Black students share COE experiences, offer recommendations for improvement

Kamron Smith
Kamron Smith

Four Black students in the NIU College of Education joined the Jan. 7 spring all-college meeting to share their personal stories and offer guidance for how faculty and staff can better empower them during their academic journeys.

The quartet included one undergraduate – Kamron Smith, a senior Middle Level Teaching and Learning major – along with master’s students Precious Bradley and Johnisha Harris and doctoral student Taurus Scurlock.

Recommendations included heightening awareness of racial microagressions, undertaking deep reflection to identify and erase implicit bias, fostering classroom climates where students of color feel confident in expressing themselves, calling on Black students regularly and not only when discussions focus on race or racism and creating opportunities for networking and mentorship.

“I really appreciate this conversation,” said Harris, who is earning her M.S.Ed. in Special Education.

“Moving forward from this moment, I just want professors and members of the College of Education to know that, even though it’s a small amount of Black people at the university, we are here. We do matter, our voices matter and we just want to be noticed.”

Dean Laurie Elish-Piper and the college’s Academic Equity Committee organized the panel discussion, which was moderated by Assistant Professor of Counseling Dana Isawi and Darius Jackson, Department of Curriculum and Instruction doctoral candidate and program advisor for the Center for Latino and Latin American Studies.

“We want to amplify the voices of our Black students in the College of Education so we can understand their experiences, learn from them what we are doing well and, more importantly, what we can do better,” said Elish-Piper, who called the college “a leader in equity work at NIU” and “committed to supporting all students.”

Dana Isawi
Dana Isawi

“As we strive to achieve the promise of diversity, equity and inclusion, and actively combat racism and bias in the College of Education, we believe it’s important to hear the voices of our students of color,” said Isawi, of the Department of Counseling and Higher Education.

“Our hope as a committee is that, following today’s meeting, departments will engage in follow-up discussions to process what we hear from our students,” she added, “and to continue to create a welcoming and inclusive academic environment for our students in general but for our students of color in particular.”

Students provided positive examples of when they felt “seen, heard and valued” and when they found support and encouragement. They also offered clear challenges that would help the college to grow and improve.

Smith spoke of professors who “highlighted units and used specific texts to talk about things in class about minority students – African-American students – and the environment in which they may go home to. I really appreciated that.”

He also is grateful for faculty who asked for his insights on matters of race but not to speak on behalf of all Black people, even though he often was the only Black student in the room.

“I never once felt put on the spot. It was just sincerely them wanting to know and to create conversation,” he said. “It made me want to go to class. It made me want to learn different ways I can talk to different groups of people.”

Bradley, a graduate student in Counseling, has appreciated professors who’ve recognized her leadership skills and subsequently nominated her for opportunities that correlated with her abilities.

Taurus Scurlock
Taurus Scurlock

Scurlock offered thanks to his faculty in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies for keeping him on track during a difficult period: “In April, I lost my only brother, and it was a surprise. It was unexpected.”

“I was just kind of lost. I just didn’t feel it anymore. I just wanted to throw in the towel,” Scurlock said, “and I had two professors who came to me and said, ‘No, you can’t do that. We know that you’re hurting right now. Take a week off and come on back. You’re doing too well.’ They really went out of their way to make sure that I finished the program, and I did finish – and I probably would not have had it not been for them.”

Yet some stories were not as positive.

Bradley raised the issue of microagressions along with her fatigue from being asked to contribute again and again to the seemingly endless conversations about racial divides and racial healing.

“There are 137 of us on this call, including myself, and I see a lot of white faces. We’re on a predominantly white campus, so of course I expected nothing less from this meeting, but it does put me in just the awkward situation where I am educating white people,” she said.

“And, to an extent, I don’t have an issue with that as long as you all continue to educate yourselves as professionals,” she added. “Recognize your privilege and use it to help.”

Faculty can provide that assistance by serving as the ones who recognize and call out microagressions during classroom discussions, Bradley said, mentioning her disappointment that some professors seem uninformed on those “trigger” words and phrases that can stir uncomfortable emotions.

Precious Bradley
Precious Bradley

Unfortunately, she added, she doesn’t always feel comfortable in speaking up “being a Black woman, and maybe coming off, I would say more assertive.”

“Addressing that myself may look differently if I’m trying to educate one of my white colleagues and peers on microagressions, and my tone of voice may come off differently,” she said, “so I’ve muted myself in the past three years … with the fear that I would be looked at differently.”

Meanwhile, Smith said, faculty should continue to use incidence of hate to fuel potentially productive conversation.

When racist graffiti was spray-painted onto the Center for Black Studies in September, for example, he appreciated professors who diverted from the syllabus to engage in dialogue.

“That meant the world because it wasn’t about that five-page paper,” he said. “It was about, ‘This is what’s happening in real life. This is what I’m going to educate you on to become a good citizen.’ That meant more to me than any grade they were going to give me.”

But it shouldn’t take such an event to make curriculum and classroom activities more inclusive of multiple perspectives, Smith said.

“I challenge all of our professors and advisors to be aware of our implicit bias, and that’s whether you’re male, female, Black, white, whatever,” he said.” Not every student is from a bad environment, and not every student is from a good environment, but they’re all here to get an education.”

He also encouraged everyone to lower the temperature of language, specifically “Black” – “It’s a word. You’re fine. You can say it. If a person’s Black, they’re Black, and if they’re white, they’re white,” he said – and to simply “ask” if they have questions about race.

“You only know what you know. I’m not a woman, so I don’t what it’s like to be a woman and face those challenges. If I want to know, then I need to ask. I’m not going to assume,” Smith said.

Johnisha Harris
Johnisha Harris

“It’s the same thing for African-American students. We won’t get mad, I promise. The fact that you all want to hear our voices and understand where we’re coming from and understand what you all can do better means the world.”

Elish-Piper, who heralded the four students “brave and generous,” pledged that the college will “think about what we heard and how it can inform us and allow us to continue growing, learning and doing better.”

Fall 2020 enrollment demonstrates that call to action: 45.8% of undergraduates and 29% of graduate students in the college are student of color. The college’s Black enrollment last semester, specifically, stands at 17% of the undergraduate population and 11.3% at the graduate school level.

“Clearly, as our service region continues to become more diverse, NIU is becoming more diverse as well as the College of Education,” the dean said. “My hope is that as our undergraduate students become our graduate students as they continue to pursue their career goals and their professional goals that we will hopefully see the numbers of students of color in graduate programs continue to increase.”

She is confident in that outcome.

“While we have a long way to go in terms of our equity work, we’re oftentimes held up as an example of one of the colleges that is further ahead in this work than some of the other colleges on our campus,” Elish-Piper said. “I want to acknowledge the hard work of so many of the people on this call for making that happen.”

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