Despite APU having one of the most diverse student bodies among Christian universities in the CCCU, many Black students still feel ‘othered’ on campus
Whenever a racial topic comes up in class, Tatyahna Costello, a senior social work major, feels that her non-Black peers often expect her to speak up about it.
Whenever gospel music is featured in chapel, Chai Gaynair, a senior psychology and honors humanities major, said non-Black students tend to sit down or choose not to participate.
At the Black Student Association’s “Expressions” event last spring, Clifford Young, a sophomore kinesiology and honors humanities major, wondered why very few non-Black students showed up.
These are a few instances in which Black students have felt ‘othered’ on campus, despite years of Uncommon Conversations, responding to hate crimes, protests, reforms, diversity workshops, Imago Dei trainings, gospel choir performances and Expressions events.
In the fall of 2017, APU reached a historic milestone: for the first time in school history, minority students comprised more than half (52 percent) of the undergraduate student population.
For APU, this achievement was significant, as prior to the 2017-18 academic year, the majority of the student population had always been White, according to APU’s annual Common Data sets. Enrollment rates of people of color had been increasing for years, and this milestone was an indicator that, at least on paper, APU was flourishing into a multicultural and diverse community.
APU now has one of the most diverse student bodies among the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities.
In a ZU Media article written that fall on the diversity milestone, former President of APU Jon Wallace was quoted saying that numbers and statistics are not “a good reflection of, is your campus truly a place where students of color feel welcome.”
In the spring of 2018, Aubrey Berry, the current program coordinator for the Student Center for Reconciliation and Diversity (SCRD), who attended APU and wrote for ZU News at the time, wrote an Op-Ed where he called out the university for not celebrating Black History month.
“Yes, I said racism exists here at APU,” Berry wrote in the Op-Ed.
Now, he says, there are more students of color on campus than there were when he was a student.
“Honestly, I doubt that I’d be working at APU if I felt like there wasn’t change happening, but there needs to be more,” Berry said.
Coming to APU
In high school, Mireya Smith served as the president of her school’s Black Student Union. She knew that she wanted to attend a university that had a Black Student Association (BSA), and where she knew she would be surrounded by peers that were as committed to the works of racial reconciliation as she was.
Now, Smith is a senior psychology major at APU and currently serves as the university’s BSA president.
When Smith was applying to universities, she was accepted into several historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). She did not have the means of covering steep tuition costs at the HBCUs without financial help, but she was encouraged by her sister, who was already enrolled at APU, to apply to the university.
Clifford Young, who serves as the BSA public relations officer, was also not able to attend an HBCU due to financial reasons. APU offered him more scholarship money than the HBCUs he was accepted into did.
Prior to the start of his first semester, Young participated in ‘Choose APU’; a school-hosted event that allows future APU students to tour the campus, stay overnight and spend time with upper-class representatives. He recalled thinking that the extremely warm welcome he received from the APU community was too good to be true, and unlike anything he had experienced in high school.
Chai Gaynair, who serves as the BSA vice president, said she was drawn to APU by God. She knew she wanted to go to a Christian college, and chose to attend APU after a campus visit.
Gaynair grew up in a predominantly White community. In elementary school, she was often the only Black girl in her class. “It was my hair, my skin, and just mean jokes that made me feel completely othered,” Gaynair said.
Although she was excited about coming to APU, she said she was concerned about having to “start over as the Black girl in the all-White place.” She attended a BSA meeting during a campus visit which alleviated her initial concerns. However, she felt that the photos of students from different ethnic backgrounds on the APU website made the university seem more diverse than it really was.
“When you look at a brochure or go to the APU website and there are like two Black kids in the picture, two Asian kids, a Hispanic kid and one White kid, you think ‘That’s not what it looks like! I promise you, it’s not what it looks like!’ Gaynair said. “Sometimes it feels like strategic marketing on the part of APU.”
A wake-up call
Something Smith and Gaynair had in common was that they both experienced the hate crimes that took place on campus in the first semester of their freshman year.
In the fall of 2017, within the span of a month, two racially motivated crimes took place on campus. In both instances, victims found the “N-word” drawn in dirt on their vehicles.
“The first couple of weeks everything was good,” Gaynair said. “And then three weeks in there’s a hate crime, and not just a hate crime directed at any marginalized group; a hate crime directed towards a Black student.”
The hate crime reminded Gaynair that she was still othered despite the community’s facade of friendliness. Smith recalled experiencing a similar shift in perception.
