Here’s my four-year account being a minority, among drama (a lot), fraternities (and sororities) shenanigans, and countless wild tales from what have been the best years of my life.
For the ones who don’t know me: I’m Federico, I’m a 25-year-old Italian guy, and in 2015 I graduated from THE Lincoln University, the first historically black college institution in the United States (Cheyney people are probably getting upset already). This is the story of my time there, which I conveniently decided to split in different parts to result as detailed as possible. Every week (hopefully), I’ll write on each semester there, with the goal to provide an honest account of what it means to be a White foreign guy in a school where the majority of the population is Black.
For the ones who know me: guys… Most of you might already know most of this stuff but hey, it should be fun going through old memories, right? Don’t worry; I’ll change most of your names for obvious reasons (not trying to get sued or anything). Second, maybe someone might get upset reading this, but I really hope you don’t take it too personal. In the end, I had a great time with most of you so we shouldn’t really have issues here.
Love you all!
Well, let’s begin.
Two bachelor degrees, a master’s, and a handful of awards and accomplishments, all earned by a kid who managed to fail his high school exit exam five years earlier. In 2011, I had returned home to Rome, after spending what was supposed to be a six-month, come-to-life period in London to get my head together. There, I was supposed to learn English, earn some money, and most importantly study so I could finally pass my high school exit exam. I am proud to say in those six months, I learned I was a wreck. I did manage to learn English, to the point of knowing how to properly ask where the bathroom was. As for work and studying, those did not go quite as planned.
I tried out a few jobs, including an Irish pub where I was laid off after a week because of my incapacity to understand drunk Brits placing order in some type of slurred cockney. I ended up settling for McDonald’s, where nobody cares about language barriers and what matters most is how fast you can assemble a Big Mac. I was working from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., six days a week, for around $6 a hour, in one of the busiest stores in the city, just outside Oxford Street station.
The kitchen was the most multicultural place I’ve ever been in my life: an Italian, a couple of Indians, a Bosnian, and a British manager who condemned my heritage when I told him I was quitting. “Typical lazy Italian,” he argued, as being Italian had something to do with my attitude towards making cheeseburgers. My “best friend” there was a thirty-something, sad-looking Spanish guy. We got along quite well, not because our matching interests, but more because he was the only person I was able to communicate with, in some sort of Spanish-Italian-mixed language.
I detested working there, but it was the best option I could get and it was helping pay off my living expenses. Studying for my high school exam didn’t happen at all. I was too busy working, learning English, and mastering my new found hobby: beer-drinking. By the end of my time in London, I think I reached a personal record of 10 pints before passing out.
Point is that when I went back to Rome I had to make up for all the time wasted. I had to actually invest some time into studying so I could get that damn high school diploma. I was stuck for a while about what I wanted to do with my life. I wasn’t a fan of school in Italy and I would have rather went to work than continue my studies in Italy. Soon I realized the only route I wanted to take was fulfilling many kids’ dream of going to college in the States.
Getting an academic scholarship wasn’t an option; my grades in school were awful, but fortunately I had something I could use to find my way into the “American Dream.” At the time I was a decent soccer player (and I still like to believe I am), so I thought that I could try to get some financial assistance using my best skill. I started contacting some American coaches and, even though I had a quite impressive soccer resume, they were all asking for a video of me playing. I’ve never had anyone filming during my games, it just wasn’t a thing. So, with the help of a couple of friends, I put a video together and published it on YouTube (some people still make fun of me for that). Incredibly, it worked. Some coaches began offering scholarships, but even with that my family was still not able to afford the schools’ tuitions.
And then came Lincoln. One of the worst soccer programs I’ve seen in my life: bad stats, bad players, bad everything. But the offer Coach Boateng made in comparison to the overall tuition turned it to be the best chance I had to finally move to the U.S. To motivate myself, I set the personal goal to change the sorts of the team and turn it into a competitive one. I didn’t, but that’s not the point.
After accepting Lincoln’s offer, I realized I didn’t know anything about the school. After a brief research I soon realized where I would be spending the next four years of my life. Lincoln University, a tiny university in rural Pennsylvania, the first HBCU, established in 1854, alma mater of Langston Hughes, first African American Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana. Population: 94 percent Black.
I was afraid. But my fear had nothing to do with race; it was more the thought of not being able to fit in a reality so different from mine, and that for the first time I was going to represent a minority (literally the only Italian there). Although Italy is becoming more diverse, growing up I never had to deal with people outside of my own race. To make things worse, during my research I came across an article of about a White female student beaten by a group of girls for “getting all the guys attention.” “Shit, I don’t want to get jumped too,” was my first thought.
Carol became my first friend at Lincoln and in the States. I creeped to find her through a Facebook group connecting incoming freshman with upperclassman. To my surprise she talked so highly of Lincoln and said that she was having a great time there. Her words comforted me a little so I decided not to go into the details of the fight. To break the ice with other students I decided to introduce myself on the page. “Hi, I’m Federico, I’m from Rome, Italy, and I can’t wait to meet you all in a few weeks.”
The responses I received were shocking. People were getting overly excited to meet me, which resulted in making me even me even more afraid. For all I knew, a white girl got beaten for getting too much attention. But there was no more time to think and to get more nervous.
August 12, 2011, I had my two pieces of luggage and was ready to board the plane. Ten hours later I was in Philadelphia. In the few weeks before my departure I had been in touch with only two people: my coach and Ms. Terri, a lady from the office for international students. To my knowledge, one of them was going to be there to pick me up, maybe holding a sign or something like that. I was wrong. Nobody was there for me.
I felt lost. I wasn’t thinking anymore about potentially getting jumped, revolutionize soccer in America, or any type of race issues. All that I could think about was the fact that I was alone, in a foreign country, with poor English-speaking skills. I didn’t know where to go or who to contact (my phone wasn’t working as well), so what does any smart person in my position do? Go find help, right? Not me. I started walking around, like I knew what I was doing.
Just as I was almost about to walk out the airport when three black people passed me: two guys and a girl. I didn’t meet them before, nor did I have a picture of someone that I could possibly be looking for. But something went off in my brain to turn towards them (mind you that at the time I had no clue that Philadelphia ranked in the top percentage of African Americans in cities across the U.S.). Luckily, it was the right move. The guys turned towards me and started whispering my name. They were complete strangers to me and they didn’t sound American at all (one is Nigerian, the other Cameroonian), but that was enough for me. I walked towards them and quickly learned they were all soccer players at Lincoln.
Junior, Elias and Shira were my first taste of my new life. They were extremely friendly and seemed so excited to play soccer with me. On the way to Lincoln we picked up Ras, a former player on the team, and they all started talking to me. All together, loudly, with the radio blasting some African dance music. I didn’t understand anything, nor did I have any clue what was going on. I just started smiling and moving my head up and down. “Maybe they think I’m stupid or something,” I thought.
That was the beginning of a new journey. During our ride there, I kept looking outside the window, noticing the buildings of Philadelphia quickly turning into cornfields and Amish farms. I was going in the middle of nowhere, knowing nobody, soon to start facing a whole new reality, filled with a set of experiences I would’ve never thought possible.