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Supporting Black students at university: A parents’ guide

17 May 2023

One of the starkest findings from the Living Black at University report was the mental health challenge faced by Black students in UK student accommodation. Black students are less likely to report concerns about mental health, or access mental health support services, but report lower scores for wellbeing.

Guest contributor Melissa Browne, Deputy Director of Commercial Services and Estates at University of Kent and Vice Chair of CUBO (College and University Business Officers), has seen the impact first-hand in her family – now, she shares her advice for parents of Black students on how to support them during their university experience.

My son started university in autumn 2022. He was initially hesitant about moving into student accommodation and, as a student accommodation professional, I was shocked; making sure the student living experience is friendly, welcoming and safe is what I do every day. But approaching it as his mum, and as a member of the Unite Students Commission on Living Black at University, I could understand why he was nervous about being a Black student in accommodation.

I encouraged him to go for it – it’s a huge part of the student experience and a great way to meet other students. Within those conversations, we talked about race: he was aware of the Living Black at University report, and many of the findings weren’t a surprise to him – he had experienced microaggressions from a young age, and already had a level of wariness. But, after chatting to friends and family, he made the decision to live in university halls.

Sadly, it was a challenge for him, and in the end he did move home.

It’s a challenging time for parents too. When your child is at primary school, you know everything; at secondary school, you get glimpses through parents evening. But when they go to university, you don’t have that. Parents think they shouldn’t get involved in their child’s life at university – but, while you shouldn’t be parenting them remotely, finding out what’s going on with them and understanding their experience can be a valuable source of support.

I’ve learned a huge amount from my son’s experience at university, and here’s what I’d suggest to other parents of Black students to support their wellbeing while they’re living away from home.


Get into the habit of talking openly before they move away

It takes time to get used to talking openly about wellbeing and emotions, so I would recommend starting well in advance of your child going to university. That way, when they move away, you’ve already established your relationship as a safe space for them to talk about what’s going on, and it’s natural for you to ask how they’re feeling.

Encouraging that openness might look like applauding them when they’re open with you, or gently inviting them to talk more about something that they’ve shared. They may not recognise themselves when they’re feeling anxious, so this process can help them to understand when they’re reacting or talking differently to usual.

That openness also means being honest about the challenges they might face when at university, whether on campus, in accommodation or out and about in their university city – it will help them to prepare for the reality of university life. Race is one aspect of that; some students don’t learn what it’s like to live in a diverse environment until they come to university, and that can cause issues for Black students.

One final thing before my son left for university was making sure he knew that it really was OK for him to contact me at any time – or other trusted contacts within our family – and we set up an ‘SOS’ family WhatsApp group to facilitate that. At university, he messaged me late one night saying that he was lonely, which wasn’t usual for him. Because he felt comfortable sharing how he felt, we were able to have a phone call and talk it through.


Commit to regular video check-ups – and really listen

I set myself reminders to call him so it was a regular thing. Our regular catch-ups on Facetime weren’t just an opportunity to catch up and hear how he was finding his experience – it meant I could pick up on any signs that he was struggling, from how he looked physically to how he was dressed. I would ask about his flatmates and friends on campus, which gave me an insight into how he was getting on socially and whether he was getting involved in events and societies.

Active listening was a really important part of this: I noticed over time that his responses went from enthusiastic to muted, almost silent. As parents, you tend to fill the space in conversations and offer advice or tell them what to do, but sometimes I had to take a step back and sit with the silence. That’s how I realised he wasn’t doing as much exercise as usual and was staying in his room more than he would have done normally.


Stay informed about what mental health support is available

I encouraged him to leave his room and do other things that weren’t studying so he could de-stress: exercise; going for walks; using mindfulness apps. There were times where I wanted to ring the accommodation office to speak to them, but you can’t do that – your child is an adult, and the accommodation team aren’t allowed to give out information on them for security reasons. That can be hard to deal with, especially if you can see that your child is struggling.

But what you can do is look for yourself to see what services are out there, and mention them to your child – it’s helpful to not take everything on yourself and signpost to the experts. That might include the university’s welfare service, support resources available through student mental health charity Student Minds, or the student-run support line Nightline. Student Minds also has support resources available for parents, so if you need extra support, it’s worth looking at those.

Keeping up with what’s shared through the university website and social media pages may also highlight services or initiatives that might help your child – and it also gives you something to ask them about when you catch up.


Support your child if they make the decision to move home

You can do everything you can – but ultimately, university life or student accommodation just may not be right for your child. In our conversations, it didn’t feel like he had found his place or friends that were like him. He didn’t talk about race, but he was clearly uncomfortable, and said he wanted ‘one less thing to think about’.

Normally I would have advised him to stick with it. But actually, when I put the whole picture together – sleeplessness, a lack of routine, how reserved he was becoming – I was worried for him. As a parent, I had to support him wanting to leave his accommodation and live at home instead.

It can be difficult for parents to do that – but adults can change their minds, so why can’t your child? You have to think about how they are when they’re happy so you can clearly see when they aren’t, and give them the option to come home so they can make the final decision about whether or not to stay at university or in accommodation.

When my son moved home, the change in him was huge – he was back to how he had been before.

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