When I was a senior in high school and started considering where I wanted to go to college, racial demographics were never a factor for me. I ended up at Howard University where the majority of students are black and I am among a small minority of white students. 

 When I decided to attended Howard, I knew going in that I would

Alyssa Paddock poses with several friends at Howard University (Family Photo Courtesy of Alyssa Paddock/Courtesy of Alyssa Paddock)

be a minority but I really didn’t know what this would mean on a day to day basis over the course of four years. Two years in, I’ve learned a lot about myself and about the black community.

 I’m more comfortable with myself and more confident about who I am because I’ve been forced to answer, to myself and to others, why I’m here. I’ve learned about the many challenges that you never have to think about if you’re not a minority and the kinds of questions and obstacles you face from not being able to easily blend in.

 Fortunately, I grew up in a home in Connecticut where race was never an issue. It was never pointed out and it was never discussed. I simply knew from a young age that different people had different physical features that were irrelevant to the value of the person. Growing up I thought everyone shared my views. I’ve learned in the past few years, however, that this is not the case and that people have different life experiences and different views based on those experiences.

So how did I get here?  When I started my college search in 2010 I looked for schools located in cities I thought would be exciting places to live. I also wanted schools with decent lacrosse teams and that would offer me scholarships to play for them. I narrowed my search to Marymount University in Alexandria, Va., Philadelphia University and American University here in DC.

My older sister Sally gave me advice that ultimately helped me decide my college future. She said I should apply to Columbia University and Howard University; Columbia as a “stretch school” that would likely be hard, or a stretch, for me to get into, and Howard as a way to step out of my comfort zone and experience being a minority.

She thought Howard would teach me important life lessons that I could never get at a predominantly white institution. Sally had spent time as the only non-Israeli and non-Jewish person in the Israeli Army during a year in Israel.

The following year she taught school at a Native American reservation in Northwestern Canada where she was the only white person on the reservation. (We are dual citizens of Canada. I was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba but raised in Connecticut.) I’d always trusted and valued her opinions but I’d never considered attending either of the schools she suggested. I was more focused on applying to schools that where interested in recruiting me to play lacrosse.

 In December 2010 I decided on Marymount University and committed to its lacrosse team. In January 2011 I got an unexpected call from the coach of Howard’s lacrosse team. She had seen me play the previous spring at a statewide lacrosse tournament for Connecticut high school juniorsand invited me to come down for a visit. She was interested in recruiting me to play for Howard.

 Despite my commitment to play for another school, everything seemed to be pointing me toward Howard. My sisters’ advice and my college goals appeared to coincide. Howard offered me an athletic scholarship that covered a portion of the tuition and an academic scholarship that paid for the rest.  It was more money than Marymount had offered me. Howard’s lacrosse team was also better than Marymount’s. It was a no brainer; I accepted the offer.

Friends and family immediately questioned my decision. Some dismissed it as a joke. Black friends and acquaintances laughed at the prospect of my attending a mostly all black college. White friends and acquaintances were confused about why I would want to go. My parents, who’d always encouraged me to make my own decisions, worried about the prospect of my being a member of a minority group for four years and questioned whether I could handle it.

I knew attending a black college would be different and I prepared myself for the challenge. It was not until I visited the campus on “accepted students’ day” that I learned what HBCU stood for. I had no idea that Howard was an officially designated “Historically Black College or University” and that there were 106 other HBCUs around the country.

Initially coming to Howard was, as my sister predicted, outside of my comfort zone. I was stared at more frequently than I had ever experienced. I was different and some people on campus didn’t like that. For the first time I was asked for a “white person’s” opinion in class. Being different was not something I was used to. Having teammates that shared my love of lacrosse helped made me feel emotionally supported. The camaraderie and companionship that comes with being part of a group of players is a daily source of encouragement.

As my second year at Howard comes to a close, I’m more grateful for every day I’ve spent here. I appreciate the experience, and the challenge, of being automatically viewed within a certain stereotype by some people and being able to challenge or change those views. It gets tiring and uncomfortable sometimes but it has taught me a lot and helped me grow. I have perspectives on American race relations, history, and the oppression of black people and that I never had growing up and would never have had I not come to Howard.  

The hardships, breakthroughs, and strength I have been able to witness in another people are astonishing. I know that I’m much more culturally equipped than I was two years ago, although I still have many more lessons to learn.

 I’m grateful for the opportunity to experience life through a different looking glass and know that I’m a different person as a result.