Tuesday, October 30, 2018

JCUF VOL 5 NO 1 (2018) - FIRST YEAR: Seeking a "Black College" Experience in Canada through the University of Windsor

FIRST YEAR (1999) - Freshman year in college is always an intriguing concept for teens. Like many, at that age I watched the television program "A Different World" and marvelled at the Black college experience as a social paradise filled with culture shows, exciting relationships, and academic challenges. Higher education seemed glamourous, and the possibility of being placed in a similar situation like the campus of Hillman College was an amazing concept. Living in Toronto, the option of attending an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges & Universities) wasn't there. Applying to Spellman University in Atlanta or Howard University in Washington, D.C. were pipe dreams for many of us. Factoring in international student fees, room and board, and applying for student visas were a big process for a Canadian teenager without a strong support system or knowledgeable foundation of the process. Submitting inquiries to other diverse-but-hip schools in the United States like UCLA in California, or Florida State University were possibilities, but not always practical.

And then there was the University of Windsor. It appeared in event clips on Much Music ("The Nation's Music Station"), in exciting word-of-mouth tales of Sports Weekend, and in party flyers and adjacent teenage fantasies. It was possibly the closest thing we had in Ontario (or across Canada, for that matter) to an "all Black" college, and around the time that I attended this Southern Ontario university, it lived up to its hype in every way possible.

The novel "First Year" was written during my second year of attendance at the University of Windsor, from 1998 to 1999 while I lived in Windsor, Ontario. Like the majority of Black students on campus, we had left our families and homes in Toronto to move into dorms, bungalows, and old apartment buildings on the lower-income side of town, in exchange for a great education, and even better extra-curriculars.

It was fascinating. Taking students from Toronto, as far east as Oshawa and far west as Brampton, and integrating us with students from small Ontario farming towns, from other parts of the country, and occasionally a student from across the border in our sister city, Detroit, Michigan. The Black students from Toronto had the opportunity to reinvent themselves and explore current identities, hundreds of kilometres away from home. The infiltration of Americans, fundamentally different than the peers we were used to, added an interesting element and cultural contrast to our behaviours and customs. The social gatherings were intimate, but exhilarating. The campus clubs were the hub of activities and events, and the nationally revered "Sports Weekend" gave us the opportunity to invite our friends from back home to our school environment, and integrate comrades, fun, and freedom into a few days of cultural celebration. Sports Weekend was centred around Caribbean-centric fashion shows, talent shows, and parties. Lots (and lots) of well-attended parties with the top DJs from Toronto and occasionally a special guest performer. For example, during my first year in Windsor we had an exclusive performance from Toronto hip hop artist Kardinal Offishall. This was the era of the phenomenal Howard Homecoming weekend in D.C., and the infamous "Freaknik" in Atlanta...Sports Weekend was our Canadian version of the Black college extravaganza.

As a teenager entering adulthood, moving away from home was a life-changing experience, as can be expected. There were lessons in independence, paired with academic expectations. There were career aspirations and life goals established, while old childhood friendships were expiring and new adult ones were brewing. It was a change in era, and a shift in reality. The book "First Year" was a fictional look at a University of Windsor-like institution called Essex University, and the drama, challenges, jubilation, and lessons in maturity that took place under these circumstances.

THE GENERAL THEME OF "FIRST YEAR": A young couple seeking a cultural education and personal independence through a campus community experience

THE SOCIAL THEME OF "FIRST YEAR": The introduction to independent living and future construction, for first year university students

Urban fiction can be used as a guideline, a road map, and even as a cautionary tale for young adults preparing to enter post-secondary educational institutions. The importance of higher education is evident across races and across cultures, however, when highlighting specifically appealing elements of the experience, I believe there are elements outside of the classroom that will appeal more to some students than to others. Urban fiction can play a role in making the college experience appealing, by showcasing the day-to-day elements of interaction that can complement the learning experience.

Whether it's a football team or a great music program, high-tech digital facilities, or environmentally-progressive practices, or maybe it's a strong cultural foundation. In the case of the fictional Essex University in Windsor, Ontario, the setting of the book "First Year," the draw to this campus environment was the social scene and the attendance of others. The main character, Michelle, has an older cousin as well as a childhood sweetheart that attend Essex U, when she finally decides to accept her admission and join them on campus, one semester into the term. A hesitant scholar, Michelle chooses to move away to attend school to be near her boyfriend and the social advances he is making on his own, and avoid the "fear of missing out" as he grows in life experiences, while she remained back in their hometown of Malvern, just east of Toronto.

