With the millennium approaching, it is a time for many people to look at where they have been and where they are going. Throughout the school year, The GW Hatchet will be exploring different aspects of the University community, how it is changing and what the future holds, through a continuing series: “At the Millennium: GW in Perspective.”
For Paul Jepeth Sunwabe, the negative aspects of being an African student at GW are starting to outweigh the positives.
“There is this sense that no matter what we do, we don’t fit in,” said Sunwabe, president of the Organization of African Students. “Yes, we are part of GW. But we are African students at GW.”
He said he has heard horror stories about life for African and other black students on campus. Starting their college years in Thurston Hall was a traumatic experience for some.
“They felt left out,” Sunwabe said. “They felt American students didn’t want to have anything to do with them.”
While GW touts its diversity to all within earshot, what that phrase means is something Sunwabe questions.
“My definition of diversity would be more than sitting at J Street with someone who is white,” he said. “You have to do more than just eat together.”
It has been 45 years since GW was desegregated. Black and African-American students now represent more than seven percent of GW’s campus, according to University statistics. And although GW was ranked 36th among best schools for African Americans by Black Enterprise magazine, students at the University say there is still a type of segregation on campus.
A new brand of “separate but equal” can be found at GW. Many blacks and African Americans admit they form groups among themselves, creating their own world with separate student organizations, Greek-letter life and social circles that, while inclusive to non-blacks who are interested in joining, mostly consist of students like themselves.
“As with all parts of life in every other community, those who share a common background hang out together,” said David Burt, president of Alpha Phi Alpha, a historically black fraternity, and an at-large undergraduate Student Association senator.
He said the black community has become a lot closer in his three years at GW.
“I would say that the administration tries to make the minority population feel comfortable, but there are times we feel we are totally left out of the planning,” said Michele Charles, a fourth-year marketing major and a sister of the historically black Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.
Times of change
The history of GW’s desegregation can be partially traced back to an unlikely advocate – Ingrid Bergman. The Swedish-born, romantic actress came to GW in 1946 to perform “Joan of Lorraine” at Lisner Auditorium. At that time, Lisner was a segregated theater and when Bergman learned that she struggled to get out of her contract. She failed and performed “under protest,” letting her frustrations be known to the Washington media, said G. David Anderson, University archivist.
Her vocal dismay, coupled with the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education eight years later, caused the University’s Board of Trustees to change the University’s bylaws, saying no student could be denied admission on the basis of race.
In the years to follow, the Black People’s Union was formed. It became an advocate for the needs of black students both at GW and throughout the D.C. community.
Today, the University continues to make efforts to appeal to the black community. Each year, the University presents multi-cultural awards in Martin Luther King Jr.’s memory. The University also gives several full scholarships to local high school students through the Stephen Joel Trachtenberg Scholarship Program. GW’s president also made headlines two years ago when he offered full scholarships to 48 students at Northwest Washington’s Paul Junior High School.
“I think it’s baby steps,” said Nneka Mokwunye, president of the Black People’s Union. “(University administrators) are starting to realize they’re in the center of a 78-percent black city.”
But the administration stopped one of the most successful programs to recruit local students last year. Many minority students were outraged when the University’s Pre-College Review and Enrichment Program (PREP) ended last spring.
“I went with President Trachtenberg when we were honored by Black Enterprise, and he said the University would try to do more,” Burt said. “Two months later, they dropped PREP.”
The eight-week summer program provided a chance for 50 incoming freshmen from D.C. to take classes and leadership seminars to help them pursue a higher level of performance in college.
“A lot of people feel they wouldn’t have been at GW or had a chance to attend this institution without PREP,” Burt said.
Burt said he believes the termination of the PREP program is partially to blame for the decline of the black population from seven percent to an incoming freshman class that is only five-percent black.
He sees the decrease in percentage of black students as a lack of the University’s commitment to an environment for black students. The Multi-Cultural Student Services office, which houses BPU and other minority organizations, does not have the spark it used to, Burt said.
“After PREP, they have very little mission and very little support,” Burt said. “You can almost see them falling apart, the morale is so low.”
