‘There’s not just one experience’: Black student leaders detail experiences at Notre Dame
Bella Laufenberg | Friday, February 25, 2022
The Black student population is a small segment of the Notre Dame community, making up a reported three percent of the entire student body as of 2019. The Observer conducted interviews with Black student leaders across campus in order to celebrate Black History Month and shed light on Black students’ experiences at the University.
Doctoral student and podcast host Emorja Roberson
“The music field is small, but the field of Black musicians is smaller,” Emorja Roberson said.
Roberson will be the first student of color to receive a Doctoral of Musical Arts in Choral Conducting at the University when he receives the degree at the end of the spring semester. He got his undergraduate degree in music and vocal performance from the University of North Florida in Jacksonville — a very different environment from Notre Dame, he explained.
“I grew up around a lot of people who looked like me, and cultural identity was never questioned,” Roberson said. “In my quest to fulfill my [degree], I also had to find spaces where I was able to affirm who I was as a Black man on a campus that didn’t quite seem to have things of my upbringing reflected. For example, you go to the Basilica, you see no angels of color.”
Roberson said when he moved here in 2015, he was able to find his place in Notre Dame by exploring more of his identity as a Black man through music and his church community.
“It was hard for me to find a spiritual grounding on campus. I started going to church off campus without a problem,” he said. “Every student should feel as if there’s some faith belonging there for them, and so now the choir that I preside over, Voices of Faith, is that element for some people.”
During 2020 — a year that witnessed national conversation about race following the death of George Floyd — Roberson said he knew there was more he could do. In collaboration with Lynnette Wukie, a 2021 Notre Dame graduate, Roberson started the podcast “[email protected]” in August 2020 with help from the Center for Social Concerns.
Roberson said one aspect of the podcast that makes it unique is the difference between his experience as a graduate student and Wukie’s experience as an undergraduate.
Roberson emphasized his belief in the importance of students being themselves and appreciating all aspects of their identity.
“[The students should] be themselves because if we’re trying to fit this norm of what Blackness looks like from a one-dimensional lens, then we will miss the beauty of the variety of Blackness and the variety of experiences that we can bring to the table,” Roberson said.
Roberson said learning about different aspects of Black history is not just a one month endeavor. He said he hopes everyone can use the month to appreciate Black history as an integral part of American history.
Black Student Association president Ifeyinwa Nwebube and treasurer Kayla Seepersad
Senior Ifeyinwa Nwebube and sophomore Kayla Seepersad said they have experienced a number of challenges throughout their experiences as Black women at Notre Dame.
Nwebube, now a resident assistant (RA) for Pasquerilla West Hall, said she has been the victim of microaggressions and racist remarks on campus.
She said when she was moving to campus in the fall of her sophomore year, she had a racially-charged interaction with an elderly usher who mistook her for a student athlete.
“I got [out] of the car… looking very athletic, and I look up and this usher, so this old man, was like, ‘Oh, do you play sports?’ Because that is a common microaggression that Black people on this campus experience. I was like ‘No, I don’t.’ And he kept saying ‘No, come on, you have to play sports here,’” she said.
While in RA training, Nwebube said a woman came up to her and ran her hands through Nwebube’s braids.
“[The woman] was like, ‘Oh, my God, your hair is really pretty.’ And as I was going to turn and be like, ‘Oh, thank you,’ she ran her fingers through my hair, through my braids,” she said. “Everyone was shocked by it. Like, they didn’t know what to say.”
Seepersad said most of her hardship at Notre Dame has come from her fellow students — both in her dorm community in Breen-Phillips Hall (BP) and within her classes in the Mendoza College of Business as a finance major.
During Welcome Week, Seepersad felt like she was on the outskirts of all the conversations, she said, and that other students did not seem as willing to talk to her or sit next to her and appeared to be more inclined to be friendly with other white students.
Seepersad explained that interactions like that continued to happen throughout the rest of Welcome Week and in her dorm community.
“That really set the tone for what kind of place this was. I immediately knew that this was just, ‘it’s me,’ and I gotta find my business,” she said. “I have to do what I have to do. And I have to move on. I experienced a lot of microaggressions in BP.”
