Looking Back on ‘Black on Campus’

Looking Back on ‘Black on Campus’

Co-founder Dr. Sherri Williams looks back on a year of amplifying black students’ voices and what comes next.


If he lived, Michael Brown might be a college graduate by now. On the day he was set to start college in 2014, many college students across the nation walked out of class to stand in solidarity with the black teenager whose fatal shooting by a white police officer weeks before the first day of school helped spark the Black Lives Matter movement.

The freshmen who started college in 2014 just graduated in the spring. But their college years were punctuated with horrific national racial incidents. In 2015 white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine black parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church during Bible study. The next year, video footage flooded students’ social-media feeds with images of the grisly deaths of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, and Keith Lamont Scott—black men killed by police. And these students’ final year of college started weeks after white supremacists marched at the University of Virginia and held a protest in Charleston that turned violent and deadly.

At the same time these major racially traumatic events occurred, incidents on college campuses reflected the nation’s turmoil. In 2014 black students at the University of Michigan resisted low enrollment of black students and mistreatment of those at the university. The same year students at Syracuse University took over the administration building for an 18-day sit-in and protested several issues, including how the university handled race on campus. In 2016 the words “n—deserve to die” were written on a board in a dorm where mostly students of color resided at the College of Brockport, State University of New York. Last year a black student, Richard Collins III, did die after he was stabbed at the University of Maryland by a white student aligned with white-supremacist groups. Collins was killed three days before he was to graduate from Bowie State University.

It was within this context that Black on Campus was created. In the midst of brutal racial violence within the nation and chaotic conflicts on college campuses, the idea to chronicle the experiences of black students was born. Through reporting we wanted to explore how black college students navigate racism at their schools, tap into their lived experience, and utilize their developing journalism skills. After all, no one is more of an expert on what it’s like to be a black college student today than black college students.

We received more than 100 applications for this student journalism project. Isolation. Rejection. Fear. Frustration. Exhaustion. Longing. Those emotions were recurring themes in the applications. Students shared their experiences and those of their colleagues on their campuses and their desire to report on how institutions and systems responded to them.

Reading though the applications, I ached for them. But I wasn’t unfamiliar with their struggles. While in graduate school studying for a doctorate, I worked as an adjunct professor and teaching assistant. My office hours, the time allotted for students to discuss course material, often transformed into therapy sessions with students of color discussing the distress and alienation they experienced on campus that they often related to perceptions about their racial identity.

Others aren’t so familiar with or empathetic toward black college students’ experiences. While doing this project, an older black woman asked me what was harder about being a black college student today than during the years of integration. I just blinked and held my breath for a few seconds. The question threw me off. It seemed to diminish and even dismiss the experiences, good and bad, that black college students have today.

We don’t assert that this generation of black students has it harder than their elders. Almost 60 years ago when black students, including Charlayne Hunter Gault in 1961 at the University of Georgia and James Meredith at the University of Mississippi in 1962, became the first to attend predominantly white colleges and universities, they experienced unprecedented violence and hurdles—both making history for simply trying to get an education.

This generation of black college students, more than a half-century later, still faces racial issues—and their stories deserve to be documented. There are articles, books, and films that chronicle the experiences of integration-era black college students. We also need to tell the stories of today’s black college students. Their stories matter. Through a competitive process, we assembled a team of young, talented black journalists who reported the stories in this project.

College students are often thought to be an elite class that is coddled and shielded from the issues that plague society. The stories in the Black on Campus project show that issues of poverty, sexual violence, gender bias, and homophobia and transphobia also affect black college students. Our cohort of student reporters produced solid journalism and powerful narratives.

Since I started my first professional full-time journalism-writing job almost 20 years ago, editors often told me that they were grateful to have me on staff and that reporters like me, capable black journalists, are hard to find. That was an untrue and hollow excuse then for why some newsrooms have a dearth of journalists of color, and it still is now. This project is proof that talented young black journalists exist, and they are ready to work.

Black on Campus isn’t just a storytelling project; it’s a commitment to developing black journalists and investing in them. Moreover, it’s an effort to diversify journalism and narratives about college students. Fifty years ago the Kerner Commission Report stated: “If the media are to report with understanding, wisdom and sympathy on the problems of cities and problems of the black man…they must employ, promote and listen to Negro journalists.” Mainstream media still desperately needs to include journalists of color in its ranks and in management to offer audiences complex and nuanced stories that give context and illuminate issues that too often go unreported. Projects like this one helps to fill gaps in media coverage. More work like this, and sustained journalism inclusion initiatives, are needed. We hope to continue in some fashion along with The Nation’s partnership.

We intended for this six-month student journalism training project to amplify stories about black college students and sharpen the skills of student journalists. As students return to campus for a new school year, we also hope that the Black on Campus project will help educators and the public understand that black college students are not a monolith, and they deserve the attention and the resources of their home institutions.

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