He said he believes a lot of its resources went to the International Students Office, which does not fit the needs of black students. And MCSS also lost its director, Melvin Brock, last year.
Helen Cannaday-Saulny, MCSS director, refused requests for comment.
But GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg defended the termination of PREP.
“The cutting of the PREP program was meant to redesignate the resources into a more thoughtfully designed program,” Trachtenberg said. “The people who invented PREP concluded they could have a better impact in using the money in a more articulate way.”
Robert Chernak, vice president for student and academic support services, said as GW’s standards improved, the PREP program could not keep up.
“When we started to look at the numbers and see the investment we were making and not getting the percentage completing the GW education, it gave us some reason to pause and see how we can better spend these moneys,” he said.
Chernak said scholarship money originally given to PREP was reapplied, and the number of black students entering the school is “exactly the same.”
“Because more people at large decided to come to the University, that doesn’t effect the number you’re supporting,” he said. “You are going against the Harvards and the Yales. The question is how many people who are black accept our offer.
“You can’t make a judgment on the ultimate yield and not the ultimate efforts that have gone into outreach,” Chernak said.
What enrages some black students is the lack of attention being paid to academic programs that teach students about black and African-American history, culture and their place in the world.
The Columbian School of Arts and Science’s started an Africana studies minor several years ago, but the program remained for four years without a permanent director. Students say it is hard to accumulate the requirements for the minor.
“I think the classes are quality classes, but I think there are a lot of minors that have more classes than we do,” said Ritu Singh, a senior psychology major minoring in Africana studies. “It’s definitely something that should be expanded.”
Singh said she and others have petitioned for the program to become a major, but so far nothing has happened.
“I think the administration believes there isn’t an interest,” she said. “There’s definitely people out there who would like for it to be a major.”
In the Elliott School of International Affairs, talk that the African concentration will be merged with another program outrages Sunwabe, who is originally from Liberia.
“That leaves us with an impression that the administration is not intere
sted in our continent,” Sunwabe said. “It deserves attention like any other continent.”
Barbara Miller, the associate dean of curriculum for the Elliott School, said although combining the African concentration was rumored, those plans have been abolished.
“We are definitely keeping our African concentration, and I hope it will be stronger,” Miller said. “There are no diabolical plans afoot to do away with the African concentration.”
For Yvonne Captain, an associate professor of Romance Languages who also teaches Africana Studies, the crux of the problem in GW’s academics is the lack of black and African-American professors.
“I don’t think anybody can say that there is good representation (of black professors),” she said. “GW, at least in principal, recognizes it needs to do more.”
Captain said part of the dilemma is, while many other schools dealt with desegregation issues in the 1960s and 1970s, the University did not have a problem. Now, the University is unprepared to deal with the situation, she said.
“Every time we’re confronted with a lack of black presence, we just don’t know what to do with it,” she said.
Trachtenberg said in both student and faculty numbers, more can be done.
“My intent is to make GW the best learning environment I can,” he said. “Give us a University of outstanding teachers and scholars that are international and represent the population.”
With a top-notch, historically black university in the same city, many black students said they came to GW for the chance to be part of a larger community. For Mokwunye, BPU’s president, the percentage of black students in Foggy Bottom was never a factor.
“I was so used to being able to deal with other cultures,” said the senior philosophy major. “I found a way to distance myself from ignorance so I didn’t care. I didn’t even think of diversity issues.”
She was accepted to Xavier University of Louisiana, a historically black school, and considered going there.
“I wanted to be in an environment that was a whole bunch of black people and learn from people who’ve been there and done that,” she said.
But Mokwunye said she had a “reality check.”
“The world is not like that, and you have to learn to deal with people of other backgrounds,” she said.
Burt, who is from Bermuda but attended high school in Florida, said he looked at the University’s numbers before applying.
“GW’s average was normal for a large school,” he said. “It was a factor, but the only reason I came to GW was for the politics.”
When black and African-American students arrive in Foggy Bottom, they are presented with a horde of social, academic and cultural opportunities. Many black students said they are drawn to organizations that put them in contact with other blacks.
