It’s Time We Start Talking About Both Sides of #BlackExcellence

A piece highlighting just how difficult it is to be categorized as #BlackExcellence both on and off social media.

Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash

The moment Syracuse University student, Ifetayo Dudley decided to pursue a career in media, she knew what she had to do to succeed…everything. From maintaining a strong grade point average to building a portfolio to showcasing campus involvement and leadership, Dudley felt like she had to balance it all on campus to prove that she could one day balance it all in the real world.

And, she is not the only one. Black students all around the country find themselves trying to juggle academics, campus involvement, and social lives. All in hopes to fall under what social media labels #BlackExcellence.

But, there is one hurdle that they sometimes have difficulty overcoming. Internships.

Today, internships are the golden ticket to job security and success in the eyes of college students, especially those going into industries as competitive as the media. Unfortunately, the path to attaining this golden ticket is neither easy nor linear for Black college students.

It is no secret that the media industry is competitive. While everyone is trying to get their foot in the door and work with the next big name in music, entertainment, sports, or politics, there is an unfortunate fact that some candidates are more advantaged than others. Now, these advantages do not always stem from a lack of knowledge, skill, or even experience. In fact, the majority of the time it boils down to the simple question: who can vouch for your skills? Or to put it in simple terms, who do you know?

Although the concept of networking is deeply embedded in professional structures, most students don’t learn how to do it in lecture halls. By the time students reach their sophomore year, they are expected to understand the basics of networking and to dive into their internship searches. However, many students never officially learn how to do so.

“I’ve had to do it on my own. I would say a lot of the groundwork was done on my own more than anything,” Dudley says when reflecting on how she’s learned to make connections in the industry.

Despite universities constantly pushing students to reach out to alumni and to utilize spaces like LinkedIn and Handshake, the task often intimidates students of color because not only are these successful journalists, producers, etc. but also because students do not see themselves in these profiles. And while it may seem trivial to some, the lack of representation only furthers the gap between Black students and their aspirations to reach that golden ticket as it delays their ability to connect and find mentorship with industry professionals.

Dashawn Austin and Ayana Herndon, two Syracuse University students, explain how they are still looking for guidance on how to navigate the industry as people of color despite having had experiences in the industry. Like many students of color, Austin turns to friends for advice and guidance until he finds a professional mentor.

“ I remember calling one of my best friends and, telling her about how I don’t know how to maneuver in this space full of white women and, how to make sure that I don’t come off as aggressive while also getting my point across. That was a lot and I have no help whatsoever. It’s very much me trying to do it on my own basically,” Austin admits.

Now, some people see the true issue that lies under the media’s ‘competitive industry’ mask. Thankfully, some professionals of color are giving back to the next generation of creatives by investing and creating spaces for them to succeed. Programs like the T. Howard Foundation, Gyrl Wonder, Louis Carr Foundation, and Emma Bowen provide mentorship, professional development, and internship opportunities for students of color.

Erica Carter, Gyrl Wonder’s college relations coordinator, speaks to how a number of the 17–23-year-old women express hardships while going through the interview process. Whether it’s insensitive comments or micro-aggressions, the barrier stems from the sad fact that the industry “has never been a big space for women of color or people of color in general.” says Carter. For years the majority of media companies and organization’s spearheads have been white men and women. It’s only now that creatives of color are seeing men and women that look like them hold these positions. Although people like Lindsay Peoples Wagner, Bozoma Saint John, and Marc Lamont Hill continue to push for a more diverse and inclusive industry, they are not the individuals that college students of color see at career fairs or in their internships.

Melissa Chessher, the chair of the Syracuse University’s Magazine, News, and Digital Journalism department shares how the lack of representation has pushed talented students of color away from the industry. One year, after coming back from the department’s New York City trips in which students get the opportunity to speak with editors from some of the nation’s top magazines, Chessher vividly remembers one of the most talented students in that class coming to her and saying that she would not be going into the magazine industry post-graduation.

“I remember her saying to me ‘the Glavine trip was great, but honestly, I did not see anyone who looked like me.’” Chessher recounts.

