Surviving at a PWI: The White House Listens to Black Students

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On Wednesday, October 28th, 2015, the White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for African Americans hosted a summit at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, CA. The event brought students, professors, and university administrators together to discuss how institutions of higher learning can better support Black students. As a recent college graduate and advocate for Black students, I attended eager to discuss life at a PWI and to connect with my peers.

The summit came at a crucial time as students of color across the country have been rallying against issues ranging from micro-aggressions to systemic oppression on their respective campuses. From Duke to SMU, the last few months have been ripe with racially charged incidents that have resulted in protests and thought-provoking hashtags. Just this week, Black students at Mizzou staged a successful hunger strike and football boycott in protest of Tim Wolfe, the former president of the University of Missouri system.

David Johns, the Director of the White House Initiative, repeatedly expressed his devotion to respecting and amplifying the voices of young people, who are too often ignored and silenced by their universities. This dedication was apparent throughout the day as the agenda featured two panels comprised entirely of students and young alumni, who were constantly referred to as experts.

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I spoke on a panel alongside Black students from a variety of California universities about how to “Survive and Thrive” higher education. Though all of the panelists were African American, our experiences and viewpoints differed greatly, resulting in an engaging conversation. We discussed everything from the lack of Black curriculum at PWIs to the subtle micro-aggressions that Black students face on a daily basis. Kiana Gums, a sophomore at LMU, mentioned that Black students were often excluded from study groups and were left to form their own. But as the only Black student in a particular class or department, it can be difficult or even impossible to work around this form of implicit bias and racism. Later, Angie, former foster child and founder of The Shade Room, discussed the need for universities to support foster youth and talked about how she managed to turn an Instagram page into a lucrative source of income.

In the midst of the conversation, a student in the audience posed a polarizing question that led to a discussion on the perceived benefits and pitfalls of integration. While some believed that integration had been advantageous to African American students, others, including myself, asserted that it was only ideal in theory. During the community forum session, a number of Black faculty members also expressed frustration with the ways that they, too, are marginalized and restricted within their departments. In an interesting dialogue, Black faculty members challenged the senior administration head on and voiced their concerns, making sure to offer feasible solutions. It was clear that many felt empowered by the fact that The White House was there to listen to them and spoke with an authority that is often only afforded to those in power.

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Effie Brown, Producer of Dear White People and co-star of HBO’s Project Greenlight, delivered an engaging speech on being “The Lonely Only” in a predominately white space. In a poignant quote, she stated that, “you have to name a thing in order to deal with it” and stressed the importance of speaking up, especially when you’re the only Black person in the room. As the subject of the highly publicized Matt Damon debacle surrounding her comments on Hollywood diversity, Effie Brown connected her industry struggles to the plight of Black college students in a succinct speech that resonated with everyone in the room.

Ultimately, the Summit served as a much-needed reminder of the importance of Black institutions and support systems. Throughout the day, students from various schools expressed gratitude to the people and organizations that supported them throughout their college tenure. In search of solutions, I was reminded of all the support that I received from the USC Black Alumni Association, the USC Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs, and the Magic Johnson Foundation Taylor Michaels Scholarship Program. Because of their unwavering support and advocacy, I was able to thrive in an environment that would have otherwise defeated me. In the absence of similar institutions, many Black college students are at risk, whether they realize it or not.

Though it is highly unlikely that the Summit for Educational Excellence for African Americans will result in the eradication of racism on college campuses, it served as an important step in the right direction. As demonstrated through online platforms, such as #MyPWI, students of color are constantly facing battles both in and out of the classroom. But in addition to voicing our concerns online, it is imperative that we bring these conversations back to our universities and establish direct lines of communication between students and the institutions that vow to serve them.

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Leaving the Summit, many walked away with a renewed sense of responsibility to Black students who are struggling to navigate the education system. In addition to speaking truth to power and fostering our own communities, we must find creative ways to survive and thrive in environments that were not built with us in mind. Moving forward, I am eager to see how universities across the country adapt to the burgeoning movement for Black lives and Black minds. Hopefully, they will continue in the tradition of The White House Initiative for Educational Excellence for African Americans and simply listen.

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