2020 was a difficult year for all of us. From the major disruption and grief that came with the COVID-19 pandemic, to the stress and anxiety of the 2020 election and racial violence across the country, this year can be summed up with one word: burnout.
Becoming Miami University’s first Black woman student body president was a far fetched idea as there were no other Black women who came before me. I didn’t think I could get here, even though I imagined myself here. But what I did know is that I wanted to create connections and empower others to be honest and open about their stories and experiences as a Miami student.
To be completely honest, being Student Body President during this unforgettable year was fucking challenging.
There were so many times when I questioned my own strength and motivation. But I always came back to three words: advocate, disrupt, inspire. These are three words I live by that have guided me throughout my college experience not only within my academic studies but also in my leadership here at Miami. The goal of these three words? To empower myself and others around me to imagine and create an environment where we are helping each other become our best selves.
I believe that for advocacy to work you have to elevate and amplify the experiences of others – to challenge the status quo. Here at Miami, we have a culture of silence and of silencing people who have been harmed.
To combat this culture, we have to create spaces where students can be storytellers. Storytelling is something that I appreciate because it encourages connection, vulnerability and spreads awareness.
Over the summer, I began the Dear Miami Instagram page with the assistance of other members of the Miami community. We intended to use shared experiences to create understanding and empathy to combat the culture of silence at Miami.
With over 300 posts and 10,000 submissions, it was members of the student body and others who shared their experiences that drove the movement of Dear Miami. It was the community members who held the university accountable. Now it’s on the university to carry out its commitment to creating a safe environment where student students are able to fully learn and grow.
As someone who deeply cares about this community, it was heartbreaking to read these stories, and it ultimately led to burnout from the page. It was heartbreaking to know that these were not only other students that were creating harm but also faculty and staff who make a commitment to teaching and learning. This experience motivated me to find other means to ensure others around me are stepping up and taking charge of their Miami experience.
People forget that being a student is an identity. People take advantage of students, disrespect students and invalidate the experiences of students. In my role as Student Body President, I saw this in the ways we were given access to information, the conversations we were allowed into, and how we were treated while in those conversations.
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To some university officials, students are seen as checkboxes. And in a place where we pay to learn, we are not given many opportunities to see empathy and understanding put into practice.
This led to my support of the boycotting of the Presidential Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) taskforce.
While on the task force, we expected to be met with a voice and platform for us to express our concerns and feel valued. But we were met with obstacles that belittled our opinions and discouraged us from engaging in difficult, but necessary conversations.
We were constantly encouraged to have a dialogue instead of a debate. But when the time came for dialogue to address situations, the conversations were shut down. What made it worse was the fallout from this decision. In a conversation with a Miami official, they used the analogy of a dinner table to describe collaborative work. I found this analogy to be invalidating of students who come to these tables with hopes of working with the university but instead are dismissed by the university.
There is a lack of awareness of the power that university officials hold over students. Universities can provide the table and the food, but everyone at the table needs to feel as if they belong at the table, can express their experiences without judgement, and aren’t shut down or strongarmed into submission – especially when students are paying for an experience that the university is creating.
This boycott needed to happen, as students deserve care, learning opportunities to grow, and grace. By gaslighting and belittinging our decisions, it does not allow us to grow and understand our impact.
In the summer, I had to accept the fact that, because of this pandemic, I would not be able to properly execute new and innovative initiatives due to COVID restrictions.
So I asked myself, how do I want to inspire and empower others within their smaller communities at Miami?
What I came to was creating educational moments for my peers to generate critical thinking. This meant going into classrooms to speak about my experiences as a Black woman, presenting research and hosting panels because, as students, we have a purpose to not only learn but to help others learn.
My research advisor for Racial Conscious 101 Kyle Larson said to me, “We are loyal to each other by helping each other become our best selves,” and I think this is why we must be critical of how this university cares for us and how we care for each other.
The legacy I want to leave at Miami is motivating and empowering our community to actively fight for respect and be critical of our purpose.
To the student body: recognize that next academic year there will be less restriction. Take a grassroots approach to how you support and engage with each other. Show up to events for the community, attend programs where you learn about communities that differ from your own, and think critically.
Create spaces, both digitally and in person, where people can comfortably express their experiences. But do not be afraid to call people out for discriminatory ideas and practices and to call them in and shift into a healing framework that is both culturally sensitive and filled with community empowerment.
College is a partnership where student voices and experiences should be at the center of the conversation, because with each incoming and outgoing class, the needs and wants of students change at this institution.
Thank you Miami for this opportunity to lead you all through the COVID-19 pandemic.
And now it’s your turn to lead yourself and others.