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The Color of College: Calm seas, smooth sailing

As tensions dissolve, freshmen ease into semester

Sunday, December 23, 2001

By Edward G. Robinson III, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

Black Life at Penn State
Another in an occasional series

Richard Moye, Alicia Scales and Marcus White have not experienced the kind of racial tensions this year that unsettled the Penn State campus last year.

Penn State University freshmen Alicia Scales, left, her roommate Kiersten Walker and friend Richard Moye walk through a drizzle on their way to make photocopies at the University Park campus. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

The university has remained relatively calm, with no repeat of the death threats against a black student leader that triggered protests and sit-ins.

Older black students and black faculty members say that even though the university has introduced programs to improve educational and social life for minority students, life is far from idyllic for African American students, who make up 3.7 percent of the student body at the 41,000-student school.

But first-year students White, a Central Catholic High School graduate; Scales, the valedictorian at Wilkinsburg High School; and Moye, an Allderdice High School graduate, have not had enough time in their four months on campus to develop detailed overviews of the state of race relations at Penn State.

They have been busy acclimating to college, concentrating on their first courses and seeking their places in the school's social life.

On Oct. 14, we introduced the three students in the first of a periodic series of stories looking at their lives during their first year at the University Park campus.

In this installment, we catch up with them two weeks before final exams for the term, which ended Dec. 14.

Strikes, spares, socializing

At Northland Bowling, Crayola-colored balls spun down the lanes, an old Janet Jackson tune squealed over the speakers and laughter bubbled beneath the music.

Marc Buchanan looked his buddy in the eyes and said, "You suck."

"I'm going to win," Moye coolly retorted, glancing up at his low score. "I'm a slow starter."

The two Penn State students were wrapped in a competition within a competition. They were on teams, and Buchanan's team was winning.

The Color of College

First Installment

Three freshmen
show no fear
Amid questions about prejudice at Penn State, we'll follow fledgling students

Programs help minorities feel at home


The eight Penn State freshman making up the two teams were black. And from the easy conversation and jokes, they were friends, or at least friendly.

They'd come by caravan this night, invited by Jocelyn Bennett, director of undergraduate diversity enhancement programs in the Smeal College of Business Administration.

The simple description of Bennett's job is that she is responsible for increasing recruitment and retention of African American and Latino students.

That's what brought her to the bowling alley. The Friday night trip was to help minority students get to know each other.

Once a month, she gathers students for academic, professional development or social events. There is more professional development than social activity, but she believes they go hand in hand.

There are others with Bennett's position in schools throughout the university. Jobs like hers didn't exist when she was an undergraduate and graduate student at Penn State in the 1980s.

Bennett said the university was still an isolated setting for many black students, but that today, there are more programs for minority students and more of them choose to stay.

Now in her eighth year in her job, she said, "I see that as really important now to serve as that mentor, as that parent, as that friend, as that liaison, as that advocate for the students to help them navigate the system."

She does that in many ways. She sets freshmen's schedules so they share classes and aren't the only blacks in the room. She makes sure that when a student leaves her office, he is introduced to one on his way in.

She tries to build up students' self-esteem, to "let them know they are valued, let them know they're not here as a number."

The bowling alley was the first social outing away from campus this semester. Empty food trays and jovial interaction between the girls and the boys spoke to their satisfaction.

Moye, 17, expected Penn State to be more hostile, but hasn't had that experience. "I feel comfortable here," he said, and he has white and black friends.

Still, he's pleased to have programs such as Bennett's to provide easier connections to other black students.

"It's nice to have that sense of community. It makes the university smaller," he said. "Penn State is trying to, I guess, keep us here, to [make us] feel comfortable."

A heavenly roommate

Scales likes Christmas music. She starts playing Luther Vandross carols in August.

Luckily, her roommate, Kiersten Walker, doesn't mind. Scales plays good selections.

When she doesn't, Walker, 18, speaks up. It's cool. The two have an almost heavenly rooming situation. No fuss. No fretting. Just fun and respect.

That kinship developed from growing up with common friends in the Pittsburgh region. Scales is from Wilkinsburg, while Walker lived in Reserve and went to Shaler Area High School.

