Race on Campus: Students Reflect
Adorning the walls of Marist College’s student center are elegant portraits of various black students on campus. The photographs convey the profound stories of each individual, and the achievements they’ve made, but what is not depicted is the struggle that these students routinely endure as racial minorities in a predominantly white school.
“A lot of students of color (more specifically) and other students, feel that attending school here is not just focusing on education and college experience. It’s proving your worth, proving your intelligence, proving your existence,” said Corally Valembrun ‘19, vice president of Marist’s inclusion and diversity board. “It’s not just being a student, it’s being a student of color. It’s acting and living and walking and breathing as a student of color because you know you just have to act a certain way, and that adds a weight.”
Valembrun, a native of Haiti, had at one time envisioned college to be “like the movies.”
But as a minority student existing in a largely white, affluent institution, her romanticized notions quickly dissolved into a more skeptical outlook.
“When I sit back and I think about everything I’ve been through, it’s crazy to me. Some people say I’ve graduated and finished, I say I survived four years.”
Throughout her four years at Marist, Valembrun has grappled with systemic and covert racism that she feels is characteristic of modern America.
“It’s walking into a classroom and talking about these issues and always expected to speak up and clarify or be a token for everybody else,” she said. “ It’s sitting in class, sitting next to somebody who tells you that you are worthless because of the color of your skin, and your professor not doing much... just continuing the conversation.”
“It’s things like that where I never felt like a student; I had to survive four years, keep my head down, go to class,” she said.
This survival mentality resonates with Randy Paul ‘20, a safety on Marist’s football team. Growing up in Huntington Station, Long Island, as a first generation American, Paul learned early on that the “system was against him.”
“It’s a survival type of way of thinking,” Paul said, “Expect for the worst. Pray for the best.”
Born to two Haitian parents, Paul’s heritage has guided many of his endeavours at Marist and beyond.
He used his athletic talent as a “ticket” to get out of Huntington Station, a community, he says, is characterized by a lack of motivation to excel in higher learning.
Racism at Marist has never stood out to Paul, where it would be obvious, but rather it manifests behind closed doors.
“It’s silent racism around here. There’s no imma point at you and call you the n-word, but I’m going to look at you and treat you like you’re an animal. People don’t like that word, but imma say it, like when they look at a bunch of black kids that are football players at Marist College they think that these people are animals and these are jocks and the only reason why they’re here is that they’re good in a helmet and shoulder pads,” Paul said.
Candice Rivera ‘19, a computer science student from Delaware, shared similar sentiment as Paul. Being black and Puerto Rican, she described her more subtle encounters with racial profiling.
Rivera wrestles with the challenges of not only being a racial minority on campus, but also a minority as a female in her classes.
“I’m a computer science student, so it’s a bunch of white males, maybe a few females. Whenever we do group work, they have this preconceived notion that I don’t know what I’m doing.”
She also harmonizes in Valembrun’s representation fatigue, as she grows tired of serving as a spokeswoman for the black community in the classroom.
“Professors on campus...some of them can be prejudice, some of them can see instances of prejudice, bias, racism going on, and they feel uncomfortable and don’t know what to say or how to handle it,” Rivera said. But Rivera also sees racism on campus as situational.
“Being a black student sets me apart, but it also depends on what type of person I’m around,” she said. “I’ve had other professors who are really awesome.”
Marist prides itself on its ongoing efforts to diversify incoming classes and accommodate underrepresented students on campus. In 2018, the school welcomed its most diverse freshman class ever. Yet, as diversity increases quantifiably, Valembrun believes that the school isn’t doing enough to service its minority students already on campus.
“Starting from prospective students that they’re bringing in—they need to reach out to a more diverse population, but more importantly when the students get here, they have to be more understanding of these students’ backgrounds, because not everyone comes from an upper socioeconomic background,” she said. “They have to be able to provide for these kids who are struggling.”
This gap in resources was illuminated during Black History Month, Valembrun said, as she identified a lack of initiative among administrative departments to spearhead events honoring the occasion. February’s agenda, she said, was largely pioneered by students, with members of SGA routinely reaching out to administrators in order for ideas to materialize.
“You do the bare minimum, then you expect students of color to be happy and be okay. We don’t have the resources, so how exactly are we supposed to do that,” Valembrun said.
Rivera, a student supervisor for Sodexo, saw similar issues with the Valley Café--an ongoing endeavour to diversify the dining hall menu by providing international cuisine for concentrated periods of time.
Despite offering numerous tips and urging Sodexo workers to approach her with any questions on how to properly cook the meals, Rivera heard limited feedback prior to the event. She was disappointed when a number of the plates, including the Jollof rice and Haitian fried pork and plantain, were made incorrectly.
“The food that was made was good, but it’s not what we wanted them to make,” she said.
“[The school] always reaches out to the Italian American Society and P.S. I Love You Day to make sure everything is okay, so I don’t understand why this is a big deal.”
LACK OF STUDENT SUPPORT
The problem of cultural incompetency extends to the student culture, Valembrun says. While she feels that Marist is not “teaching kids what it is supposed to be teaching them,” she also says that many of her peers fail to educate themselves on black history--as illustrated by the limited turnout of white students at many Black History Month events.
“Everyone at Marist likes to say that there’s diversity and there’s inclusion and they believe in equality, and all of that good, juicy stuff. But when it comes to the support...you being there and you acknowledging me and you understanding my past and my struggles, you’re not there, so do you truly support me?”
Nonetheless, the student groups have spearheaded a number of initiatives to catalyze positive change. While Rivera continues to push for diverse food representation in the dining hall, the Diversity Board welcomed its inaugural Women of Color Healing Group--a space for women of color to unpack their experiences and collectively navigate their struggles. Marist recently ushered in Red Fox Real Talk--a program designed for students to discuss complex issues at the school and beyond. Rivera was pleased with the comprehensive menu of events and guest speakers for recent Black History Months, including the visit from author and activist Michelle Alexander last year.
WHERE TO GO FROM HERE
While noticing the increase in diversity on campus since being here, Paul emphasized that cultural change does not happen overnight. “Think of Marist like the United States, culture doesn’t change like that [snaps], you’re not gonna feel the change in four years,” he said.
He derives hope from the tangible progress the school has already made.
“The foundations of a culture change has started. By the strong efforts of our student body president and vice president, a legacy is in place to showcase their hard work,” he said.
As for Valembrun, education and open-mindedness are paramount in shifting a community that is so grounded in tradition.
“A lot of students here at Marist talking about coming to college and working hard, that’s what our parents want us to do. But when you are not just working hard but you’re fighting and surviving in this environment, how can you truly excel,” Valembrun said. “So some of us are behind, some of us are trying to catch up, when other students see this campus as a safe haven, a safe place, a wonderful college experience. Some of us are just barely making it through.”