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Sole black freshman adjusts to College

Justin Tardiff | Monday, November 21, 2005

No one told Melissa Gates she would be the sole black freshman in a class of 379 students moving onto the Saint Mary’s College campus in August – she knew.

“They didn’t have to [tell me],” Gates said. “Being the type of school it is and the region it is in and how expensive it is, people in my [financial situation] and my background are like ‘Wow – first, I bet I can’t even get in and my parents probably can’t even pay for it.”

Although she was raised in Midwest City, Okla., Gates was born in Buchanan, Mich., and was well aware of the strong academic reputations of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s as she began her college search.

It was more than the outstanding academic reputation, however, that ultimately compelled Gates to apply to Notre Dame, her first choice between the two schools, and then to Saint Mary’s.

“I’ve been in band since I was 12, and ever since I was 12 I was like, ‘I am going to be in the Notre Dame band,'” Gates said.

After being denied admission from the University, Gates chose to accept an 80 percent scholarship from Saint Mary’s and fulfill her dream of playing clarinet in Notre Dame Stadium.

“It’s so funny because I missed the deadline to turn [my application] here, and they called me and they were like, ‘Is she still applying?'” Gates said.

While her family and friends strongly supported her decision to leave home and enroll at the College, some acquaintances doubted that she was actually a member of the band. Gates’ mother took photos of her wearing her uniform to her former band director as proof.

“What kind of upset me a little was when people didn’t believe that I was going so far away,” Gates said.

The experience of being a member of the Notre Dame marching band has lived up to her highest expectations, Gates said, describing it as “one big family.” Fellow band members, especially her clarinet section leader, have made her feel welcome.

“I couldn’t image being in another band,” Gates said. “It is such a great fit for me. The music is fun. It is definitely a dream come true for me.”

In her first semester as an undergraduate, Gates has faced challenges typical of college freshmen, including roommate conflicts and tough classes. She has enjoyed the opportunity to see another part of the country and flew for the first time on a flight home for fall break.

However, while she has made friends through student groups such as the Saint Mary’s Sisters of Nefertiti, Gates has struggled to connect with many of her classmates.

“I have had a hard time relating to freshman … because I had to grow up a lot faster,” Gates said.

Working since she was 16, sometimes as many as 20 hours a week during the school year and more than 40 in the summer, Gates has long been responsible for paying bills including car insurance and cell phone fees.

Freshmen also tend to travel in packs, Gates said, making them easily distinguishable from upperclassmen. Meanwhile, she has been largely on her own and has become increasingly independent.

She recalled one conversation in which a fellow student described how she maxed out her parents’ credit card and was promptly given another one. Never having owned a credit card herself, Gates said she was amazed to discover what was considered “normal” for other students.

Gates does not feel she has faced blatant prejudice since arriving at Saint Mary’s but said sometimes other students ask her “patronizing” questions.

“Some people just ask you ‘Oh my gosh, is that your hair?’ and ‘How did you do that?'” Gates said. “I don’t ask you about you your hair.”

If anything, Gates said, she occasionally finds herself “overlooked.”

“Sometimes I feel invisible,” Gates said. “They see me and they move on to the next person, and even in band it is sometimes like that.”

Saint Mary’s could benefit from a more diverse student body, Gates said.

“I would probably [tell incoming minority students] just don’t be surprised at some of the things people may ask, some of the things people might say and definitely be prepared to meet people from different backgrounds not only to learn from them but to teach them about different ethnic [groups].”