“Having that situation go down, I was like wow, no matter where you are, a system is still a system. An institution is still an institution. And even if God is at the center, we are still flawed and we are still human and I think that really opened my eyes to seeing Azusa more for what it is and not just what it advertises,” Smith said.
To them, the hate crimes marked the beginning of their APU experience.
Tatyahna Costello, who serves as the BSA secretary, chose to attend APU because she was offered a significant financial aid package and hoped that by attending a Christian university, she would have the opportunity to grow in her faith.
When the hate crimes occurred on campus, they set the tone for the rest of her college experience. She now feels that she has spent her time at APU trying to figure out where she belongs, which spaces she is welcome in and whether people actually liked her, leading her to become a part of BSA. But the feeling of being unwanted on campus never really subsided.
“It is a weird experience to feel unwanted on campus, and if you focus on that, it feels like you’ll never be able to continue,” Costello said. “So there has to come a point where you say, okay forget it, these people may not want me on campus but I’m here anyway, and I’m going to make the most of it.”
Gaynair said that it was easier for her to adjust to the conservative, Christian and predominantly White environment on campus, because it was similar to that of her high school.
“I grew up with White people so I was able to be comfortable in these spaces,” Gaynair said. “White people who do not spend much time with diverse others are very comfortable with me, because I make it easy for them.”
However, this is not the case for all Black students, many of whom learn how to code switch, or adjust their manners of speech depending on their surroundings or whom they are talking to, from a young age, said Young. He feels that learning to code switch is something that is embedded in the college experience.
“If you treat us like somebody who you have to talk to in a different way, that’s just belittling us. It’s codeswitching. And we do it all the time because we grew up having to do it,” Young said. “But you shouldn’t have to. We’re trying to get rid of code-switching.”
Before the pandemic forced the university to go online, one of the few places where students of all ethnic backgrounds came together was chapel. But even in chapel, the music tends to be targeted to White evangelical culture. On the few occasions when gospel music is played, Gaynair said that the majority of people who are not Black sit down.
“I didn’t know the lyrics to any of the [contemporary] songs,” Gaynair said. “But I know the songs now. I sing them. They make me feel overwhelmed with the presence of God. But then there are students that go to APU for all four years and they never partake in gospel choir.”
Gaynair said it is nice to enter the space of the Black Student Association sometimes and see people who look like you.
“We come together and we eat and we laugh and … students need that,” Gaynair said.
Young did not initially plan on joining BSA. However, he was drawn in by the energy that its members exuded.
“They would pray before meetings, talk about really deep topics and get really personal about issues we’ve had, not even just with White people, but with people from other ethnic backgrounds that have been racist to us,” Young said. “Instead of sitting there and feeling sorry for ourselves and being victimized by it, we’d be like okay, how do we turn that around?”
BSA has attempted to mend the racial divide on campus by hosting events that invite APU students to experience Black culture. Amongst these is the club’s annual “Expressions” event, to which the student body is invited to celebrate Black culture through a night of music, soul food and dancing.
At last year’s Harlem Renaissance era themed event, Young showed up wearing a low fedora and suspenders.
“We had outfits, we had picture stations, we had soul food; I’m talking about mac ‘n’ cheese and everything,” Young said. “It was fire. But most of the bulk of the people that came … were Black, and I was like, where are all the White people?”
Smith also feels that APU can be very segregated at times. She explained that students from divergent ethnic backgrounds rarely come together to interact with one another, and non-Black people are often hesitant to enter Black spaces.
“For people of White or European descent, they’re not forced to be brought into a space that is not their own,” Smith said. “Being invited into BSA for someone who isn’t Black can be something that is completely new to them, that isn’t in their comfort zone and can spark anxiety, fear and maybe even discomfort.”
Deshonna Collier-Goubil, a chair and associate professor in the department of criminal justice, acknowledges that there is a general lack of desire to experience discomfort in the student body. Although she said this is a human concept, it is also a very un-Christian one.
“Discomfort is not pleasurable, but the Bible never promised us comfort,” Collier said. “It actually promised us discomfort and persecution … a lot of what we do marginalizes students of color from that perspective, because we don’t want to do things to make White students uncomfortable.”
Alexander Jun, a professor in APU’s department of higher education, researched equity and justice in higher education and wrote several books on how Christianity intersects with what he refers to as “White culture” in America.
