In a society where young people of color face challenges that their counterparts of other backgrounds often cannot fathom, FIU’s Black Student Union (BSU) plays a significant role.
The organization serves as an official channel to the university administration so that needs and concerns can be addressed. Equally important, it provides “a home place” where “you can find other people that you can relate to,” says its president, Nyobee McCall.
“I know from personal [experience], when I came to this school, I kind of felt alone,” the senior hospitality major remembers. “I didn’t see someone who looks like me, that came from the same neighborhood as me.”
At FIU during the fall semester, 7,042 students of the more than 54,000 who were enrolled, about 13 percent, self-identifed as “black or African-American.”
“As far as our demographics, it’s very diverse,” McCall says of BSU. “We don’t close our doors if you are not a person of color. You could be white, Asian, Hispanic. It doesn’t matter. But the main purpose is to be the voice for our membership and for these students that we represent.”
While official members number only around 100 over the two campuses, BSU welcomes hundreds of students to its activities. It offers networking and workshops with local black professionals, and it cohosts an event that brings together students with prominent black faculty. The group also promotes organized community service and puts on social gatherings that give students opportunities for fellowship.
Beyond BSU’s extensive programming, however, McCall talks about the group’s mission to encourage students’ involvement in groups across the university. While such sentiment sounds a familiar refrain at FIU—where everyone from fraternity and sorority leaders to visiting alumni and the university administration all promote active participation—she explains that the message of BSU has a different end goal.
It’s not simply, “Oh, just get involved because it’s going to help you get a job,” McCall says. Instead, it’s about reassuring minority students who see their low numbers on campus, relative to other populations, as a barrier. McCall pushes involvement not just as a way to grow as an individual but to benefit black students collectively.
“FIU is international. We know and understand that, but the majority of students are Hispanic. We want the black population to be well represented, and in order to do that, you have to apply for these positions,” McCall tells students.
“I feel like a lot of times they’re discouraged and they feel, ‘If I go out for this, I’m not going to get chosen or I’m not going to get picked or I’m not going to make it,’” she says. “We don’t want them to see those things as obstacles that they can’t overcome. We’re here to let them know, ‘You have us backing you up. We know you can do it.’”
Malcolm Jones, in his fourth year of the combined six-year BA/MA architecture program, joined BSU during his sophomore year. While he says that he is naturally inclined to get involved, he believes BSU successfully attracts those who otherwise might not take that step.
“This is your opportunity to start building your life. You need to heed all the opportunities you get,” he says. “I think [BSU] has an impact.”
Not all things to all people
As with all groups that cater to large numbers, BSU has felt the sting of criticism. Some students have called upon the group to take a more-activist role in the wake of recent national headlines about the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police. With stories of injustice riddling the media, some wonder why the campus organization does not do more.
Mario Lewis is the graduate assistant to BSU. He understands students’ frustration but cautions that there is no single way to accomplish the goal of empowering young people.
“I think one of the foremost things we need to do is realize that there is no universal definition to the word ‘activism,’” he says. “Simply put, there are multiple ways to accomplish things.” He and McCall draw attention to educational and other programming that they believe can have positive influence on campus and beyond.
Lewis gives the example of a BSU initiative currently in the works: pairing an FIU student with a local high school student for a day. The plan is to start at Miami Northwestern Senior High, with which FIU already has a connection through the Education Effect partnership. The idea is to encourage local youth to start thinking about college and what they can do with their lives.
“Whether or not these young men and women choose to go [to FIU],” Lewis says, “I think they need to see someone from the community that looks like them saying, ‘Hey, this can be done.’”
Both Lewis and McCall feel important ground has been established with the university administration. “I applaud them on that,” Lewis says of leaders within the Division of Student Affairs, the area that oversees student-support services and the more than 300 student groups that receive university funding. “We have talked and we have met, and they have been reaching out.”
Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Lunsford encourages individual students to share issues directly with BSU as the group remains the best conduit to the administration. “What they’re expressing to us is what we are paying attention to,” Lunsford says of the BSU leadership. “I think we have good relationships and that when concerns are brought forward, we address them.”
Last year Lunsford convened a forum in which students and others could talk publicly about the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York. It was at that meeting that differing opinions emerged about the role that BSU should play. Despite some disagreement, Lunsford stresses that the group has helped keep many black students actively engaged on campus as they work toward graduation.
“We value [BSU’s] contributions to campus life, and they’re a valuable part of that,” he says. “This is an important population of students that we want to retain.”