After an eight-year break, Cal Poly’s Black Student Union has rechartered on campus — and the club is now 40 strong after an initial turnout of 12 students at its first meeting this spring.
The club died out after its last group of upperclassmen leaders graduated and a younger group didn’t take the reins.
But a committed group of students, including underclassmen, took on the charge to reform the club in March as a way to share personal experiences, take part in community service, and help recruit more African-American students to Cal Poly.
In fall 2014, Cal Poly’s Fact Book reported 136 black undergraduate students on a campus of 19,246 total undergraduates — less than 1 percent.
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Often being the only African-American student in a Cal Poly class or in the dorm, or being one of few, can be isolating, student leaders say.
“At times, you feel like you are the spokesperson for your race,” said Saisa Willis, the club president, a junior ethnic studies major from Fresno. “People look to you as the voice of African-American culture when topics arise like the Baltimore riots. I know nothing about Baltimore. I’m from California.”
Willis said that fellow students, some of whom grew up in predominantly white communities, have “never had a conversation with a black person.” Others can be insensitive.
“I felt like I was put in their life to change how they think,” Willis said. “People want to feel what my hair is like because they’ve never felt a black person’s hair before. Sometimes you get, ‘Do you like being black?’ Turn that around, think of what it would be like to say, ‘Do you like being white?’ Teachers sometimes put you on the spot when it comes to an issue of ethnicity, and that doesn’t help.”
Willis and Cal Poly architecture student Tunmi Da Silva, a sophomore and the club’s vice president, helped reform the group under the guidance of Jeffrey Alexander, the coordinator of student development in Cal Poly’s Residential Life and Education office.
Alexander is one of the group’s advisers and held a meeting in January to gauge the level of interest in a Black Student Union, finding that many were isolated in dorms and classes.
“At the time, it was a pretty disjointed community,” Alexander said. “Some black students go a whole week without seeing another black student at Cal Poly. It’s hard to be successful when you feel that isolated.”
Willis said meetings, held on Friday evenings, typically start out with “two highs and a low” in regards to the events of their week.
“We talk about two good things and a bad thing,” Willis said. “Even if we had a bad week, we find at least one good thing about it.”
Da Silva said the club meets in Building 52, a science building, on campus, where academic adviser Renoda Campbell-Monza has meeting space for the students.
“We spend a lot of time there with each other,” Da Silva said. “And we call Renoda ‘Mom’ because she does everything for us. We hang out with each other at the club, outside of the club, and we’re pretty much like a family.”
As part of the outreach, when meetings resume in the fall quarter, club members will be talking to students at their hometown high schools through a Cal Poly program called Hometown Heroes.
Their hometowns are typically more diverse than Cal Poly, and students may not be aware of the San Luis Obispo university.
“I came to Cal Poly because it has one of the best architecture programs in the country,” said Da Silva, who went to high school in Antioch. “I’d like to go back to my high school to talk about my personal experience and why Cal Poly is a great school and the benefits of networking and job opportunities.”
They also will be reaching out to volunteer, possibly with groups such as Habitat for Humanity.
“I think for all of Cal Poly and SLO, it will be good for people to see black students here doing things for the community as well as reaching out to certain companies and people to let them know we’d love to have our hair done in a certain way or having foods we like,” Willis said. “I think with the positive energy we have, we can move mountains.”