This blog post is written by Nia Kamau a rising junior at SMU who is double majoring in Human Rights and International Studies with minors in Economics, Public Policy, International Affairs, and Arabic. She is currently a Research Assistant for Voices of SMU, an Honors Scholar, worker for the Human Rights Program, and a Residential Assistant.
“Voices of SMU” is an oral history research project that interviews alumni of color from Southern Methodist University. While participating in this project, my goal was to collect student stories to diversify the SMU archives and study how the university can attract and retain students of color. During the fall and spring semester, I interviewed sixteen alumni of Black, Latinx, and Indian ethnic identities. Nine of them came to SMU for undergraduate studies, and seven of them were SMU graduate students. Fifteen of the interviews were conducted on weekdays during the morning or afternoon at the SMU Norwick Center for Digital Solutions. One was virtually recorded through Zoom. The interviews lasted between 45 to 90 minutes long.
The dialogues focused primarily on the alumni’s time at SMU. Interviewees discussed why they came to the university and what school resources helped them succeed. The alumni, being diverse in disciplines and ages, had numerous responses and perspectives. One significant pattern in the alumni’s responses was the importance of multicultural organizations in their SMU experience.
The majority of the interviews are available online at the “Voices of SMU” website. Others are reserved in the SMU archives exclusively for research purposes. The project ultimately casts a light on the untold stories of underrepresented SMU students. It provides the university an opportunity to reckon with its historical struggles with race and to strategize on improving diversity and inclusivity on campus.
The interviewees spanned different ages and careers, from engineering to human rights to education. However, there were some common themes in their stories.
Alumni endured difficulties fitting in on campus—a common theme throughout the interviews. One narrator described her many attempts to get involved in SMU’s primarily white organizations, such as Program Council and Student Foundation. However, even from the beginning, she found these organizations had a “who knows who” dynamic, meaning many students of color lacked connections with white upperclassmen and struggled to enter the organizations. She felt that, as a Black student, she was limited to only Black organizations. A different alumna was told as a high school student that she did not look like the typical SMU student. When she came on campus, she felt the truth of that statement because of her Indian background and often felt invisible as white students acknowledged her white friends more than they did her. Another alumna felt the opposite. She expressed feeling like the “face of the race” in her classrooms, meaning that she represented her entire race to her peers, which she noted was a massive burden for a teenager. Another narrator discussed how major SMU student organizations and events specifically targeted white students and excluded students of color. Students of color were given the responsibility of creating their own community and social life, which this alumnus expressed was an unfair burden to bear.
Alumni shared that they coped with these feelings through multicultural organizations. The institutions provided spaces where they could feel safe and comfortable on campus. Interviewees described the Rotunda Scholars Program—a university-run program that supports underrepresented students on campus—as an initiative that provided a community of diverse peers, academic support, mentorship, and campus connections. One narrator underestimated SMU’s lack of diversity when he arrived at SMU; however, he was welcomed by a community of people of color through the Rotunda Program. The initiative helped him become more comfortable living on his own and away from his family. Another interviewee said her network was built off her relationships in the same program.
Another organization many students discussed was SMU’s Multicultural Greek (MGC) and National Panhellenic sororities and fraternities. SMU currently has two multicultural sororities, Kappa Delta Chi and Sigma Lambda Gamma. Both were historically Latina and developed into communities for all races. SMU’s multicultural fraternity, Sigma Lambda Beta, also has Latino roots and has become a diverse organization. One alumna said that joining Sigma Lambda Gamma was the first time she felt seen on campus. Another interviewee argued that joining the fraternity was the “best decision” he made at SMU. It was through this organization that he professes to have grown more socially conscious. It became the SMU community he could depend on. Another alumna repeated this point, saying that MGC became her primary network off campus as well, as it connected her to powerful leaders from her ethnicity.
Another narrator started an organization specifically for Black women. This organization was called the Natural Hair Network (NHN) and is currently referred to as FRO. She was inspired by the lack of organizations celebrating Black hair. Around the same time this student came to campus, several posts connected to SMU that depreciated Black women went viral. In response, the student created NHN to provide people of color with a space to be affirmed in their physical appearances. Many interviewees expressed how this diversity in their social lives helped compensate for the lack of diversity in their classrooms. Other programs mentioned were the McNair Scholars Program, which helps students of color pursue graduate degrees, and the SMU Human Rights Program, which is known for offering classes and spaces for the empowerment of marginalized communities.
Overall, I concluded that multicultural organizations play a significant role in making students feel comfortable at SMU. Many narrators expressed feeling out of place when arriving at the university. Alumni argued that Multicultural Greek life, Panhellenic Greek life, and Rotunda Scholars made the campus feel like home.
Interviewees said that these organizations gave them spaces to be themselves and express the cultures they were raised in. However, the burden of developing these communities is one that white students on campus do not have to bear. Ultimately, the university needs to invest in organizations specifically for students of color as much as they spend on dominant student groups.