“What we see are lingering effects of white supremacy on a university level that are not being named as such or addressed,” Jun said. “If we are not careful, then all we are doing as a Christian institution is perpetuating a system of dominance and privilege without ever questioning or critically examining power structures that have been in place that hurt and oppress others.”
Not being heard
When students say they are not being heard, they are usually referring to faculty and academic administrators, said Collier from her experience as a department chair.
“If you think about it, our professors are the ones engaging and probably reaching more students than our student leaders are so they are definitely the ones that need diversity training,” Smith said.
Smith explained that she has not had many psychology professors of color or professors who seemed to be educated in racial diversity issues. She feels this is particularly problematic as it may hinder her ability to help the patients and clients that she will treat in her career.
“The ideal scenario for any institution of higher education is for the faculty and staff demographics to mirror student body demographics,” said Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer Keith Hall.
While more than half of APU’s student body is made up of minority groups, only 32 percent of faculty are members of minority groups. And even then, more than half of those faculty members work part time.
According to Collier, part time faculty are not as engaged in the campus environment and do not have the ability to contribute to the campus culture in the same way that full time faculty can.
On Sept. 17, APU unveiled a strategic plan called “Renewal” that outlines a seven-year proposal for the school to become the “premiere Christian university of choice” by 2027, according to an email from Andrew Barton, Vice President for strategic planning and mission integration at APU.
One of the plan’s initiatives is for APU to be a “Thriving University of Choice for a diverse body of students, faculty, and staff, reflecting inclusive academic excellence,” according to Barton.
“One of the strategic priorities … is seeing a significant increase in terms of recruitment and the retention of faculty and staff of color,” Hall said. “It’s all founded on the premise of APU becoming a thriving university of choice — a destination institution where faith-informed faculty and staff from different ethnic and racial backgrounds and lived experiences come to teach, conduct research, and serve.”
When the strategic plan was first released, students such as Smith, Costello and Gaynair were disappointed that the plan did not outline more specific, measurable goals that individuals such as themselves could hold the university accountable to in the future.
President Ferguson has always been very clear that “Renewal” will not be a plan that gets printed and gathers dust on a shelf, according to Barton.
“This Plan provides a framework for action and implementation, and has accountability built-in,” Barton said. “Each of the 26 stated outcomes has a Vice President assigned to provide leadership for implementation. Accountability will come from the President through them.”
Hall said it is important to think about the ways in which a sense of belonging can be cultivated across the university, particularly for students and faculty from minoritized backgrounds.
“As our community starts to engage in the implementation process, we need to ask ourselves which structures and systems do we need to have in place so we are seeing sustained growth and progress in advancing diversity, equity and inclusion,” Hall said.
For this reason, Hall explained, the strategic plan details outcomes rather than statistical goals that the university aims to achieve by 2027. The next step in the implementation process will be to form individual working groups, which will be composed of APU faculty and staff members, to determine the ways in which the university will bring the strategic outcomes to fruition.
Collier said that the current problem at APU is not compositional diversity but a lack of cultural diversity. Although APU is among the most ethnically diverse Christian colleges in the nation, she said, it does not mean that the community’s members are diverse in thought, ideology and pedagogical approaches.
Following the death of George Floyd, President Ferguson directly addressed APU’s faculty, staff and students of color in a general email.
“We value you and Azusa Pacific University will be a place where racism and prejudice are identified and addressed,” Ferguson wrote. “We remain committed to breaking down barriers, encouraging important conversations, promoting new learning, and taking strides to improve.”
Despite this commitment, Gaynair feels that nothing has changed for APU.
“When things happen, they just send out vague emails with what’s happening and say that ‘Oh, we are praying for you,’ that’s it,” Gayniar said. “I think APU does and always has been peacemaking, so much so to the extent that all they will do is acknowledge that there is something going on.”
Smith said that although the social media frenzy of the Black Lives Matter Movement has subsided, the generational trauma within her community has not and will continue to permeate.
“What we need to acknowledge is that even though the storm has calmed, it doesn’t mean that the trauma is gone, which is why we must stay dedicated to still talking about this,” Smith said. “Otherwise, it’s going to continue to build and pile and then the next time this happens, the reason why ‘this one hit different,’ is because we’ve suppressed this trauma for so long from all of the other deaths of innocent Black lives going all the way back to Emmet Till.”
For this reason, Smith is glad that she has chosen the field of psychology as a career.
“My wish is to one day be able to cater to the Black community to help us through this trauma and through these experiences,” Smith said. “Otherwise, we’re just putting a bandaid on the deepest wound.”