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.
I was a freshman at SMU when I started as a Research Assistant with the Voices of SMU Research Project (VOS). If you’re not familiar with the project, it is an innovative oral history project that preserves the stories of SMU alumni of color. As a Research Assistant, I conduct interviews with these alumni and gather information from the interviews on how SMU can attract and retain students of color. During my first few weeks of SMU, the lack of diversity on campus stood out like a sore thumb. Black upperclassmen, in their way of initiating the new Black students, told us stories of recent racially motivated instances on campus that had led to “Black at SMU,” a student-led movement in 2015 that confronted the university administration with ten demands to address campus diversity. It quickly became clear to me that SMU was not a place where every student felt safe and at home on campus.
SMU is certainly not unique in this way, rather our story is the reality of many predominantly white institutions (PWI) in the South. Instead of staying complacent with this problem, I was inspired by the student leaders of “Black at SMU” to find out how I, even as a freshman, could make SMU a richer environment for students of color. Voices of SMU seemed like the perfect opportunity to do so!
While I joined Voices of SMU to serve and better the SMU community, I have benefited from the experience in several ways.
Growing as a Listener
One significant way I have grown is by becoming an active listener. It’s about intently comprehending what the narrator is saying and asking strong follow-up questions that build on the interviewee’s story. Interviewing requires focus, intentional engagement, and being OK with not being the center of attention in a conversation.
This can be challenging! In many ways, being a good listener is the opposite of the dominant American culture, which is all about self-expression and making our opinions heard. Often, when having conversations with others, I find myself so busy thinking about what I want to say next that I am not really listening to the other person.
But Voices of SMU challenged me to practice attentive listening, to listen for the sake of asking better questions rather than coming up with a clever response. Listening is a skill, and my time with VOS has benefited me in my personal relationships as I have practiced making conversations less about myself and more about learning from the other person.
Connecting with Mentors
Like many PWIs, SMU has very few professors of color, much less Black female professors whom I might look up to as mentors. Honestly, I was a little hurt and disappointed when I realized that I might never have a Black professor during my time at SMU. While I have been fortunate to find mentors on campus of other genders and races, I felt like I was missing out by not having opportunities to be nurtured by Black female faculty and staff.
However, I have connected with numerous Black female alumni who have filled this gap by participating with VOS. They have been more than willing to support and advise me. The SMU graduates themselves relate to my SMU journey. The community of Black female mentors I gained from the project has been invaluable.
These two areas of growth have made Voices of SMU one of the highlights of my SMU experience. While I thought that joining this project would be a way to help SMU, the project has also invaluably improved my life for the better.