Alumnae panelists discuss being women of color in college and beyond
Marirose Osborne | Thursday, April 25, 2019
The Saint Mary’s Department of Psychological Studies, the Black Student Union, Providing Options and the Career Crossings Office teamed up to present an alumnae panel to students Wednesday evening to address questions about how alumna of color use their Saint Mary’s education and make an impact on their communities after graduation.
The panel included Romona Bethany ’04, JAG specialist at Washington High School, Leila Ellis ’15, a program manager at Notre Dame, Ashley Harrison ’07, director of finance at the Logan Center, Kimmi Troy ’00, co-owner of TSB Fitness Studio and Deanna Ward ’01, school counselor at Discovery Middle School. The panel was hosted by senior psychology major Acacia Malone.
The panel began with each person describing their own experience at the College. Ellis said Saint Mary’s wasn’t initially where she most wanted to attend college.
“My first choice was actually the University of Michigan,” Ellis said. “I actually didn’t find out that I was accepted there until after I had started [at Saint Mary’s], but I don’t regret anything. I got the best of both worlds here, with Notre Dame right across the street.”
Ellis said it took some time for her to grow into her role on campus.
“Use your resources and don’t be afraid to make connections,” Ellis said. “I was an extremely shy student and it was a little challenging starting off. I only managed to branch out once I went to Notre Dame. I found a home there and in making those connections I was able to bring those skills back to Saint Mary’s. It was my junior year where I felt I really prospered.”
Much of Ellis’ success can be credited to the relationships she formed with employees of the College, she said.
“Meeting the faculty and administrators really helped me to figure out what my niche was,” she said. “I’m finally on the right track and I owe that to Saint Mary’s.”
Harrison said Saint Mary’s helps instill a confidence vital to professional success.
“Saint Mary’s gave me confidence to tackle the things that I wouldn’t want to do,” Harrison said. “The school does a great job of instilling the values and virtues that I needed to succeed. My professors had a lot of confidence in me that I didn’t even have in myself. It’s not the classes or the subjects that help you succeed, it’s that feeling of empowerment.”
Troy also said students should be open to new experiences and go to events.
“You never know what’s going to come out of that event that you went to, but maybe didn’t want to,” she said.
Of course, college is difficult, but Troy said she came to appreciate her time at Saint Mary’s after her graduation.
“The love grows once you’re out,” she said. “I’m originally from Detroit and it was a difficult transition to make. I was suddenly in a small community with people who had never interacted with African-American women before or only knew what they had learned on TV. … Once you graduate that lack of knowledge or racial bias does not change. It morphs into something different. Those experiences helped shape me.”
Troy also said there are many ways for African-American students to feel more welcome in the Saint Mary’s community.
“For me it was the extremely present history of the college,” Troys said. “There are historical images, buildings and the stories of the founders and Sister Madeleva that are everywhere. Once I believed that I was a part of that, that this is my school too it sort of became an instant sisterhood.”
Women of color should feel empowered to become more involved in the Saint Mary’s community, Harrison said.
“It’s all about the mindset,” she said. “You really need to believe that this is where I am, I’m not going to leave. Get involved — recognize that it might be intimidating, but embrace what you have. You only have four years, make the most of it.”
Offering some of her own advice, Ellis said students should be bold in building relationships.
“Use your resources,” she said. “They could be anything, not just professors or faculty members, they could be your friends or upperclasswomen. Don’t be afraid to jump in, don’t be afraid to reach out or to keep in touch.”
Ellis also said she encourages students to work to overcome the mental setbacks they may face.
“If you let that voice in your head that says you can’t do it stop you, you’re always going to be stuck at point A. Don’t let it,” she said.
Harrison said it is important for students of color to move past their feelings of fear in order to embrace the Saint Mary’s community.
“Once you get over that feeling, know that it is a family,” she said. “Regardless of race, regardless of ethnicity, we are a sisterhood.”
The panel went on to discuss the importance of an education in breaking down prejudices.
“There are a lot of stereotypes about me,” Harrison said. “But I have an awesome education and once I open my mouth I knock those stereotypes down and that’s what will help you succeed.”
The panel then received questions from the audience. In response to a question about how Saint Mary’s could become more inclusive to women of color and attract more African-American students, Troy said the alumnae of the College need to stay in touch.
“I think there needs to be more of a commitment to alumnae staying connected,” Troy said. “We need the school to facilitate the connection. … I don’t think you need outside firms, have women of color go to high schools around the country, even if just for an hour.”
Ellis said her own experiences with Saint Mary’s recruiting reveal some of the problems of their current recruitment strategy.
“When I was in high school and the Saint Mary’s representative came, it was honestly kind of off putting to have a Caucasian woman talking about diversity,” she said. “It made me wonder if she really knew what it was like to deal with issues of diversity and inclusion.”
Faculty members at the College should emphasize being open to working with minority students, Ellis said.
“Professors need to put that foot forward,” she said. “You don’t always get the warm and fuzzy feeling from teachers. In a lot of cases students will not share their stories unless they really feel comfortable.”