In her classes, Seepersad said she experiences similar circumstances where other students — white men, she specified — would talk over her, specifically ignore her and chose not to partner with her for projects.
“I have faced [difficulties] more so from the younger crowd, so we’re not as progressive as Notre Dame thinks they are. Not by any means actually,” Seepersad said.
Nwebube, who was a Welcome Week leader in the fall of 2020, said she was disappointed by the lack of diverse student offerings during Welcome Week for the class for 2024. She explained that the Black students in her class are much more tightly bonded together than the class of current sophomores.
Having experienced this first-hand, Seepersad agreed and said she feels a lot of disconnect between her and other classmates of color.
Seepersad said her only chance to get to know the other Black students was at a retreat put on by Campus Ministry called “The Plunge.” They explained that the event is specifically for Black first-years across the tri-campus community. The Plunge takes place off campus and serves “to help connect incoming Black students with one another and introduce them to the social, spiritual and academic aspects of life under the Dome,” according to Campus Ministry.
Nwebube said when she was a first-year, some Black upperclassmen came up to her and told her to sign up for The Plunge. Intrigued, she signed up, and her experience at The Plunge ended up being central to the rest of her career at Notre Dame and finding her friends, she said.
Nwebube and Seepersad, the president and treasurer of the Black Student Association, respectively, both said they encourage minority students to be involved in clubs and activities. Seepersad said the most important thing to remember is that although there will be difficult times, students should always be true to themselves.
“For younger Black students, I would just say it takes time and it’s going to be painful sometimes,” she said. “Doing things you really like and being true to yourself about what you really like, I believe, is very important.”
Nwebube said she hopes Black students know they are never alone in their experiences and that people are working hard to make change.
“As far as the negative things, the microaggressions and the negative comments, the racist and the blatantly racist things, you’re not alone in your experience,” Nwebube said. “There are people at the university that are truly, truly trying to make this university a better place. It just sucks that’s taking so long…just know that work is being done. And that your experience is valid.”
Student Body president Allan Njomo
Although he moved to the U.S. and grew up in Arlington, Texas, student body president Allan Njomo spent the early part of his childhood living in Kiambu, Kenya.
For Njomo, his ethnic identity as a part of the Kikuyu tribe was central to how he viewed his own identity.
“I am Kikuyu, and so I grew up around that culture and understanding what it means to be of that tribe,” Njomo said. “A big part of it is just collectiveness and how we are together — we do everything together. Whenever someone needs help, as a community, we banded together.”
When he first moved to the U.S. in 2009, Njomo said he did not adopt Black as his identity right away.
“People would ask, ‘are you Black, are you Kenyan?’ Oftentimes, I would say, ‘I’m Kenyan,’ and I’m strayed away from adopting this ‘Black identity,’” he explained. “I think the reasoning behind that is one, I didn’t have an understanding of race, but two, I was in spaces that really limited my expression of who I was as a person.”
Njomo said it was not until Black figures became prominent in the media around 2016 that he began to become more comfortable with his identity as a Black man. He explained that this was a positive overall experience for him.
“I think [adopting Black as my identity] is a positive thing because I’ve really understood who I am to others, even though it came on by a negative set of circumstances,” he said.
While growing up in Arlington, Njomo said he was exposed to very diverse communities and experienced his “formative” years in predominantly Black, Hispanic and Asian institutions. He said he knew going to Notre Dame would be a big jump from what he was used to and that he would have to actively work to find belonging.
Although he never intended to be in an influential role on campus like student body president, Njomo said he is happy to be a role model for other minority students. However, he said he does not want to speak for all minority experiences on campus.
“I’ve always thought it was important to have people from diverse backgrounds in leadership positions because it brings a diverse set of experiences, a diverse set of problem-solving skills,” he said. “In a lot of ways, I try not to speak for everyone’s experience and for everyone’s understanding. I don’t want to be the representative of all students of color on campus, so it’s been neat trying to balance that.”
To honor Black History Month, Njomo said he encourages everyone to spend the month educating themselves further.
“Everyone’s in a different position on their understanding of race and privilege,” Njomo said. “Black History Month, in a lot of ways, is just an invitation to engage with what race means to all of us and in particular, uplifting Black voices.”