A Foreign White Guy at a HBCU


By Federico Ghelli and Lakenya Burke-Ray

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.

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.

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