By Ian Carrano
Springfield College has had students of color from just about day one of its 134-year history. In fact, when the college first granted 4-year degrees in 1906, the first student to receive one was an African-American named William Beckett.
The numbers of students of color have never been high here, however. In recent years, the college has become a more diverse environment. There have been more programs offered to promote diversity, and an expansion of clubs like Men of Excellence and the Student Society for Bridging Diversity.
This story provides a glimpse of two moments in campus history—one about 50 years ago, one a little more than a decade ago—through the eyes of Springfield College alums.
Facing a lack of support for improvement, many students didn’t felt like they could be heard in a predominately white environment that didn’t offer much backing for students of color.
“A lack of support was probably the greatest challenge. This, coupled with not seeing faces that looked like us was perhaps the greatest challenge for black students,”said Dr. Donald Brown, a graduate of the class of 1969. He said his adjustment was aided by one of the only faculty of color, a popular physical education professor named Jesse Parks. “For me, and I'm certain that for many other black students, support came primarily from Dr. Jesse (Parks) and his wife, Mrs. Lucille Parks.”
Throughout his years at Springfield, Brown was concerned about the small number of black students at the college. He reiterated that when he began his journey at Springfield College, his class consisted of only 12 black students. This, he said, was the largest group of black students in the college's history. Four years later, that number had only risen to 15 students, signaling that a great deal of work needed to be done to increase diversity in the student body.
According to Brown, there were a host of things that the College was not aware of concerning matters of cultural awareness. Brown claimed the lack of awareness on campus led to feelings of alienation and isolation among black students.
Like Brown, Ollie Wilson, a 1970 graduate and 27- year running-backs coach in the NFL, was present in a much less diversified environment.
“As we kind of went along the years at Springfield, we became very aware of how un-diverse the campus was, and also had the chance to learn about what the history of the college was related to race so that kind of played into it a lot,” said Wilson.
Graduating in 1970, Teresa Burr, the creator of AfroAm on campus, was also present during a very politically active time with tense racial relations throughout the country. During her experience at Springfield, Burr witnessed first-hand some of the hatred that was present at close proximity.
“We had a party in the basement of Alumni Hall, having a good time. Kids were coming in from AIC, from all over the place. All of a sudden as we’re dancing, a cross out of the big windows was set on fire and we’re like is that a burning cross?” said Burr.
To respond to the series of protests in the late ’60s to early ’70s, Springfield College took initiative to create more inclusion for students of color.
“Then after that, there was a lot of discussion. People were stopping classes to talk about the ‘black problem’ and I talked until I was blue in the face trying to explain,” said Burr.
Aware of being present at Springfield College in a difficult and tense time, Brown faced the challenge of living on a very divided campus. With a lack of understanding about other people’s cultures and backgrounds, white and black students on campus failed to come together to have necessary conversations to set their differences aside.
“It wasn’t a lot of interaction between black students and white students at Springfield. The tension was high. It was absolutely high, but as I look back on it now, it was just a lack of understanding, a lack of knowledge about the differences, about the culture too,” said Brown.
Becoming a member of the Alumni Board in 2018, 2008 graduate Nate Harris continues to be very actively involved with Springfield College despite working as the assistant general manager and marketing director at Spectra in Virginia. Looking back at his time at Springfield, Harris noticed the isolation some students felt.
“A lot of them were just feeling like we don’t really have anyone here that really understands our culture, understands where I’m coming from,” said Harris. “There was a serious cultural shift that I think was happening and a lot of the national stories were happening.”
Harris believes there was a deeper commitment made to expanding diversity at the school during his sophomore year. “I think they had a concerted effort to try to increase the population of people of color not only in athletics, but all around the campus,” he said.
Working as a resident assistant on a predominately white floor, Harris experienced some situations where he was exposed to some hateful comments out of frustration.
“There was a situation I had where a couple of guys who weren’t supposed to be in the building were causing a ruckus…so I asked them to leave the building….They decided to just yell racial slurs at me from outside the building,” said Harris.
While his residents backed him up during the exchange, he said he was also aware of “micro-aggressions” that targeted students of color on campus, and also recalls being targeted by racial slurs from people driving along Alden Street.
He believes that some steps the campus took during his time as a student—limiting library and gym access to members of the community—though intended to increase safety, did not necessarily represent Springfield College very well “in terms of our mission in being a service to everyone.”
The Present and Future at Springfield College
In response to the continued struggle to build diversity, Springfield College has taken some strong initiative in helping improve racial relations on campus. Wilson, who first arrived on campus during a time of student protest, has been pleased with the concerted effort of late, specifically the work President Mary-Beth Cooper has done to address diversity on campus.
“I’m totally impressed with her. When I was at Springfield, President Locklin was the President of the college. The whole time I was there I hadn’t talked to him one time,” said Wilson. “I spent two hours with President Cooper and I was like ‘okay we’re in good hands’ so that made me feel good as far as that’s concerned. I just thought that things were going in the right direction.”
Living through a tense time at Springfield College, students expressed what they believe will help push the college in the right direction. Wilson also suggested some steps the college should take to address some of the lingering racial relations issues on campus.
“I’m saying before you even get to a recruiting class or the next freshman class coming in, I think that the constant communication that’s happening on campus right now, their needs need to be met and the more they communicate, whether it be the administration, whether it be the President, whatever that may be, the more they communicate the better off,” said Wilson.
As Springfield College moves forward, the institution will continue to follow its initiative of creating a diverse, welcoming environment for all students on campus. While the number of students of color still remains relatively low, the statistics have been trending up. Compared with 2015 numbers for a similar sized student body, the 2018 figures show an increase in Hispanic students (189, up from 132), Black/African American students (122, up from 113), Asian students (62, up from 21), and students of two or more races (48, up from 35); while the White population has declined (1553, down from 1751). Diversity figures are also slightly on the rise among the faculty.
Under the strong leadership from President Cooper, Vice President of Inclusion and Community Engagement Calvin Hill, and Director of Multicultural Affairs Felicia Lundquist, among others, the college is certainly taking the right steps in forming a more diverse community. Through its recent efforts, Springfield College has opened up more opportunities to all students and faculty of color than ever before. While the campus still isn’t as diverse as it should be, the college’s diversity and inclusion of students of color have Springfield College trending in the right direction.