talk about the ways in which when you feel isolated or in any way depressed, how difficult it can be to just plow ahead and get your work done, and so making sure that they know they have someone they can talk to when those things are going on.

KUNR: Albert, you’ve mentioned this sense of isolation that underrepresented students can feel. Did you feel that way in your own education journey?

AL: I did. I went to public schools in my hometown up through fourth grade, and so most of my classes, up until that point, the population was black and Puerto Rican. My mom pulled me out of public schools and I started going to Catholic school in fifth grade and that was the first time in my life when I was going to predominantly white schools.

I would say I went through a long period of time where I tried to divorce myself from my upbringing because I thought the way I saw other people living and operating was better. In many ways I spent a long period of my life ashamed of being from a single-parent household and ashamed that we didn’t have some of the luxuries I saw that my friends had. And that sense of shame at my own circumstances is really problematic instead of owning who I was, owning that experience and using it as a springboard to my own life.

KUNR: Albert Lee, thanks for joining me today.

AL: Thank you very much.