Growing up in Saipan and Tinian in the Northern Mariana Islands, University of Washington freshman Aleia Hofschneider Santos was surrounded by people from many cultures.
In her high school graduating class, every student identified as either Indigenous, Asian or Pacific Islander, she said. But while Hofschneider Santos was excited to attend UW, a friend of hers warned her about the lack of students and faculty of color.
“She said, ‘Get ready to be disappointed,’ “ recalled Hofschneider Santos, who is Chamorro, an Indigenous group of the Mariana Islands. “That was a huge adjustment.”
A new UW program that launched last fall aims to make that adjustment easier. The Sisterhood Initiative is focused on empowering undergraduates who identify as women of color from their freshman year to graduation with mentorship, resources and community-building activities, according to educators behind the program.
The program was inspired by the Brotherhood Initiative that began in 2016 to support male students of color in their academics and professional goals. It has since enrolled about 250 students.
Being a student of color at a primarily white university can be an isolating and stressful experience, said Sisterhood Initiative program director Rashida Love. Undergraduates might face bouts of impostor syndrome and self-doubt, difficulty finding friends and a sense of community, and instances of racial stereotyping or microaggressions, she said.
“I’m very lucky not to have had an incident where someone is outwardly aggressive or racially discriminating against me,” Hofschneider Santos said. “But it’s something very discernible, you can sense it in the room. … In lab I went up to the other women of color and we worked together well, but I, we, can all feel a little anxiety.
“Why am I scared, why do I feel so awkward, am I making this up?”
Many students in the program have immigrant parents unfamiliar with the U.S. higher education system, or parents who did not attend college, meaning college tips — like knowing you can ask a professor for an extension in the case of a family emergency or illness — might not have been passed down. In some cultures, talking openly about mental health issues can be seen as taboo, leaving some students unsure where to turn to for support, said student success specialist Lauren Cataldo, who serves as an adviser for students in the program.
Without the Sisterhood Initiative, freshman Nyla Hassan said she would have never learned about scholarship opportunities on campus, or the Instructional Center, which offers tutoring reserved for students who are underrepresented minorities, economically disadvantaged or first-generation college students.
“I don’t think I would’ve been able to pass my classes” if it weren’t for the Instructional Center, said Hassan, who is Latina.
Resident students of color made up about 53% of the Seattle campus’s roughly 33,000 undergraduate students who attended in fall 2022, according to UW data. Of that group, about 59% identify as female.
In general, female UW students across racial groups have higher graduation rates than their male peers, though some disparities among female students exist.
Among female students who entered in fall 2018, about 80% of Asian students, 79% of mixed-race students and 78% of white students graduated in four years, UW data showed. That’s compared with about 68% of American Indian and Alaska Native students, 68% of Latino students, 64% of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students, and 60% of Black students.
Academics are an important part of the program — students are required to maintain a 3.0 GPA to stay in, and receive counseling and additional advising if they fall below the minimum at the end of a quarter.
But Love said that beyond academic achievement, the Sisterhood Initiative’s workshops and lectures help women of color build skills around leadership, identity development and mental health.
“Women of color, we’re taught to take care of other people before ourselves,” Love said. “How can we change that, so we’re thriving, not just showing up authentically as a person, but also thriving in class so we’re not just eking by?”
Students in the program take a yearlong course their freshman and sophomore year. After that, students will be able to attend additional workshops and social events, including study nights, pizza parties and trivia nights, hosted by the program.
Forty students are enrolled in the first year’s cohort, with Love hoping to enroll an additional 50 freshmen this fall as part of the next cohort. Applications for the fall quarter will open in mid-March when the university releases admissions decisions. Following an interview process, the program plans to release its final cohort decision in early June.
The freshman year Sisterhood Initiative seminar covers a range of topics, including financial literacy, intersectional identities, health and wellness, and racism in the professional world. Hands-on activities and field trips are also a part of the class — students recently took a self-defense class and visited an exhibit of photography by Dawoud Bey & Carrie Mae Weems at the Seattle Art Museum.
During the cohort’s sophomore year, classes will be geared toward preparing students for the professional world, such as applying to internships and nailing job interviews. All the while, the students get one-on-one advising to talk through academic and personal challenges and goals.
Sisterhood student Hannah Andral said she’s particularly looking forward to when the program transitions to being more career-oriented.
Andral, who is Caribbean American, said that while she rarely feels impostor syndrome in her classes, she does find herself feeling “a bit out of place” at UW.
She knew when she decided to go to the university that Black students make up only about 3% of the undergraduate population, “and that turns off a lot of Black people from going.” But it wasn’t until she was sitting in lecture halls of hundreds of students and could “list the Black people on my hand” that the lack of diversity became noticeable, she said.
“I just gained a space where we can rant to each other about being the only ones” in the class who are not white, she said.
During a Sisterhood seminar last week, about 30 students packed into a classroom to hear Charisse Williams, an outreach coordinator with the university’s counseling center, discuss ancestral strength and radical self-care.
Williams posed two questions to the class: How do you define self-care and how do you do it?
After the students discussed in small groups, Williams went around the room, pointing at each student to hear what kind of self-care they do.
“Skin care,” one student piped up. “Listening to music and going for walks,” another said. “Calling my mom.” “Going to the gym.” Williams pointed to Love, who said, “Eating ice cream,” producing a burst of laughter from the students.
White supremacy and institutional systems in politics, finance and health care uplifting white privilege “makes us feel like we’re not worthy” or undeserving of support, Williams said, “or that if we ask people for help, people are going to think less of us because we’re a minority.”
“We have to start saying, ‘That’s for me too,’ “ Williams said.
At the end of the session, Williams told the class how to access therapy services at the counseling center. Right now, the average wait time to get an appointment hovers around two weeks, Williams said.
“But reach out to me,” she told the class, writing her email address on the whiteboard behind her. “Whatever the case may be, we will get you the assistance you need.”
Breaking down barriers to access the university’s resources for marginalized students is a major component of the program, said Cataldo, the student adviser.
“I want to see them not just make it through but thrive, and to look back and say, ‘Being a part of the Sisterhood is one of the reasons that I am where I am, where I was given opportunities I wouldn’t have known about,’ “ Cataldo said. “Knowing we were in their corner the entire time.”
The program is still in an experimental phase and will likely evolve over the years, Love said, with the content taught changing depending on each cohort’s interests.
Love hopes that eventually, as the freshmen of this first cohort become upperclassmen, they will become mentors for the women of color who join the class in the future, swapping tales and sharing advice, and creating a space for healing and learning.