When Scales, 18, pinned up pictures of her friends from high school, Walker repeatedly would say, "I know him."

They also have the Bunton-Waller Fellowship in common, which is the reason they are roommates.

While their pairing was random, their placement in Pennypacker Hall in the east section of the campus was not. The dorm is home to 275 freshmen who received Bunton-Waller scholarships, named for the first African-American graduates of the university, of whom 50 are black.

As the figures demonstrate, the Bunton-Waller fellowships go to students of all races interested in living in a diverse environment.

Penn State University freshman Marcus White, left, a Central Catholic High School graduate,waits to rejoin a basketball game in the campus gym. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

Henry McCoullum, co-director of the fellowship program and director of diversity initiatives in the Eberly College of Science, said the program included student meetings once a month. Sometimes the students are asked to split up and perform skits dramatizing issues such as racial intolerance or sexual harassment.

McCoullum, who has worked at Penn State for 29 years, thinks the program shows that, "We embrace diversity here. We see it as what makes us a strong university."

Both Scales and Walker say they like the housing setup, but for different reasons.

Scales has taken advantage of the calculus tutoring offered to fellows. She also has made it a point to reach out to students of all races. She invited a Korean student who was in her economics class home for Thanksgiving.

She also has limited the time she spends on extracurricular programs. "I've stayed away from programs because I wanted to keep on top of my studies. But I know what's out there. [The community] is pretty close."

Her roommate definitely likes having other black students in the dorm because she can relate to them on different levels, whether it's fixing her hair or sharing similar tastes in food.

"I like it because it's way more black people around," said Walker, who, like Scales, is undecided. "If you need to borrow hair care products, you can find it easier, instead of going to the store," Walker said.

Walker, whose sister is a senior at Penn State, likes attending meetings organized by black organizations on campus, because she can get a black perspective on current issues.

She and Scales both like the monthly dorm birthday parties, go to a nondenominational church together on Sundays, and try not to miss the free movies and events at the student union building.

"Oh, yeah," Scales said. "You can't pass on anything free."

A black perspective

It's a gray Thursday morning and White has kept the rain at bay with a green hooded sweat shirt. He doesn't seem to mind the 15-minute walk from his dorm to an African- American studies class.

White is prepared, having read the assigned chapters in "The Debt," a book written by activist Randall Robinson.

Once inside, professor Major G. Coleman quickly recaps the last class and begins a discussion of public school funding and the difference in tax bases of various districts that support those schools.

This is not a required course, but it satisfies one of three university diversity course requirements for all students. It's also one of the few courses where black students are in the majority.

Of Penn State's approximately 41,000 students on its main campus, about 1,500 are black. In this class, there are 40 students: 21 are black and 16 are white.

Coleman, a new associate professor in the African and African American Studies Department, said black students who select the course expected to learn more about themselves, and expected a black professor.

"It's my job to provide that black voice that many, black or white, have never heard before," Coleman said. Black students "are going to get a sympathetic voice. Not a voice that is a typical media voice. They're going to get it from a mainstream black perspective, not a general mainstream voice."

White, 18, said getting this black perspective on issues was pivotal for his development, but it's also helpful to hear students who are not black discuss the same subjects.

"You get to see the white perspective on affirmative action," he said. "You think about it more from someone else's position. If it was a class with all African-Americans, it would depreciate the class."

Coleman, who came from Syracuse University, said that at the beginning of the semester, both blacks and whites were argumentative.

Gradually, Coleman noticed a change. Black students relaxed, knowing their issues and ideas would be addressed. White students, while holding to their views, accepted different opinions, he said.

White said black students at Penn State didn't seem to be "tight knit," but that he thought last semester's protests had made students more aware and supportive of each other.

The diversity White experiences in his African-American studies class also shows up at one of his favorite spots on campus -- the IM Building.

That's where White plays intramural basketball. He was a starting point guard at Central Catholic and tries to play basketball once a week. From his high school days, he had come to believe basketball created natural integration and a stress-free environment.

That has held true at Penn State, where his fellow competitors are an even mix of black and white.

"I have a good feeling when I go there," he said. "It's a good feeling about the people I'm around. There's no negative vibe. Everyone's cool."

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