For Mokwunye, this is only partially by choice.
“Each culture and group that is represented here at GW seems to just associate with itself,” she said. “Where the racism lies is how cliquish everybody is.”
She said she understands how organizations, including her own, want to stay together because the group provides a “comfort zone.” But she is disappointed that there is no real interaction between GW’s different cultures, even though everyone gets along.
“If the Black People’s Union has a party, it’s only Black People’s Union people who go,” Mokwunye said. “For a school like GW that prides itself on diversity, for everyone to be in their own cliques, is hard to deal with.”
She said this trend is not unusual – it can be seen on every other campus and community in the country.
“America is supposed to be a big melting pot,” she said. “But it’s oil, vinegar and water. It’s not mixing.”
A separate Greek-life
The historically black fraternities and sororities, run under the National Pan Hellenic Council, are popular choices for some black students. GW is home to four historically black sororities and some students also participate in a citywide fraternity chapter.
Charles said she was drawn to her sorority because it had “other black women who have goals that I do and are interested in working toward those goals.”
She said she was not interested in sorority life when she first came to campus, but when she decided to join, she knew she did not want to be part of one of the mostly white sororities in the Panhellenic Association.
“It didn’t even occur to me,” Charles said. “I could not feel comfortable in a setting where I would be one of very few of a certain race. And I felt that, at one point or another, I would be made to feel uncomfortable.”
She said she does not think this would happen on purpose, but says it is due to “absent-mindedness.”
In fact, Burt said many blacks might not feel comfortable in the fraternities and sororities more recognizable on this campus – the ones monitored through the University’s Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Association.
“I could tell you with true accuracy that 98 percent of blacks on this campus have never been to a fraternity party,” he said.
Burt said part of the reason is perception.
“You’re thinking, “They’re not going to play hip-hop. There’s going to be a whole lot of white people,'” he said. “It’s not necessarily a sad thing. It’s just human nature.”
He said he is certain there is only one black woman in a Panhellenic sorority and only one black man in a recognized IFC fraternity, but he does not think the organizations are excluding them.
“I would go so far as to say, if I wanted to join (an IFC fraternity), I would be accepted with wide and open arms,” Burt said.
He said the black people in those Greek-letter organizations feel more comfortable because they have grown up in areas where they were one of few blacks or other minorities.
“It’s how you’re brought up,” Burt said. “It’s not the color of your skin.”
He said a lot of people would like to disenfranchise themselves from the stereotypes. He said this was best shown in an episode of “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” when a character from the wealthy suburban Los Angeles neighborhood tries to join a black fraternity but is rejected because he has “sold out.”
“The situation you grow up with defines who you are, how you act, what you think,” Burt said.
Charles said she thinks the University does not provide enough resources to organizations like hers.
“I think GW is definitely about numbers,” she said. “If our organization is not 50- or 100-plus, they’re definitely going to look at us differently.
“They need to look at the fact that we don’t carry enough numbers at historically black sororities and fraternities,” Charles said. “On a campus that is predominantly Caucasian, we can’t be expected to.”
Mokwunye said the recent Black Enterprise rankings, placing GW near the top of schools for blacks and African Americans, caught her off-guard.
“I honestly was shocked at the ranking,” she said. “I personally don’t see where it came from.”
She said she believes a lot of GW’s positive attributes for black students comes from graduates who have gone on to have a positive influence on the world.
“As for GW being a place that is inviting, I don’t see it,” Mokwunye said. “But it has the potential.”
And she sees that potential in the future black and African-American students on campus. As she works to get more students involved in the BPU this fall, Mokwunye is being repeatedly asked a new question by incoming students – does the name “Black People’s Union” show an unwillingness to open its doors to others?
“They see it as not inviting, but they understand the heritage,” she said. “With the new freshmen, they’re asking me these types of questions, and I’ve never thought of it.”
She puts pressure on herself and those around her to reverse the trends she sees on this campus.
“I think our generation is the best generation to try and fix it because I see ourselves as more open-minded than the past,” Mokwunye said. “But not everybody is up for that new thing called change.”