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University of Wisconsin-Superior
Belknap and Catlin
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Superior, WI 54880
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Early in her freshman year at UW-Superior, Terra Brister wanted to hop on the next bus home to Milwaukee.
A crisis had her friends pleading with her to come back. Although it was hard, Brister, an 18-year-old African American woman on a predominantly white campus, stayed in Superior.
In the process, she transformed herself -- from a shy, quiet student to one who gets involved on campus, connects with friends and contributes to the broader conversation about race on campus.
A DIFFICULT START
Two months into her freshman year, a friend of Brister's from Milwaukee took her own life, learving her surviving friends in crisis.
"My friends were like 'Terra, what are we going to do? We need you to come home.' And I was like 'I'm on my way.' But my mom said 'you can't come home.' I said What do you mean I can't come home? I need them and they need me and they're all down there desperate and crying and dying.
"She said 'I understand that. But understand if you come home now, you're not going to want to go back. you're not going to want to continue, you're not going to want to try.' Literally she gave me a pep talk for an hour just saying you need to stay there. If you come home, you're gonna get sucked in here, you're going to get comfortable. And sometimes you have to be uncomfortable to get what you want.' " Brister wasn't convinced, so she turned to Ivy Vainio, senior multicultural services specialist with the Office of Multicultural Affairs, for advice.
GIVING, GETTING SUPPORT
"The next day i'm in Ivy's office, just tears everywhere saying I can't do this, I need to go home, I'm not strong enough for this. I told her what my mom said and Ivy said, 'she's right.' And I'm like 'I didn't ask you to agree with her! I need you to be on my side!'
Brister stayed put and counseled her friends from afar, calling and helping pull together support. "It was also hard because I'm the planner of my group," she said. "It's just who I am. I can handle things pretty well myself, but I don't like to see anyone else sad or hurt."
Brister leaned on Vainio a lot in those months and has continued to do so. She calls Vainio her "college mom, but Ivy says 'much older sister.' " She laughed. "My mom and Ivy have met, they're cool. Ivy and I have been cool since we met I think almost the first day I was up here."
Because of all the support Brister has given and received, it's natural that she wants to get a graduate degree in counseling when she graduates next year. "I see it being less of a counselor and more of a mentor, to help students of color who aren't sure of what they can do."
Brister says her freshman roommate, Hayleigh Turner, was a bright spot that year and the two remain good friends.
"We hit it off like that, which is so weird because we're so different," she said. The two have remained friends and work together at Big Apple Bagel on Belknap Street. "She's my go-to. We're so opposite. She's white. I'm black. She listens to country music. I hate country music. She's kind of a punk rocker chick, I'm far from punk rock.
"We're such polar opposites, but we would literally stay up in our room til 3 in the morning having the best conversations, talking about the most random things, talking about our families, our dogs, our crazy boyfriends, our ex-boyfriends," Brister said. "We would just stay up talking all night long. It was a good year, minus that first couple months."
Brister loves her major, sociology, and her minor, African American studies, which she designed herself.
One of Brister's favorite teachers is sociology professor Marshall Johnson. "I love him. He deals with my craziness. He accepts me for who I am and has always been willing to work with me, with jobs, family, other school."
Working with Johnson is "less like professor to student and we're just having a conversation about the material. Of course he's still teaching me, but you form your own opinions."
It's something Brister has noticed among other faculty members on campus. "It's less like lecturing, more like let's have a conversation. A lot of the professors sit down and take time to go over it with you," she says.
Another of Brister's favorite teachers is art professor Pope Wright. "I love love love him," Brister says. "Instantly I was like I love 'Mr. Pope.' He's so honest. He doesn't expect you to be able to draw or be this great artist, as long as you try, he's good with that."
SPEAKING VS. REPRESENTING
Brister recently spoke on a panel of minority students about what life is like for them at UW-Superior. Wright was there and talked to her about it a few days later.
"Mr. Pope said 'Do you remember when you were that quiet little girl who just sat there in class, handed in your work, didn't say anything and walked out?' That girl no longer exists," she laughs. That girl who didn't want to talk about race, who just kept going along? No, we're going to address it, we're going to talk about it."
On that panel, Brister took issue with another black student who said something to the effect that he didn't represent all black people.
Brister objected. "I do claim my color proudly. I am more than willing to represent black people. If you need someone to be the first black female president, I'll step up," she quipped.
Talking to the student after the panel, Brister says they realized they were really talking about the difference between representing all black people and speaking for all black people.
"I think we have to represent what we can be. We're strong, we're independent, we're able to make it past those stereotypes that are held against us. We're able to be better. We're able to be great. That's how I look at it."
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