The words sting.
Raw and honest and unapologetic, they laid it on the line: What was it like being black on a campus of mainly white students? And what’s it like today?
Three Iowa State alumni from the late 1980s and ’90s and a former staff member spoke on campus this fall to a packed Sun Room crowd in the Memorial Union. “How We Got Here: Challenges and Achievements / A Conversation with Black Alumni” was sponsored by the Committee on Lectures, Black Student Alliance, and other organizations. Panelists included:
- Modupe Labode (A) (’88 history), public scholar of African American history and museums and an associate professor of history and museum studies at Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis
- Keecha Harris (L)(’96 dietetics), president of KHA Inc., a consulting firm specializing in evaluation and organizational development for nutrition and public health support services, Sterrett, Ala.
- Mohamed Omer (MS ’96 physical chemistry), former forensic chemist and associate VP for strategic foresight and innovation at L’Oréal, Naperville, Ill.
The moderator, Cecilia Naylor (A), was director of ISU’s Margaret Sloss Women’s Center from 1993 to 1997. She opened the discussion with a frank and honest declaration: “When I left Iowa State, I said I would never, ever, ever, EVER come back here. I was not stepping foot in the state of Iowa.” Her experience on campus as a staff member during the 1990s was that bad. But in the end, she said, she decided to make peace with Iowa State.
She said she connected with Harris, one of her fellow panelists, and they “decided to do something for the black students here now,” many of whom were in the audience.
Despite significant challenges during their time at Iowa State, the panelists agreed that their experiences made them stronger, and each made lifelong friends.
“My experience at Iowa State made me not afraid of anything,” Omer said. “I was the only black graduate student in the chemistry department. And this is the University of Science and Technology! There were NONE! Everywhere I went!”
Omer went on tutor and mentor undergraduate black students who were taking chemistry classes. “We were really a close-knit community,” he said.
He also told the students gathered in the Sun Room not to be afraid to work hard and try something new while they’re in school.
“I worked as a detassler,” he said of the ubiquitous Midwest summer cornfield job. “I had no fear. If you can survive detassling for 10 days, you can survive anything.”
Harris named the late George Jackson, former ISU assistant VP for student affairs and director of minority student affairs, as “the reason we’re all in this room.” Jackson implored Harris and other black students to take care of themselves and also of each other.
“He told us, ‘This place is incredibly rich in tradition but psychologically unstable for you. We are not as transracial as we think we are,’” Harris said.
Others on the panel listed Liz Beck (former director of the University Honors Program), Pat Miller (director of the ISU lectures program), and other faculty members and academic advisers as helping them navigate what was for them a difficult time.
“It was a hostile environment,” Harris remembered. “I loved the professors, but my classmates questioned whether I should be here. I became a parent during my sophomore year, and my daughter experienced micro-aggression even in preschool. It was heartbreaking.”
But, Harris said, she’s still “proud to be a Cyclone. I want this to be a better place for those of you who are here now.”
Labode, a Rhodes Scholar, became an ISU faculty member after graduation. “My greatest achievement here was the opportunity to teach,” she said. “The student-teacher relationship was really fascinating. I was in awe of all the student activism [of the time]. It remains with me today.”
Following the panel discussion, audience members were given an opportunity to ask questions. “What’s your advice on handling these daily micro-aggressions?” asked one student. “Majority students don’t have to deal with the things we deal with.”
Naylor, now a professor of history and Africana studies at Barnard College, responded: “Racism is racism is racism. You belong here just like everybody else. There’s a structural shift that needs to happen.”
And from Omer: “Part of learning is mixing with others. It’s going to help you at the end of the day. You need to know your Indian neighbors, your white neighbors. There’s a lot of beauty – you just have to open yourself up.”
— Carole Gieseke