Dispelling the Monolithic Myth: The Nuances of Black Law Students – Nigel Masenda

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Celebrating black pioneers and visionaries is what Black History Month is rooted in. However, another part of what makes the month so special is it provides a great opportunity for us to learn about the contributions black students are making. This black history month we decided to highlight the different faces that comprise BLSA Queen’s. These are the courageous, innovative and daring black leaders of the future. We spoke with current BLSA students about their interests, motivations and how they’ve found their time at Queen’s Law.

NOTE: We understand that for many of us, discussions of race are deeply personal. In a effort to ensure in depth and accurate responses, we informed our respondents that they would remain anonymous.

TAKING UP THE MANTLE

Why Queen’s?

R1: I actually accepted an acceptance to Toronto but after seeing the amazing work being done there, I realized I was needed elsewhere.
Queen’s lacks representation, I want to change that.

R2: Great reputation!

R3: There are three main reasons why I decided to attend Queen’s Law. First, is the reputation of the law school program as a top program in the country, with strong job prospects and a notable alumni network. Second, is the positive reviews I heard from previous Queen’s Law and University alumni about the campus life. This was a very important consideration as I believe I needed the experience of living away from home for graduate school. Last, is the financial aspect because I have to finance my own legal education. Queen’s has one of the lowest law school tuition in the province, the cost of living in Kingston is low and there is a variety of financial bursaries/scholarships available to students.

R4: Because several of my law lecturers and Director of the Law School back in my home country came here and had happy stories to share.

Those are great and practical reasons. Speaking of reputation, Queen’s certainly has one…Be honest, what were your initial thoughts?

R1: Lol, homogenous. I grew up in predominantly white spaces, it wasn’t a shock for me. Mind you there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s not that there are too many white students at Queen’s, there just aren’t enough black students here. Also, the architecture stood out to me. It’s a beautiful campus. It has an ivy, collegiate, aura to it which makes it naturally attractive.

R2: It was exactly what I expected.

R3: There definitely was a culture shock, much more than I anticipated. The culture shock stemmed from lack of diversity and in general, being around a group of peers that have come from different backgrounds and upbringings from what I am accustomed to in Toronto. One major experience I will always remember was during my orientation week when I thought I would meet at least one other black law school student, but I quickly realized that I was the only black law student in my year. As a result, I had some significant feelings of isolation and doubted whether this can be an environment I can thrive in. Luckily, I was able to move past those feelings and have the feelings of isolation
significantly diminished.

R4: I felt really lost and out of place and I also felt lonely. I spent my second night here stuck at the student lounge in the law school because I didn’t know the buses didn’t run after 8pm and I also didn’t have a phone yet and didn’t know how to call a car without one. I was living near the Cat Center then (up to 30 minutes from school by car).

Culture shock, indeed. Having spent some time here, have your views changed?

 Not really- Architecture is still great, and the demographic is still homogenous. But I will say the university is addressing the lack of diversity. There’s a willingness to learn both from Faculty and students. In my experience, if you have an idea and a practical way of implementing it, you’ll receive support. Also, the alumni are exceptional. They are an invaluable resource. I’ve reached out countless times to alumni in different fields for advice and guidance and have always been met with support.

R2: I am impressed that the black community has carved and important space for itself. From the alumni, to grad students, to first years – it has been an amazing experience witnessing the development of numerous projects such as mentorship programs. I am really excited for future black Queen’s students.

R3: My feelings of isolation significantly diminished, and I credit that to the support system I have in place of my family and friends back home. I also credit it to my mentors I met at Queen’s Law and the friendships I developed. Recall in my response for question two, one of the ways I tried to combat those feelings of isolation was to contact my close friend and talk to him about his experience living away from home during his undergraduate tenure and how he combatted his feelings of isolation. His main piece of advice was for me to immerse myself in campus life. That is what I did. Through getting involved in campus life and informal social events, I was able to meet a plethora of people and staff. I realized after a while that although the environment I am in is less diverse then what I am accustomed to, the majority of people in my environment are genuinely good people who will provide support.

R4: I have been able to build a community here and I feel so much at home that I would not mind working here if my partner was here (after I graduate).

WHERE THERE’S DARKNESS LIGHT WILL FOLLOW

There is light! Shifting gears, it’s well known that law school is challenging- new environment, different grading scale, surrounded by talented minds, etc. Are there any challenges are unique to black students?

R1: Absolutely. Law school is a bubble. Law students primarily socialize with each other. With some years only have one black student, that
student will be the only black person their year interacts with. They’re the face of a black law student. That’s intimidating. If you’re not used to that environment I imagine, it’d be isolating and overwhelming. In saying that, most people are nice. Personally, I have yet to experience any racially charged hostility, just subtle remarks. I’ve been asked “can you wear your hair like that while at work?” lol, or, a personal favorite of mine, “can I touch your hair?”. The former is interesting because my hair is generally shorter and ‘tidier’ than the person asking. The latter is offensive- it’s akin to asking, “can I pet your dog?”. But these aren’t novel issues nor are they unique to Queen’s. You just encounter subtle comments more frequently because of the demographic makeup.

R2: One challenge is that you do not often have the opportunity to be taught by a black professor. It may seem small, but there is a level of comfort having at least someone in the Faculty that looks like you. When Faculty decisions are being taken, you hope you are also being represented as a minority.Another challenge is that you are a black law student, not just a law student. You carry the burden or the privilege to represent the community at all times. The responsibility can be daunting when you are adjusting to a steep learning curve.

