It’s Saturday, November 4, 2017. The Marist College women’s volleyball team is facing off against Canisius College at their home gym, the McCann Center. As the National Anthem played, players from Canisius took knees. Middle blocker Chidera Udeh, a freshman at the time, recalls the upperclassmen being upset by this, saying that it was disrespecting the troops and the flag while also making “ignorant comments.” They were looking at Udeh as if to say, “Is she going to say something?”
Fast forward to another freshman year moment. Sitting in the dining hall with the football team nearby, one of Udeh’s teammates says, “Doesn’t so and so just look like a monkey?” Then one of her teammates said, “Um, I think that’s kind of racist.”
“I didn’t say it because I was also a freshman and I didn’t feel comfortable,” said Udeh. “I didn’t want people to hate me.”
These are the stories we don’t hear. But they are the stories we need to hear.
Creating diversity among higher education institutions has been an on-going problem for years and one that colleges and universities aim to improve each year. Marist is no exception.
According to a Marist student demographics survey, in 2019 the college’s population consisted of 74.6 percent of students who identify as white and only four percent of students who identify as black or African American. 25.5 percent of the Marist student body are students of color. It has been on a slow incline over the past nine years and hopefully it will continue to rise.
Back in 2015, when Udeh was looking at Marist as a prospective volleyball player, these numbers were of high concern as a black student-athlete and a black student in general.
“One of the reservations that I did have was that the school wasn’t very diverse,” said Udeh. “I’ve always been the minority on any volleyball team that I’ve been on besides my high school team, which was predominantly African American.”
When Udeh joined the squad in 2016, Megan Fergus ‘20 was the only other player of color on the team at the time. Although it was just one other person of color, Fergus’ presence was comforting for Udeh, as she had someone she could relate to.
Since then, the Marist volleyball program has significantly improved its diversity in recruitment. Both another student-athlete of color, junior middle blocker Skylar Harrison, and a foreign student from Brazil, Victoria Perini, are now on the squad. “I feel like the coaches have made strides. I feel like to recruit girls who look differently…So I feel like there’s been efforts to try and diversify the team,” said Udeh.
Efforts to diversify not only the athletic teams and the athletics department but the college as a whole has been heightened due to the death of George Floyd, amongst several others. Marist, among other institutions not known for its diversity, had all eyes on them to make change for their students and faculty of color.
“I personally haven’t dealt with a lot of experiences that a lot of other black students on campus have dealt with. I’ve been very fortunate to have good professors who’ve ever made me feel uncomfortable or be put in situations with security guards or anything like that,” explains Udeh. “Now as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that maybe there might have been things that happened that I just didn’t even realize or that like, felt normal and shouldn’t have been. Those situations I can recognize and then speak up about.”
A big part of these race relations issues is the lack of education and knowledge on our country’s history. Dr. Vanessa Lynn is teaching a Race and Crime course in the Criminal Justice department. “Clearly, there is a layer of people who do not believe in racial equality and integration and another layer does want to end racism, but does not understand that structural racism is embedded in society,” she stated in regard to the importance of the class.
To combat this issue, Lynn has created a diverse course schedule. Thus far, the class has watched the movie “The Gangs of New York” to understand how multiple immigrant groups were discriminated against when they came to the U.S., “The Force”, which is a documentary that follows the Oakland Police Department as they were mandated by a decree of the Supreme Court to reform because of issues related to excessive force and racial biases, a documentary on the death of Jordan Davis in Florida of 2012 and season 2 of the “In the Dark” podcast that discusses the Curtis Flowers case.
Fortunately, there are now more resources for black students at Marist, especially for black student-athletes. The Center for Student-Athlete Enhancement (CSAE) department has always been a part of Marist athletics, but Udeh feels that the coaches, the administrators, or the athletic faculty that have spoken out in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and the “tsunami of color,” have given more comfort to students in using the resources that are now available.
One of these resources being the Black Student-Athlete Alliance (BSAA), an organization established as a safe space within athletics for student-athletes of color to talk about their experiences. Udeh is the vice president of the club and so far the alliance has organized a school march, held several meetings, and has recently held a town hall for the entire athletic department.
On Monday, October 26, BSAA held an open discussion to share experiences and knowledge among student-athletes, coaches, and athletics faculty. Udeh explained that there was an impressive turnout of 45 people with a maximum capacity ruling of 50 people, consisting of different teams and a solid male to female ratio. The event tackled in-depth questions that solicited in-depth responses, proving more that the attendees genuinely wanted to be there and learn. This is BSAA’s goal.
One particular moment that sticks to Udeh’s mind was WHEN Marist men’s lacrosse coach Keegan Wilkinson stood up and said, “I’ve been here for 13 years, and I’ve never been a part of a conversation like this.”
“I was like, wow…sadly, it should have happened a long time ago,” said Udeh. “But there are coaches and peers who are willing to advocate and support the student athletes who kind of feel not as supported by Marist or by Marist athletics. The event definitely was an eye opening thing for me in terms of the amount of support that there is within athletics for minority student athletes.”
Udeh is hoping to see Marist continue to make improvements and follow their words with actions, hoping to see more women amongst the faculty, especially women of color, and increasing the four percent of African American students on campus. She believes that the search for Marist’s new president, who will succeed Dr. Dennis J. Murray, will be very telling in how much the student body’s needs and concerns are of value to the administration.
“I feel like [Marist has] said a lot of things that they’re willing to do and work on. But at this point, it’s really just about like the action,” said Udeh. “It’s about their willingness to act on the things that they promised students to work on. I do feel personally that the athletic department is at least working hard to kind of correct some of the things that they might have missed before.”
Likewise, Lynn has only been at Marist for two years but has seen change develop over her time as well. From her perspective, faculty and staff have made a group for themselves to discuss issues and experiences while also creating a bridge to the students in search of support.
“I think now, from what I’m seeing, is there is more momentum where faculty want to be a resource and create resources for faculty and students to address issues of discrimination, but also within the broader movement of injustices that occur,” said Lynn.
She has also enjoyed seeing the movements started through several Marist accounts on Instagram, such as Marist BIPOC. This account is bringing social injustice stories that have plagued Marist students to light for the community to learn from.
The coronavirus pandemic presented people with the opportunity and the time to advocate for change in regard to social injustice. There is an argument to be made that if it wasn’t for months of quarantining, the social justice movements we see right now may not have come to fruition.
“With George Floyd, that’s so normalized in the news nowadays. I feel like if there wasn’t a pandemic and people had nothing to focus on, their names probably would have just been hashtags again,” explained Udeh. “And eventually, like, not forgotten about, but we would have moved on to whoever was next.”.
Udeh is thankful to have seen and participated in the changes happening in our country and especially at Marist. She can graduate with her head held high, knowing that she has made an impact on current students and future Red Foxes to make them feel more comfortable in coming into a new environment.
These changes at Marist and around the world will hopefully bring about more support and more voices to light. Rather than waiting for others to say something, take action. See something, say something.
Edited by Sam DiGiovanni & Nick Stanziale
Photo credit: Marist Athletics