Students discuss being part of the 1.6 percent of black undergraduates at Chapman

Kat Satter had grown accustomed to looking like “everyone else” in her diverse community of Oakland, California. Now a senior at Chapman, Satter’s campus environment is a far cry from her high school days.

“I come here, and I look in the (Attallah) Piazza, and I’m the only black student,” said Satter, a news and documentary major.

Satter’s experience is not unusual for many black students at Chapman. Troy Allen, an undeclared freshman and next year’s president of the Black Student Union, was also surprised at the school’s lack of diversity, despite what she had heard about Chapman’s demographics.

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“At first, I felt really isolated because I was one of the only black students in my class,” Allen said. “Actually, I was the only black student in my class.”

Out of Chapman’s 7,020 undergraduate students, 117 – just over 1 percent – identify as black or African American. Chapman falls behind the black undergraduate populations of similarly sized schools in the area, such as Loyola Marymount University and Whittier College, where black students make up 6.8 and 5.3 percent, respectively, of the universities’ students.

“I 100 percent believe that it is not always easy to be a person of color on this campus,” said Dean of Students Jerry Price. “If you’re in a class and think, ‘I’m one of only two black people in a class of 40,’ or, ‘In my residence hall, I’m the only black person in my wing,’ that’s tiring, stressful and exhausting.”

On April 14, political activist Angela Davis spoke at Chapman as part of last weekend’s Western Regional Honors Council conference. Allen, who was surprised to learn that Davis was coming to campus, said her appearance is a sign that the school is making strides toward becoming more diverse.

Originally from Chicago, Allen said she experienced “culture shock” throughout her first semester because many students on campus couldn’t relate to her experiences as a woman of color. She found it unfair that she constantly had to explain the importance of her identity when other students didn’t have the same obligation.

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“When we first wanted to get a black Greek organization here, I was really excited,” Allen said. “One of my roommates asked me, ‘Well, why is that important? Why can’t you just join the current Greek life organizations?’ I had to really take a deep breath and explain why I wouldn’t be comfortable with that.”

These experiences at Chapman have made Allen “radical” and encouraged her to become more involved with BSU and fight to increase diversity.

“It’s never enough,” Allen said. “I think it’s really hypocritical that (Chapman) boasts how diverse (it) is when it really isn’t,” Allen said. “It is really frustrating because I think the (Cross-Cultural Center) was used as a means to kind of quiet us and say, ‘Here, you have this, so you shouldn’t feel so discontent anymore.’”

Part of the school’s strategic plan to increase diversity is to attract and enroll high-achieving students from local areas like Santa Ana, Garden Grove and Orange, which have high percentages of students of color, Price said. Price also hopes the school will address the “campus climate” and concerns of current students.

“You can be doing things that you feel like are really advancing diversity and inclusion on campus, but there could be a significant number of people who feel like that’s not what we should be doing – that we should be focusing on this instead of that,” Price said.

Throughout her four years at Chapman, Satter believes that the number of black students on campus has visibly increased. But Samory Bailey, a junior strategic and corporate communications major, thinks the school has a ways to go before it can call itself diverse.

“Sometimes, when you’re the only minority in a classroom, your professors won’t really know how to behave appropriately toward you, so they’ll kind of single you out,” he said. “There was an ad shown in my class and the professor said, ‘A lot of people thought this ad was offensive to the black community,’ and then, of course, he ended up asking me about it.”

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Lucile Henderson, a freshman communication studies major and next year’s Black Student Union secretary, said she made an effort to seek out other black students on campus, but her race was always most apparent in the classroom.

“That is something you can’t really avoid at the end of the day,” Henderson said. “You can pick your friends outside of class and have that safe space, but in the classroom, it is what it is… I just find myself being more aware of the conversation. It hasn’t happened too much, but it’s more than I’m sure the average white person experiences.”

For students like Jiva Jimmons, a sophomore integrated educational studies major, identity involves finding a niche by making connections through shared interests, regardless of race. Though she is in the minority among students on campus, Jimmons said her friends and classmates don’t single her out.

“Everyone (in my education classes) has done their research, so they don’t need to come talk to me as the token black person,” Jimmons said. “There’s not really that divide.”

Like Jimmons, Satter said she never felt out of place within the immediate community of students in her major. The Dodge College of Film and Media Arts can feel more inclusive than the rest of campus, she said.

Black“Dodge has a good deal of diversity,” Satter said. “We all can just joke about the same thing. I’m doing my (documentary) thesis on black hair culture and asking students about their experiences. I thought, ‘OK, I’m not going to be the ignorant one here,’ but even as a black student, I have a lot to learn about my own community.”

Still, Arianna Ngnomire, a junior screen acting major and president of the Black Student Union, believes finding a community of people with shared cultural experiences can make all the difference for students who feel isolated.

“Even though I went to predominantly white schools (back home), I could always come home to a black family, to people who didn’t have to question my identity or who I was,” said Ngnomire, who was recently elected next year’s student government vice president.

“Not having that made it really difficult for my first year. Having the Black Student Union is literally what kept me here.”

Though students continue to call for advancements like multicultural Greek organizations and and a more culturally diverse student body, Ngnomire said students and faculty can start encouraging inclusivity by just listening to different points of view.

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“Don’t listen to respond, don’t listen to interject, to argue or even to relate to your own experience,” Ngnomire said. “It’s just about hearing what the other person is going through and then leaving the room sometimes.”

Leslie Song and Taylor Thorne contributed to this report.