Chanel Smith, Seattle Pacific 2012 alumna, questioned her role at admissions recruiting students of color during her senior year. At the time, Smith found she no longer believed what she was saying to recruit students to SPU, feeling that the university’s mission was not in practice.
“It was something about campus that didn’t really fit with the statement of ‘engage the culture and change the world,’” Smith said. “I didn’t feel like I was being engaged or being really brought in to get to know who I was … and how I’m different is celebrated.”
Smith was one of several alumni that gathered to speak at the Black Student Union’s forum as part of their event series for Black History Month.
Friday evening, about 40 students gathered in Otto Miller Hall to hear Smith, Evin Shinn, Marissa Johnson and Nikkita Oliver speak about their time at SPU.
Smith shared that SPU failed her in terms of “engaging the culture, changing the world” because she felt like culture was more than just race, but any way that an individual is different.
The university didn’t offer a safe space for people to be different, according to Smith.
If Smith was still attending SPU, she would tell herself and other students to be themselves.
“Be unapologetically yourself in every shape, form, and fashion that you are … and make sure that who you are is … seen so that we can continue to see those differences,” Smith said. “Because if you hide yourself in a shell … then we’re never really going to engage the culture or change anything.”
Shinn, who graduated in 2008, believes that while it’s difficult being different, he was able to express his voice while at SPU.
“It’s hard holding a difference,” Shinn said.
Shinn explained that he engaged in conversations with students and professors, and served on student senate.
“One of the reasons that professors probably still remember me … is not only because I was one of the only black men in their room, but because I was willing to speak up and ask questions, [and] because I was willing to have hard conversations in class,” Shinn said.
For Shinn, talking to others and being a part of senate gave him a voice.
One of Shinn’s favorite experiences at SPU was in an English class he took. He was the only black man in the class and when they had to read Langston Hughes’ poem, “Theme for English B” which talks about being the only black student in class; Shinn’s professor asked him to read it to the class.
“That was a very powerful moment for me, because it wasn’t … ignorance, it was the fact that she really wanted me to use that voice to really bring life into the poem,” Shinn said.
While Shinn knows that some individuals are angry when he shares that story, he wasn’t offended when his professor asked him to read the poem.
“I took it as an opportunity and a privilege to read that poem aloud to my white classmates,” Shinn said.
When Johnson first came to SPU, she didn’t feel like she needed to have a professor of color, but she later changed her mind on this topic.
“I think that professors of color hold extreme influence of just even helping get students through college, but not only that [but] helping shape the people that they’re going to be moving forward,” Johnson said.
For Johnson, Professor Brian Bantum was one of those influential faculty members who shaped her.
“His influence in my life has not only been consistent but it’s also made me reimagine sort of the possibilities for myself, so far that what I’m doing now I could’ve never imagined,” Johnson said, who is now part of the Black Lives Matter movement.
When Oliver came to SPU in 2004, less than five percent of students were students of color, and she never had a professor of color during her time.
Oliver turned to the Director of Intercultural Affairs and Assistant Director of Student Programs Joseph Snell to talk about the issues she faced while at SPU.
“While I would say my experience at SPU had a lot of racism, and a lot sexism, and a lot of homophobia, at the same time it was a place where I really learned I refined my analysis about why I oppose those things,” Oliver said.
While Oliver didn’t enjoy her experience at SPU, it was where she learned about why she stands for the principles she believes in.
“I have to give SPU some credit, this is where I radicalized, where I really was able to make some big decisions about the sorts of principles and things I was willing to be about, and it was because of not just classes, but really relationships with key staff,” Oliver said.
Senior Damme Getachew took the event discussions to heart because she felt encouraged and empowered by the panelists.
“I thought it was very powerful because … this is my last year and I’ve never really seen discussions like this happening at SPU, and I’m saddened a little bit because this is my last year and I feel like there’s something starting here,” Getachew said.
For senior Zeapoe Matalda, the event was filled with truth.
“What they said was a lot of real, raw and honest truth and I feel like a lot of people need to hear it,” Matalda said.