University of Michigan students of Color in student organization leadership positions met virtually on Monday to discuss their experiences finding and advocating for communities of Color on campus. They also spoke to their experiences as people of Color at a predominantly white institution (PWI). The Center for Campus Involvement’s Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) team organized the panel event.
LSA senior Adetola Ojo, Black Student Union co-programming chair, spoke on the culture change she experienced coming to the University from a mixed race household.
“Coming to Michigan was a little bit of (what) I like to call a reverse culture shock,” Ojo said. “I didn’t think so hard about the fact that I was Black growing up because it wasn’t important to my family … So coming to Michigan was a little bit different because it was very much almost my entire identity to a lot of the people around me.”
In 2018, the University received an F grade in representation of Black students on campus from a study done by the University of Southern California. According to Data USA, currently 52.2% of the student population is white and 4.26% of students are Black or African American. Additionally, Asian students make up 13.3% of the population, 4.01% of students identify as two or more races, 0.152% identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, and 0.03% identify as Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islanders.
LSA senior Indeya Lawrence, vice president of Mixed at Michigan, said it was difficult for her to find a community at the University when she first arrived as a junior. She said she was afraid she would not find people similar to her in the upper-level courses she enrolled in.
“Some of my higher-up classes at Michigan, they’ve become more mono-racial in a lot of ways,” Lawrence said. “It became almost a bit discouraging when I got here.”
LSA junior Brittany Hull-Dennis, Black Student Union co-programming chair, also said it was difficult for her to find a Black community when first arriving on campus. As a freshman, she said that it wasn’t until she became involved with Black student organizations that she felt she could connect more with her community.
“I feel like now with my engagement with the Black Student Union, I’ve been able to connect even more with my community,” Hull-Dennis said.
Public Health junior Gina Liu, president of United Asian American Organizations, said that although she found many Asian American student organizations when she first came to the University, she wanted to create a greater intersection between cultural expression and political activism.
“I think part of the difficult thing was a lot of those organizations were very in tune with the cultural aspects of … an identity, and I think that’s something that I was interested in,” Liu said. “(But) you can’t separate (culture) from political activism and you can’t separate it from any part of your identity. But I was still kind of looking for something that was just maybe a little more related to how we can build solidarity with other student groups on campus or navigate those dynamics.”
Liu also explained how she uses her leadership position to advocate for communities of Color on campus. She said her focus as a leader is to ensure her organization is accessible to all Asian American ethnicities and identities. Liu added that she prioritizes broadening accessibility in her organization through internal dialogue with their board to improve dynamics and recruitment.
“I think the most important part is being okay with making mistakes and recognizing that my intention might not be to perpetuate inaccessibility or cause people to not come to the space,” Liu said. “(But) if I’m not really catering to at least one interest of someone who’s not like me … then I don’t think the programming is necessarily doing a good job.”
Ojo said her biggest focus as a leader on campus is ensuring that her organization provides all minority students with the opportunity for a community and access to resources to excel at the University.
“It is hard and it is going to test a lot of your patience,” Ojo said. “You’re going to feel like you’re underwater a lot of the time. So (I’m) making sure that I’m connecting people with those resources, but the other end of it is making sure that there are people (of Color) that can continue to get here.”
In 2016, the University created a five-year diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategic plan that included goals to increase DEI-related recruitment and retention efforts across campus. Ojo said that despite the University’s plan, low rates of Black student enrollment at the University continue to persist. She said she would like to talk with University administration to understand how they plan to implement change.
“Making sure to kind of work with the University on what their strategies (are and) how are they going about this has been a really big thing,” Ojo said.
Lawrence spoke on the importance of maintaining a support system for the mental health of students of Color on campus. She said that she often relies on her fellow Mixed at Michigan club members.
“When I go to a Mixed at Michigan meeting, I see more people with similar stories,” Lawrence said. “And it motivates me personally to keep going … My club has served the biggest (support) foundation and I am grateful.”
Liu said she also found that collaborating and speaking with other POC-oriented student organizations helped her look after her mental health on campus.
“In general, (it’s helpful to take) the time at the end of the day to recognize everything that you might have to go through as a student of Color,” Liu said. “(And) then also I think recognizing different privileges we might have as leaders … on the Ann Arbor campus and taking that time to really think about the surrounding campus community too and people outside I think is something that’s grounded me.”
Hull-Dennis also went on to explain how the University’s status as a PWI made many students of Color feel pressure to code switch, the modification of a dialect or language depending on social or cultural contexts. She urged students of Color on campus to be unapologetically themselves.
“It might be easy to lose yourself in that because you feel like you don’t fit in, but you should always remain true to yourself,” Hull-Dennis said. “I still find it important to connect with my Black identity and at least have a space for that. Because sometimes you want to exist in a space without explanation.”
Daily Staff Reporter Vanessa Kiefer can be reached at email@example.com.