The Durham Technical Community College Library's website (in Durham, North Carolina) defines urban fiction as street literature that presents "realistic characters in realistic environments, often focusing on the characters' everyday lives and their relationships with other characters and their urban environment. This focus on realism makes the books easy for readers to understand and relate to or understand." In the definition is the appeal: the realism. The site goes on to define the genre by outlining that: "Not all street lit is based in the U.S., and it includes a variety of cultural, social, political, geographical, and economical aspects. Street lit set in New Orleans will differ greatly from that based in Tokyo, but they will have similar issues."

Moving away to attend college/university is a process that is similar for all young people leaving home in that they are leaving their parents and oftentimes direct supervision, in an attempt to establish their independence and begin their career training, to build a foundation for their adult lives. This is consistent, however, just like the campus of an HBCU will differ from, say, a small Christian college in the American mid-west, the highlights of each environment will vary. Needless to say, when selecting a school to attend, most prospective students have an idea about the desired campus culture, social scene, and reputation in mind.

In the case of Essex University, the reputation was that of a "party" school, popular with African- and Caribbean-Canadian students from across the province of Ontario. It was far away from the big city living of urban Toronto, yet so close geographically to the true urban experience of inner-city Detroit. The paradoxes between environments were exciting, and the unique blend of American and Canadian urban cultures made for vibrant social interaction and down-time exploration.

"First Year" is a love story between high school sweethearts who are forced to mature and trust one another when their relationship and personal boundaries are tested in a new environment. It's a story of career aspirations, and making new friends. It's a story about college life, dorm life, and the balance between attending classes and maintaining a social life. It is what you would imagine any story about the freshman year of college to be about, written from a specific urban and Black Canadian lens.

Urban fiction, as defined by the Durham Technical Community College Library, contains a few other specific characteristics, that can be found in the telling of this particular college campus story. These characteristics include: (1) fast-paced stories often including flashbacks with vivid descriptions of the urban environment; (2) the street itself as a place where action occurs, with young adult protagonists often in the age range of 19-25; (3) a focus on relationships, including surviving abuse, betrayal by friends, or perhaps plans to take revenge; (4) a focus on name-brand items or the accumulation of tangible wealth; (5) surviving street life and overcoming the street lifestyle.

It was also noted that street lit can blend with other genres, and contain elements of romance, mystery, or even science fiction, while also covering gritty themes like drugs use, domestic violence, or stereotyped gender roles. Because the characters in this novel are college-aged, they are still figuring out their identity as Black Canadians, as first-generation West Indians, carrying on the Caribbean traditions of their parents, and also as scholars who have been removed from their home neighbourhoods and now placed in an industrial working-class town like Windsor to learn. So while the book resembles "street lit" in detail, it is taking the elements of the Toronto urban environment and lifestyle, and applying these habits and lessons to their new temporary home.

Throughout the book, they re-visit Scarborough for holidays and school breaks, and there you find contrast and comparison between the campus life and the home life. The goal of "First Year" is to take the common urban fiction issues like drug usage, domestic violence, and "street life," and transfer them to the students on the campus. While the students are not aggressively from the streets, in that they are suffering from limited means or engaging in illicit activities, they are definitely coming from an urban locale, and are forced to challenge their beliefs and habits and upbringing in an environment that is otherwise supposed to nurture them into adulthood.

A classic urban story, I believe that "First Year" presents in literature what A Different World or the fantasy of attending an HBCU may have presented in television or imagination: an up close look at the "Black" college experience, in an exciting and intriguing manner that reminds you that the experience is much more than just books and assignments, but that there is a greater element of cultural socializing taking place that will also determine the student's success and future movements. Covering the first year of this experience, it allows for the readers to take this snapshot for the specific moment that it is in a college student's life, in hopes that the remaining years of the degree program continue to be progressive, and aimed directly at their imagined success. It is a reminder that higher education has its challenges, but there are also enjoyable elements and important cultural aspects that are equally as crucial to manoeuvring and mastering the process at hand.

Written by Stacey Marie Robinson for Kya Publishing's "Journal of Canadian Urban Fictoin."

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