So, in hopes to see and interact with other BIPOC in the industry, students feel the need to apply to these selective programs in addition to the industry’s selective internships and fellowships. While students, like Kira Grant — a senior at Howard University and Emma Bowen Fellow, can attest to how beneficial these programs were to their professional development, they do not solve all their problems.

The truth is trying to build a career in the media industry often feels like a game of solitary for Black college students.

Whether attending a historically Black university or a predominantly white university, Black college students find themselves fighting not to crack under societal pressures to succeed and not become a statistic. This is not a foreign concept. Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author, Rachelle Winkle-Wagner’s research showcases how prevalent this sentiment is within Black college students, especially women.

“Leila was not sure if words could possibly describe what was bothering her, but somehow she felt alienated, alone, isolated. She felt so much pressure — pressure to succeed in classes, pressure to act a particular way, to think certain things, and to appear a certain way.” Winkle-Wagner writes in her 2009 book ‘The Unchosen Me: Race, Gender, and Identity Among Black Women in College.’

And over a decade later, Black college students today feel the exact same way. Grant breaks down what these pressures look like today, “my generation, we feel like, by the age of 25, we need to be driving a BMW, we need to have our career job that we’re going to stay at for the long haul, and that we just have to be so successful.”

With everyone constantly watching and sharing social media content, images of Black young adults traveling internationally, owning luxury apartments and the latest designer clothes have become an ongoing trend. What Tik Tok and Instagram Reels call the ‘Black people/women in luxury’ trend, has become a double-edged sword for Black college students. Herndon, Dudley, and Austin all agree that this latest trend has added to the existing mountain of pressure they already felt.

As Dudley tiredly scrolls through her Instagram feed between classes hoping to catch a break, she finds herself double-tapping the images of young Black women, her age doing everything she aspires to do in her career. Whether it’s traveling to Tulum or getting an internship at one of the nation’s largest media companies, brands, or publications, “everyone is making these power moves,” says Austin. “And it makes me think, am I not like working hard enough? Am I not grinding hard enough? Like, when is my come up?”

“As a black student or just a black person who wants to be involved in the media in general, you never know the difference between really working to achieve a higher goal, and having crazy high expectations and working yourself. I don’t know what it’s supposed to look like I can’t tell the difference,” Herndon says.

Now social media is a lot of things, it’s a business market, a visual diary/yearbook, a portfolio. But, for most college students going into the media, it serves as a vision board. Hustle, grind, work hard play harder are some of the many mantras that circulate on Black Twitter. Used by Black influencers as a way to explain their success and achievements, these terms create a toxic mindset within students like Brianna Knibbs, a senior media and communications major at SUNY Old Westbury.

“Oh my gosh, I probably need to do more if I wanted to get in if I wanted to reach this goal,” Knibbs remembers saying to herself.

And the pandemic did not make this any better. Senior broadcast journalism major at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Jazmine Bunch says how the quarantine created the idea that “if you don’t come out of this pandemic, having created something or started a business, then you wasted your time.” Well, unfortunately, a lot of Black college students ‘wasted their time’ as the pandemic canceled nearly all internship opportunities and study abroad plans.

Just as Black students progress in their academic journeys, societal expectations grow with them. So to survive these differing narratives, they must adopt a “tunnel vision, focusing on themselves,” Bunch says. Activating metaphorical blinders, these ambitious Black college students tune out everyone else and focus on nothing but their professional development.

While this system protects them from what Grant considers to be the thief of happiness (a.k.a comparison), it can also embark them on an exhausting race in which they don’t allow themselves to take a break and appreciate their achievements.

Now, to my fellow Black creatives, I know you’re tired of feeling physically and mentally drained. So, take a deep breath or take that 5-minute power nap, and then look at how far you’ve come. Take a moment to appreciate those wins, both big and small. Whether it’s the relief of making a deadline, the thrill of knowing you have a strong concept, or the surreal, unexplainable joy that comes with seeing your name in the running credits or story byline, try to cherish those moments a much as you can. Lastly, if anyone hasn’t told you yet, I’m here to tell you that I’m proud of you. And to let you know that your existence alone is enough to make the top post under the ‘Black Excellence’ hashtag.

Graphic by Haniyah Philogene

A journalist with a passion for reading between the lines and telling the stories that often go untold.