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Black Students at American University Voice Concerns

Sam P.K. Collins | 2/28/2014, 6:14 p.m.
American University's Black Student Alliance held a forum earlier this month after hundreds took to Twitter and wrote about their ...
American University's Black Student Alliance conducts a Feb. 7 forum at the school on race relations. Photo by Shevry Lassiter

In recent years, predominately white universities across the country have launched initiatives that aim to fully integrate students of various racial backgrounds into the campus culture and prepare them for an ever expanding multicultural society.

But Wesley Williams, an 18-year-old freshman at American University in Northwest, said that issues affecting students of color will continue to persist until members of the black community come together to tell their stories and devise an effective action plan that addresses their concerns.

"Unity is extremely important, especially in this so-called post-racial era. There is no question that we should be unified," said Williams, who lives in Ewing, N.J. "Throughout our history, there were always people with different opinions who were more united than we are now. Those values are very important and the fact that we're in a much better place serves as no excuse not to advance as a people."

Williams made his comments during a forum at the university's School of Public Affairs earlier this month. The three-hour event, hosted by the Black Student Alliance (BSA), came after hundreds took to social media outlet Twitter and wrote about their experiences as students of color at the school. The online discussion took place throughout the day on Feb. 6 and mirrored similar initiatives at Michigan State University and Georgetown University.

Nearly 80 students broke into five small groups and answered questions provided by moderators. Many gave anecdotes about encounters with peers of different racial backgrounds, difficulty in acquiring resources, and navigating an academic environment with few black faculty members. The conversation eventually shifted into methods of bringing these issues to the attention of the university administration, with each group drafting its own action plan.

"I think we were effective in creating a safe environment and vocalizing our agenda," said Sophia Pappalardo, 20, a junior from Rochester, N.Y., who is the alliance's outreach and marketing coordinator. "We would have liked to see more majority students come out. We have a lot of discussions in the black community but that can only do so much. We have to let others know [about the reality of our situation]."

Lee France, a 19-year-old sophomore who lives in Northwest, acknowledged the challenges he faced as a minority but said that he would not let those hurdles stop him from breaking barriers.

"I have always been conscience that I am a minority in America," France said. "There are some things that I can never change and that's not just true while I am at American University. I can't let hardship bog me down. In a system that we cannot change, it's important that we are persistent."

Faculty member Russell Williams II looked in awe as students engaged in spirited debates throughout the evening. He said that he hoped that the discussion would materialize into a sustainable action plan.

"I'm glad that these students are not waiting for someone else to figure out how to make the most of their AU experience," said Williams, 61, a 1974 alumnus who lives in Southeast. "Each generation has to take a fresh look and figure out what they can fix internally and externally."

Students spent the last half-hour of the forum devising a long-term action plan. Goals included bridging the gap between undergraduate and graduate students, raising awareness about academic resources, and increasing attendance at future BSA gatherings. Student leaders said that they hope to meet with university administrators in the next few months.

"This conversation is a start in realizing a cohesive vision for change around here," said senior Lauren Babb, 21, of Detroit, the president of the university's National Pan-Hellenic Council. "I've always wanted us to come together as a community. It's great talking about my experiences and hearing other black students' experiences."