Two students discuss the expectations and reality of being Black and attending Saint Mary's College. Staff and administration respond with information on resources and current initiatives relevant to the experience of Black students at Saint Mary’s.
By Evan Rodrigues
Tuition pays for more than your education. College and university advertisements showcase academic and community life alike. Jaelin Randle and Damian Cortez, two Black Saint Mary’s students, speak about their expectations of the diversity and inclusion of the Saint Mary’s community before attending, as well as what being a Black student at the college has been like so far. Various members of the community that work directly with diversity and inclusion initiatives and resources on campus respond.
“It feels like [they] want my face, but not my voice. Unless, of course, we are discussing the African American experience in seminar or something, that’s when everyone wants to hear what I have to say,” says Randle, referring to groups on campus other than the Black Student Union.
After seeing the faces of and reading written content on alumni Mahershala Ali and Ryan Coogler, third year Psychology major Randle was ready for what she thought would be an environment that seeks to not just include, but elevate, Black voices. She describes her experience with the BSU, saying "[it] is pretty much the only institution on campus where I feel heard and accepted." According to Randle, what she assumed her experience as a Black student at the school would be does not match what she has experienced.
Damian Cortez, a 4th year Integral and Philosophy double major with a minor in Law & Society, shares his expectations and experience as well. Based on the advertising he saw prior to attending, he was under the impression that Saint Mary’s would be relatively similar to other private and Catholic institutions with a focus on the Liberal Arts. These advertisements "didn’t drastically shape how I felt my experience would be as a Black college student," he says, "I knew that most places I could attend wouldn’t have a strong Black student population." Cortez was well aware of the challenges that Black students and academics alike face in society and educational institutions, and he did not expect Saint Mary's to be the exception. Despite his expectations, he has persevered with his goals and dreams in mind.
On his academic journey at Saint Mary’s, Cortez has felt a lack of opportunities to naturally connect with staff and faculty of color. He reports "throughout my time here I was riddled with doubt; with so few people to turn to who were experiencing similar feelings, I chose to set my feelings aside for the sake of my education." Cortez acknowledges that there are resources on campus for Black students, but as a double major with a minor, the ideal situation would be for him to be able to connect with faculty within his area of study. For Cortez, expecting to be underrepresented and then experiencing being underrepresented were two separate challenges.
Both students concluded with words of wisdom for Black students at Saint Mary’s and beyond. "Prepare to feel burdened by the lack of urgency society takes towards our position in higher education," says Cortez, "but don’t let that discourage you from earning your degree, wherever it may be." His realistic, yet hopeful words echo his experience at the school.
The feeling of support and community that Randle experiences in the BSU is definitely something she would recommend to any Black student. "I’m honestly blessed to have been introduced to our Black Student Union," says Randle, "There are so many members that are kind, helpful, supportive, and want to see you succeed . . . you get access to all of the amazing Black staff on campus, and a connection to other organizations." She wishes that this feeling would be campus wide.
Jane Camarillo, Vice Provost for Student Life, responds to statements from the two students. VP Camarillo comments on the College Committee on Inclusive Excellence, and their Black Lives Matter subcommittee. “On a regular basis,” says VP Camarillo, “the College Committee on Inclusive Excellence (CCIE) has conducted climate surveys.” She goes on to clarify that the climate surveys serve to gauge the social climate of the Saint Mary’s community. They are intended to give individuals the chance to “identify some key areas of their experience.”
VP Camarillo explains that responses are examined by the Committee in order to identify the various impacts on community life as well as “any trends that can be prioritized for an action plan.” Past surveys have only been administered to staff and faculty, and the most recent data is from 2016. Data from past surveys is available on the Institutional Research page of the Saint Mary’s website. Finally, VP Camarillo points to the college's 44 Days Honoring Black history:
“In the last three years, there has been a concerted effort to celebrate Black lives, Black history, and the contributions of the Black community by the program series, 44 Days Honoring Black History. During this series, Black students are invited not only to attend and participate in programs but also to come and meet and connect with Black faculty and staff at signature programs like the Black Student Convocation.”
More information on the Black Lives Matter Subcommittee and the 44 days Honoring Black History is available under the Inclusive Excellence page on the SMC website. This page also contains information on the specific goals and procedures of the CCIE and much more.
Following the introduction to the CCIE given by VP Camarillo, Associate Provost for Faculty Affairs, Senior Diversity Officer and CCIE Co-chair Kathy Littles gives some insight into her work with the school. After graduating from Saint Mary’s herself, she eventually returned with the goal of fostering a more inclusive and diverse environment. In the past year, she says "we brought in twelve new tenure track faculty, of the new faculty, five or 41.6% were faculty of color." She also says that "a critical part to the recruitment is also the retention of faculty of color...which calls for the creation of community, trust, support, and collaboration on many levels." In order to tackle this crucial part of the diversification of faculty, Littles has worked alongside Faculty Development to create and initiate a two year mentoring program for new faculty. She acknowledges the areas of growth for the program, but has definitely seen an impact in the way faculty of color are supported at the school.
The College Committee on Inclusive Excellence co-chair also shares about the status of upcoming climate survey work. She reports that a Climate Study Working Group is on its way to the SMC community. This working group will consist of 12 to 15 Saint Mary’s stakeholders, including students, staff and faculty. Littles shares that the group will talk about ways to improve the survey and that they will ultimately be "critical to its success." She hopes that the group will be able to officially start working next fall.
Finally, Legacy Lee, director of the Intercultural Center, shares his thoughts. He says "I think it is absolutely crucial to really listen to what our student's authentic experiences are at the college so that we can be strategic and deliberate in what is in turn created and systematized as a solution." His words definitely align with the work he does on campus.
Lee highlights the various events and resources available through the IC. He says, "Expressions of Blackness is one of six annual Cultural Nights where Black students are able to highlight their culture and shine light on their lived experiences on campus and beyond."
The work Lee does in the IC greatly exceeds what is written here. This is all definitely a step in the right direction, but there is more work to be done on the larger scale. he concludes with a call to action: "We need to listen [to Black students], believe them, and get to work on making our campus community live up to our Lasallian core principles." Obviously, the campus community largely exists outside the walls of the IC, so ideally the way students feel when they are there should match what they feel anywhere else on campus.
Keep an eye out for future climate surveys and make sure to fill them out. In order to make sure that the advertisements relating to student experience are accurate for all that attend, the Saint Mary’s community has to ensure that relevant feedback is being gathered from students. Given the past and current events relating to racial inequality, there is a definite need to be conscious of our community climate and how it matches the advertised values of the school.
Victoria Vidales '21,