For the 2022–23 academic year, 260 out of 5,054 students at Ithaca College identify as Black or African American. Junior Manuella Asare, director of programming for the African Student Association, said she finds herself in spaces on campus where she is the only African woman.
“It can start to feel a bit lonely at times and excluding in a way,” Asare said. “I think it’s important for me personally, I can’t really speak for other people, but just to have that space where I can be myself and I can connect to people who come from similar backgrounds.”
One of these spaces is ASA which hosts bi-weekly Thursday meetings and organizes larger on-campus events like the African Gala and the Black Love discussion series which were held in Fall 2022. Asare said the group creates a safe space for people who identify as coming from African heritage and for people who want to learn and participate who are not African.
“I didn’t really see being on the e-board as activism till a few months ago and I think the main thing for us is the importance of creating community … just having that space where you don’t really have to feel or pretend to be someone else,” Asare said.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in Fall 2020 there were 15.9 million undergraduate students enrolled in a postsecondary institution of which about 8.1 million were white and 2 million were Black. Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts, is one institution that Ithaca College compares itself to when assessing institutional data, as shown during the All College Gathering on Jan. 26. Emerson College is also a predominantly white institution and recorded 5,900 total students in Fall 2021 of which 3,304 were white and 236 were Black.
Members of the ASA executive board collaborated with the Center for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Social Change to host an IC Voices panel where Asare and three other e-board members of ASA will share their experiences and impact at the college. The event is just one of many during the MLK Campus-Wide Celebration Week from Feb. 12–18. The panel will be held from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Feb. 16 in Clark Lounge in Campus Center.
Senior ASA President Oluwadamilola Oyetunji said she was looking forward to sharing how she found connections and community at the college through spaces like ASA and the work she and other members have done to make that possible for others.
“We definitely really worked hard as a team to bring back the liveliness of the organization [after COVID-19] because I don’t think anybody really knew about the African Student Association,” Oyetunji said. “I can proudly say that we were able to bring it back out to the light.”
While groups like ASA work hard to hold space, Asare said there needs to be more community engagement. This desire was also expressed by the Black Student Union during a mutual aid campaign in Fall 2022 when the group primarily received donations from other Black student organizations. Asare said the organizing, activism and overall support must be a joint effort from everyone in the campus community.
“It can’t just be 20 people or it can’t just be people of color who want change or it can’t just be people who are in oppressed spaces who want change in order for us to truly get to where we need to get,” Asare said.
Sophomore Treasurer for ASA Umu Barry said a large concern she has is if there is a lull in group activity in the future, African students would not have a space of their own.
“I feel like if we don’t put a lot of energy into like these small spaces that are provided for us … at some time it is going to be gone,” Barry said. “I don’t want incoming freshmen or even people who are in the college to struggle to find a space that they know that they belong in. … I think [ASA] does help to make me personally feel more comfortable and free but if we’re talking day-to-day, if I feel like I belong honestly, I wouldn’t say so.”
Barry also said she recently started going to the Center for IDEAS to have another space where she can feel comfortable and speak without having to code switch, a term that references the experience of changing how one speaks or acts to fit dominant cultural norms. As a Muslim, she said there are also few places on campus like the Center for IDEAS and Muller Chapel that accommodate prayer space.
“It’s just like an ongoing battle that we still have to fight to ensure that people of color have the space that they deserve and need … and our voice is heard about things that’s actually going on,” Barry said. “I’m really proud of the work that we have done to make sure that ASA is known in the campus community.”
Junior Sarake Dembele is a first-generation African Muslim student. She said since declaring her architectural studies major she realized there was no one else in the program with the same background as her. Dembele said she started at the college in Fall 2020 — the first year of COVID-19 — which made it even harder to find people she could connect with.
“I was really homesick for the whole year and a half that I’d been on campus which I thought I would have gotten over but because of a lack of spaces where I felt comfortable I just wanted to go home,” Dembele said. “So I was referred to the case management office and they connected me to different people that I probably would connect with or identify with.”
Now, Dembele is the director of advertising and public relations for ASA, vice president for the Muslim Student Association and a BOLD scholar. Yet, similar to her peers in ASA, Dembele said when it comes to other areas of campus life the support is not as strong.
“I just wish collectively, as an institution that [support] was widespread because at least from peers, I’ve heard in other departments, they are not as supportive or they’re condescending or they try to use somebody’s race as to why their writing or reading or their performance isn’t to where their professor expects it to be,” Dembele said. “I’ve heard a lot of crazy stories. For me personally, I feel like I come across like a handful of situations where somebody would say something really questionable, and the professor wouldn’t really take initiative to address it or they asked me for my perspective or opinion. … It’s not my job to educate my peers, you know? So that just becomes a little frustrating.”
The diversity of faculty has generally increased despite minimal fluctuations since the college began reporting on ethnicity and race in 1983, according to the Office of Analytics and Institutional Research. However, data from Fall 2020 records that faculty who identify as Black, indigenous, people of color make up 76 of 532 total faculty members and there are just 13 Black faculty members.
“I think it would help to just see more people that look like me,” Asare said. “I think another thing that would help would be having more professors of color. To be honest, in my three years, I’ve only had three professors of color. So everything kind of plays a role.”
A general sentiment from the e-board of ASA is that they want students to be more aware of organizations like theirs. Oyetunji said as long as students are respectful, ASA meetings and events are open to everyone. She also said collaboration with other clubs, sharing ASA’s social media posts and actively making an effort to be a community is essential in cultivating belonging.
“[We want to] let people know, especially those who identify as African, there’s a space where you can come and be yourself and share your own experiences … whether it is meaningful conversations or just a hangout spot where you can talk and chill and kind of get a breather from everything because college is tough and you just want to be surrounded with people who share the same ideas, beliefs and who looks like you,” Oyetunji said.