Penn Staters of color imagine a 'new normal' for diversity, equity, inclusion

September 09, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In the second of a three-part series of roundtable discussions titled “Toward Racial Equity at Penn State: Social Difference, Social Equity and Social Change,” faculty members, staff, University leaders and students of color shared their experiences within a predominately white university setting and their visions for the future of diversity, equity and inclusion at Penn State.

The conversation — titled “What Will Be the New Normal? A Conversation with Penn State Students, Faculty and Staff of Color” — featured perspective and insight from panelists including Head Football Coach James Franklin; University Park undergraduate student and Black Caucus president Nyla Holland; Penn State Berks undergraduate student Carmen Hernandez; University Park undergraduate student Carlos Norman; Associate Professor of Psychology José Soto; Director of Student Transitions and Pre-College Programs for the Center for Engineering Outreach and Inclusion Tracy Peterson; Assistant Vice Provost for Educational Equity Alina Wong; and Penn State Trustee and alumnus Brandon Short.  

The event, which was closed captioned and included American Sign Language interpretation, can be viewed online at watch.psu.edu/toward-racial-equity/.

“What Will Be the New Normal? A Conversation with Penn State Students, Faculty and Staff of Color”

In the second of three-part series of roundtable discussions titled “Toward Racial Equity at Penn State: Social Difference, Social Equity and Social Change,” faculty members, staff, University leaders and students of color shared their experiences within a predominately white university setting and their visions for the future of diversity, equity and inclusion at Penn State.

‘I need you to believe in it.’

In his introductory remarks, Franklin mentioned his many roles as a coach, son, brother, husband and father. He noted that he is also bi-racial, and that this experience has shaped how he views the world. “In this racially divided world,” he said, “most people have not had legitimate, long-term relationships across race. I have, and I have learned from these relationships” — an opportunity he believes is a privilege.

Franklin explained his belief that everyone, regardless of their path, can choose to make a difference in the lives of others. “Racial inequality exists and I need for you to believe it, even if you cannot see it, and choose to make a difference.”

He encouraged all members of the University community to stay consistently and actively engaged in pushing a more inclusive, equitable and diverse Penn State.

“As your coach, as a father, as a husband, as a son and brother, I need a better tomorrow than we have today,” Franklin said. “I ask you to join me for the conversation and let us count today as our first step together toward a new and better tomorrow.”

What is ‘normal’ for students of color?

In beginning the conversation, moderator Jennifer Hamer said Penn State President Eric Barron, in his ongoing commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, has noted that the existence of racism and bias at Penn State is “both historical and persistent” — which Hamer said means it is part of the “normal” experience of people of color at the University. Hamer, professor of African-American studies and senior faculty mentor in the Office of the Vice Provost for Educational Equity, said that while some Penn Staters may also see acts of racial violence in extreme acts of police brutality, “people of color know that racial violence and harm are also part of ‘normal,’ routine everyday interactions in residence halls, classrooms, student organizations, at the store, walking down the street, in our offices,  and more.”

Undergraduate student panelist Holland described her experience coming to Penn State and feeling out of place within a predominately white community and with few colleagues of color in her classrooms.

“Being one of the three, maybe four, black faces in a classroom was really intimidating,” she said. “I had this fear of being representative of my entire race. So I got to every class 15 minutes early. I did every reading so I could participate. I felt the need to combat every false and negative stereotype about Black people and Black students, so I kind of over-prepared to make up for that.”

Norman spoke to his experience being a student of color and first-generation student who faced significant financial burden at the beginning of his Penn State career. He described being one of only roughly 3,000 Black students, compared to over 30,000 white students, as “overwhelming” and “a culture shock.”  He said that combined financial, personal and social stressors nearly led him to drop out, but the organizations and resources he got involved with — including a peer mentoring group for students of color — were instrumental in his decision to stay, and his success since.

Similarly, undergraduate student Hernandez said a peer mentoring program for students of color at Penn State Berks was a major part of her Penn State experience, but that she still encountered instances of bias. On one occasion, she said she was in a common area on campus with other members of the student mentoring program, when a group of people approached and demanded they show identification to prove they belonged there.

Although Holland said she found a sense of community through Black Caucus and with other students of color, she also shared a first-hand experience with racism she encountered shortly into her University career. “The first weekend I was at Penn State, I was walking with a group of kids from my dorm,” she said. “We were all Black and we were walking downtown, and there was a group of white people, I think students, and they yelled that we looked like monkeys in a zoo. That was my first weekend here.”

Faculty, staff and University leadership perspective

Brandon Short, a former Penn State football player and current member of the University’s Board of Trustees, joined the conversation via pre-recorded remarks to share some of his experiences. Short described growing up disadvantaged outside of Pittsburgh and some of the challenging circumstances he faced: his mother’s death at a young age; his father’s time in and out of prison; his brother receiving a life sentence for homicide; and becoming a father at age 18.

