University of New Brunswick students detailed some of the complications of being a Person of Colour on campus in New Brunswick.
For Black History Month, UNB Education Ph.D. student Alicia Noriega-Mundaroy hosted an online panel of UNB Students of Colour on February 3. The panel was titled: “The World Through Our Eyes – Addressing Racial Experiences in Higher Education.”
Ashley Malcolm, co-organizer of the event, is an Honours student in History at UNB who is originally from Jamaica. Malcolm described UNB as a “predominantly White university” where she got the feeling she “stuck out.” Along with her participation on the Bi-Campus Standing Committee on Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Human Rights, her other grassroots work for diversity has “empowered her.”
For Malcolm, there is a “lack of awareness” of Black presence in New Brunswick that leads to being asked questions like “Where are you from?” For Malcolm, code-switching between her Jamaican and standard English doesn’t really change her identity: “the negative drawback” is that people are always surprised at her level of English, something that puts into question her intellect.
From Ottawa, Ben-Orel Mugisha is a second year student studying Political Science and a member of the soccer team. Mugisha declared he has to code-switch the slang he typically uses with his friends to fit in in New Brunswick. He credits his friends and team-mates for helping him “adapt” to life in New Brunswick.
In terms of his personal goals in education, Mugisha felt a bit like he had to “beat the numbers” in the statistics (and stereotypes) around People of Colour and education: “I struggled initially (…) I want to learn and grow.” During the panel, Mugisha shared a recent experience of being asked for his origin by a taxi driver, but says he chooses to see “the positive of the situation, as an opportunity to educate.”
International student Chevelle Malcolm is a Biology and Philosophy Major at UNB. She felt “a lot of self-consciousness” in her classes because she is always “sticking out.” She added: “I felt like I had to represent the Black community in my classes,” somehow “prove herself” as adequate. Chevelle Malcolm also “feel[s] a sense of Otherness” when being asked the question of her origin. In her native Jamaica, “the ability to speak standard English was a representation of your level of education.”
Olivia Rowinski, a second year student in History and Political Science at UNB, is also a soccer player. For Rowinski, the interrogation “Where are you from?” has “always been a question that makes [her] uncomfortable.” As a self-described biracial student, for her, identity is difficult because “you don’t fit in on either side, you always have people questioning your commitment to race.”
About her experience at UNB, Rowinski declared: “I should have lowered the expectations” for university, because she was often the only Person of Colour in class. In her experience, “when you don’t feel represented, it causes a lot of pain (…) that I have been carrying for the last few years.” Surrounded by all White classmates when “having conversations about race,” “you kind of have to bite your tongue sometimes.” She is critical of people who say they “don’t see colour”: “I want people to see me as Black but I want it in a positive way. But, how do you explain it to someone who hasn’t had this experience?”
When asked about support for student success in education, Mugisha said he has historically found it difficult to find support. He credits his mother’s responsibility as a single mother as the most important source of encouragement and mentorship in his life. Ashley Malcolm and Chevelle Malcolm agreed that there is not “a strong support system” for People of Colour at UNB, while for Rowinski there was “no support at all.”
Chevelle Malcolm added that Black professors are also rare; she would have liked to have professors who she could “deeply connect with” about shared experience. Rowinski credited Dr. Funké Aladejebi, the “first Black prof she ever had” -and maybe “will ever have”- as having been crucial to her university experience, especially by teaching her about intersectionality. Noriega-Mundaroy admitted was “heartbroken” to learn that Dr. Aladejebi had recently left but recognized that UNB must be “an extremely lonely place” for Black professors, since that has also been her experience as a graduate student.
As Students of Colour, Noriega-Mundaroy asked participants to imagine a utopia for higher education. Ashley Malcolm declared that she was more ambitious than Noriega’s context; she sees a need for “reform across the board: it’s never too early to learn.” Rowinski also said it was necessary to “ask the hard questions” in order to make changes for the future, at all levels. Chevelle Malcolm singled out the absence of “Black professors” that would, for her personally, bring “added motivation and inspiration that ‘I can do that.’”
The panel, attended by 45 people, will be available for viewing on the UNB Faculty of Education’s Facebook page.
Sophie M. Lavoie is an editorial board member of the NB Media Co-op.