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Black representation among faculty is vital to student belonging, success, students say

February 20, 2024
<p>CAS 112 night lecture in The Communications of Arts and Sciences building on Sept. 28 2023. The class is spilt up into five sections and has five teaching assistants. </p>

CAS 112 night lecture in The Communications of Arts and Sciences building on Sept. 28 2023. The class is spilt up into five sections and has five teaching assistants.

Photo by Maya Kolton | The State News

Only 6.5% of MSU undergraduate students are Black or African American, which is 2,633 out of 40,483 total undergraduate students. 

For these students, representation on campus is not only less common, but also of great importance. One vital source of representation, students say, is through professors who look like you. 

African American and African Studies Assistant Professor Dr. Sheri Lewis said it’s especially important for Black students at a predominantly white institution like MSU to have professors who look similar to them to create a "kinship and a communal space." 

It also allows students to see themselves reflected in those roles, Lewis said. 

"Having a professor that looks like you is important because it shows what’s possible and it, at times, can provide a sense of belonging, where you’re not feeling isolated," Lewis said. "You see there’s someone that looks like you, (and) possibly have (a) similar background as you, it can be motivating and inspiring and provides a sense of hope and belonging."

Similarly, pre-nursing freshman Deborah Obi said that having someone who looks similar to her as a professor provides a connection and inspiration for her to achieve her personal career goals.

"For me, it’s always just felt like someone that I can connect to and kind of relate to," Obi said. "Just being in like the career world knowing that someone who looks like you can achieve this career makes it more motivating for me."

Human resource management junior Paris Carter said representation matters everywhere, but specifically in a school setting because it provides a larger pool of knowledge to learn from. 

"I’m often asked, 'Do you prefer working in a team or working like on your own,' and I always say working in a team because I think it’s really important to have a very diverse set of ideas," Carter said. "If you don’t have diversity within the teams you’re working on within your school, then you’re just going to have a lack of experiences and just a lack of diversity. You have more opportunities to grow and learn when there’s more diversity represented."

In addition, Lewis said representation is also important in school settings when it comes to wanting guidance regarding personal issues. 

"Representation matters in a school setting because, for example, if there’s an issue that takes place or if you’re homesick, you’re most likely going to go to the professor that you connect with the most," Lewis said. "You want to be able to share feelings and perspectives that are intimate with someone who you believe understands, that’s why the African American and African Studies Department is so significant and unique and important."

Not having enough representation in educational communities can be harmful to Black students and students in other minority racial groups.

Obi said the lack of representation feels discouraging, even causing her to question her belonging in certain situations. 

"It’s kind of discouraging in a way .. just being the minority around is sometimes like 'Oh, am I really supposed to be here?'" Obi said. "Just kind of identity issues, as well as (thinking) 'am I able to do this? Because I don’t see many people around me doing this.' So it’s like the odds are kind of stacked against me. It kind of is discouraging."

Similarly, Carter said she thinks being among the few minority students in classes can get intimidating at times, as it can foster fear and reduce class participation.

"I think it definitely negatively affects students," Carter said. "I also think in certain classes, when all of your teachers are white (and) the majority of the students in the class are white, it definitely can be a little bit scary. Sometimes, you might be afraid to raise your hand to participate in discussions, and that’s something that you should never be feeling, but it’s just the reality."

Obi said that throughout her schooling experience, she hasn’t had many educational instructors who looked like her, but finds comfort in the rare chances she does have a professor who is also Black.

"A lot of the times in my classes, I am the only minority," Obi said. "I am the only Black person, so I’m like 'you understand that as a Black professor,' so in a way, (the professor) relates to how I feel about that."

Since attending MSU, Carter has not had many, if any, professors of color. Conversely, Carter said that before coming to MSU, she had many educational instructors representing different racial groups and it was "amazing" for her, as she felt comfortable and at ease with those instructors.

"It’s amazing ... to have people that look like you in positions like that, and I think it really just helps you to feel more accepted," Carter said. "There’s just a level of comfortability that you have with someone else who is a person of color. I feel, especially growing up, I feel like since you have smaller classrooms, you have a more tight-knit relationship with those teachers. Especially when you have like a person of color teacher, or at least from my perspective, it’s easier to open up and talk about more vulnerable things."

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Obi also said that having professors who were also Black helped foster personal connections with them. 

"When I did have teachers who did look like me, I always had a very good connection with them," Obi said. "(It) feels as if I could just talk to them about more of the issues that I face kind of being a minority student and being an African American." 

When it comes to representation, Lewis believes representation doesn’t stop at just similar features or race. 

"I would say representation would be a person, an aesthetic that mirrors (or) reflects who you are, your values, your beliefs, what you like, so it is a range," Lewis said.

Lewis believes that in order to display representation that extends further than race to their students, professors should be more vocal about their identities. 

"Having professors speak more publicly about the ways in which they sit at intersections of identity that have been typically oppressed is important for students to know they are seen, heard, and valued," Lewis said. 

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