When he got to Penn State, he said he “nearly had a panic attack when I realized that my teammate and I were the only Black people in a class with 300 students.” He said that the resources and support afforded to him as a member of the football team were a major factor in his success at Penn State – but that he watched another friend without that same support struggle and ultimately drop out of the University.

“I want to tell you that I get it. I understand your pain and your struggle because I've been in your shoes,” Short said. “That is why I'm challenging the University to provide more resources. We are working to enhance the diversity at all levels of the University.”

Wong spoke about her role within Penn State’s Office of the Vice Provost for Educational Equity, and how the office uses “a network of support” across all of Penn State’s colleges and campuses to respond to incidents and bias, provide support to students and faculty impacted, and address incidents and issues.

“Some of that might involve some conversations,” Wong said. “Some of that might involve supporting faculty and students in thinking about how they’re perceived or the impact of their actions and behavior. But ultimately, it’s thinking about the broader climate and culture of our University.”

Peterson, who works in the College of Engineering, began his remarks with an introduction in an Indigenous language, which he said as an Indigenous person is a critical beginning to this conversation. He also spoke to the importance of acknowledging Indigenous peoples and their place on the land, as well as “the treaties that were used to remove the tribal nations and the histories of the possession” that allowed for the growth of institutions, including Penn State.

“As a person of color at Penn State, I look around and I can count the number of colleagues who are Indigenous on one hand. That's how critical it is,” Peterson said. “ So, when we're talking about the livelihood of our students and their transition to Penn State from wherever they're coming from, it's important to understand their experience and to recognize and validate who they are as individuals from respective identity groups.”

Soto brought in his expertise as a researcher and professor of psychology, explaining that “in doing research on culture and race, you can’t discuss these things without studying discrimination and bias – because to do so is to not acknowledge some of the critical roles these experiences play.” He said  discrimination and bias play a role both in an individual’s day-to-day life, as well as on a larger and more systemic level, and the negative health and well-being impacts of contending with systemic racism for people of color is well-documented.

“If you feel that sentiment of ‘We are Penn State’ does not include you, that also has negative impacts,” Soto said. “We know that not belonging, feeling lonely, feeling isolated can be just as detrimental as having these other outright negative experiences related to discrimination and racism.”

Imagining a ‘new normal’

Hamer closed the conversation by asking each panelist to envision what an ideal Penn State would look like in the future, and what individual community members can do to help create a better, more equitable Penn State.

“I don’t want to return to what normal has been,” Holland said. “Normal does not work for people like me.”

She described a vision of Penn State where she does not have to deal with racial bias and microaggressions, and where the University acts to advance social and racial justice. “I want a campus climate that doesn't have to put up signs or slogans to market itself as inclusive,” she said. “I want it to feel inclusive. I want it to operate like I'm supposed to be there.”

Norman spoke to the importance of funding resources for underprivileged students and making sure that these resources are available and accessible. Hernandez asked all Penn Staters to exercise compassion and understanding, and to recognize that students who speak English as a second language have worked very hard to develop their language skills and belong at Penn State without fear of ridicule.

Wong said it is incumbent upon every member of the University community to take an active role in creating a more inclusive and more equitable Penn State, and that these efforts must be proactive rather than simply being reactive. Soto affirmed his belief that is not only important, but possible to create a climate and culture when incidents of racism and bias are “met with a response that is truly indicative of ‘We will not tolerate this. This is not what we want, and this is not who we are.’”

Short praised all members of the Penn State community who have spoken out against racism and bias. “Your efforts have brought tangible change to Penn State,” he said. “Penn State's Board of Trustees have set a goal to have at least 50% underrepresented groups among its membership by 2025. The board has created a committee that will be focused on issues of equity. On Sept. 14, the board is having its first implicit bias training, which we plan to continue at least on an annual basis.” Short also mentioned additional actions by University leaders, including establishment of a Select Penn State Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias and Community Safety.

“Now it's time for us to pick up the baton and carry on that fight,” Short concluded. “Today we welcome a new normal, a new normal where we engage in dialogue where we work with each other and we hold leaders accountable for making the systemic change necessary.”

This conversation comes at a time when University leadership has affirmed Penn State’s unequivocal and ongoing support for diversity, equity and inclusion. Additional information on ongoing efforts to address racism, combat intolerance and promote equity – including a full review of the student code of conduct; the work of the Select Penn State Presidential Commission on Racism, Bias and Community Safety; and the work of Penn State’s Task Force on Policing and Communities of Color — is available at actiontogether.psu.edu.

The Sept. 8 discussion included active audience participation from viewers through a chatroom moderated by WPSU producer and director Will Price. The first installment of this roundtable series, titled “Toward Racial Equity at Penn State: Social Difference, Social Equity and Social Change,” featured Black members of University leadership exploring the experiences of people of color and members of underrepresented racial and ethnic communities within predominately white work and learning spaces.

The “Toward Racial Equity” series will conclude on Nov. 4 with a conversation titled “Race in the Community,” which, broadly, will focus on social identities and social differences in the current political climate.

Last Updated September 18, 2020