R3: I do not believe there are challenges to being black, rather it is not being a person of affluence unlike some of my peers in my program. I am not trying to infer any negativity or disdain to being affluent, but I will point to the luxuries they are afforded. For example, my affluent peers may have a family member and/or friends they know already in Queen’s Law they can turn to for advice on how to perform academically. For me, I did not have those resources and I struggled at first on how to adapt to studying successfully as a law student. Luckily Queen’s Law has a free tutoring program and my tutors served as mentors to provide me that helpful resource I needed.

R4: As a black immigrant I feel sometimes that the system is so different from what I was used to (back home). There is no department for African/ Caribbean/ Black studies and so I struggle with getting assistance for my research which is in this area although my supervisor (who does not specialize in this area but in gender/ sexuality which is also a portion of my research) has been amazing. As expected, the black experience is far from uniform.

Conversely, are there any unique benefits that flow from being black?

R1: Yes. It forces you to know yourself and if you don’t, it’ll force you to find yourself. For better or worse, you’re more recognizable. If you’re a part of or contributing to positive change, people will notice. You’ll become acquainted with the many great black alumni. It’s a large, tight-knit community.

R2: Diversity brings diverse perspective – as a black law student you have the opportunity to share your perspective in class discussions to future lawyers and hear their ideas as well. Learning in this type of environment is only helping the future legal community.

R3: Honestly, it is just standing out amongst my peers and faculty. There have been numerous instances of when I met peers in my law school program the first time and they always say, “I have seen you around or know of you”.

R4: Motivation to excel because you don’t want to give black students a ‘bad name’.

UNITY, ADORATION AND VISION

To be expected. We touched a bit on it earlier but the path you’ve chosen is not easy, what motivates you?

R1: Me. Attaining and exceeding the benchmarks I’ve set out requires sacrifice. I love competing against myself, based on the goals I’ve set. Practically, if I take time off, I won’t achieve them- logistically it becomes improbable. My family and my community, they’re both beautiful. I know whatever path I choose, they’ll be proud of me but, for me, that’s not enough.

R2: My parents are immigrants. They have worked so hard to give me endless opportunities. When you grow up around that type of work ethic, paths that are easy are not very attractive.

R3: Number one is my family. I love my family very much. My parents immigrated to Canada as refugees with only a few dollars to their name and no transferable degrees. Growing up with a widowed mother in an at-risk environment, I did not have a lot of the luxuries most people had growing up. I used this adversity as motivation to pursue a career path I am interested in, put my family in a position of financial stability and to make my mother proud. Number two is my career aspiration. From my childhood until now, my goal is to either pursue a career in politics or become a judge. This aspiration stemmed from my passion for volunteerism and making positive contributions to other people’s lives. My career path requires that I obtain legal education and practice as a lawyer for several years which I also have an interest in.

R4: My dreams. I want to be able to set up a legal aid organization or lead one. I also want to create a life for me and my partner.

PRESERVING HAPPINESS AND ENSURING A BRIGHTER FUTURE

Wow. Beautiful responses, well done Queen’s. Outside of being great law students, what do you enjoy doing?

R1: Working out, eating desserts and catching up with friends or networking. I love meeting people. Reaching out to clubs and meeting people from different backgrounds is something I do often.

R2: I enjoy reading fiction or an autobiography from someone I admire. Otherwise, you can find me doing yoga or planning a trip.

R3: Besides school and extracurricular activities, I am an avid sports fan particularly in basketball and soccer. I play intramurals and gym on my spare time. I also have an interest in reading about world events, travelling and hanging out with my friends.

R4: I like listening to music, watching Insecure, Game of Thrones and Black Mirror, I like trying out colorful lipsticks, I like to cook and go out to eat too, I like just hanging out with my partner

Fitness, food and travel- true students. For diverse students who may be considering Queen’s but are apprehensive, what advice would you give them?

R1: Reach out. Find students involved in clubs you’re interested in and ask them about their experience. Compare responses, see the differences. Try to determine what experience would be most akin to yours. Make a logical decision and not one driven out of fear. Ask what you want out of your law school experience. I previously mentioned it, but I can’t emphasize enough the role alumni have played in my development and growth. Though every school has an alumni network, the Queen’s network is unparalleled. If you value fostering relationships with former students and having great mentors on top of a great education, come to Queen’s.

R2: My advice for students considering any school would be to connect with current students and ask them questions about their experiences. That being said, you should always trust your instincts. I went with my gut and choose Queen’s. As with any school you choose, there will be highs and lows, but I do not regret my decision.

R3: Go for it! It may seem intimidating but there are a variety of formal and informal support systems at Queen’s Law that will be there for you during the process. I believe the more black applicants we have, the more we can increase our representation in Queen’s Law and help further the reputation of the school and black lawyers. I hope to pay it forward when future black students come to Queen’s Law and when I am an alumni.

R4: I would encourage them not to be apprehensive. There are some challenges at Queen’s yes but I have also been grateful for my time here because of all the amazing people I have met and experiences I had. I would encourage them to build a community here and develop a system where they can travel either back home (if it is in Canada) or just to a new town every month just to unwind.

Well said. Thank you to all the participants, your responses are provoking and inspiring.

On behalf of BLSA Queen’s, Happy Black History Month!

Sincerely,

Nigel Masenda

 

 

President- BLSA, Queen’s Chapter

 

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