Students, alumni and professional architects recently came together for a frank public discussion of the challenges faced by Black students as well as ideas for creating a more supportive and inclusive campus environment.
Moderated by Ray Huff (Associate Professor Emeritus and Director, Clemson Architectural Center in Charleston) and Andreea Mihalache (Assistant Professor of Architecture), the April 7 panel at the Owen Pavilion was the last episode in a year-long series of events that the School of Architecture organized in its Clemson and Charleston locations. In Fall 2020, Huff organized in Charleston the symposium “Memorials | Monuments | Memory | Meaning” in conjunction with a studio project on the same topic. In Clemson, Mihalache coordinated the year-long lecture series “Design, Race and Social (In)Justice.”
The panel also inaugurated a new series, Clemson Conversations on Race and Reconciliation, which hosts its first discussion on April 15.
Several students in the April 7 discussion said people of color often feel out of place in a predominately white university.
“I think it’s telling that we all have the same experience of being on campus and feeling like you don’t really fit in,” said architecture student Adrianna Spence.
But Spence said she found strong support through the Clemson chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architecture Students (cNOMAS). Spence now serves as vice president of that campus organization.
“cNOMAS was an anchor and lifeline for me in the School of Architecture,” said Nehemiah Ashford-Carroll, an architecture student who serves as the president of the Clemson chapter.
Ashford-Carroll also connected with a Living-Learning Community at Clemson.
“A Living-Learning Community helps underrepresented and first-generation students get a foothold in the Clemson community with students living together and going to class together,” he said.
Mentoring opportunities also are available in the School of Architecture. Having been mentored in his first years in Architecture, Ashford-Carroll now serves as a mentor himself.
“That support system is really vital to my experience and success as a student,” he said.
Danita Brown, an alumna returning to Clemson after graduating 30 years ago, said her feelings were mixed when she attended the University.
“I felt supported here, but at the same time I felt I didn’t belong,” Brown said. “To hear there’s now a support system for students of color is very encouraging. I also feel encouraged that Clemson is now acknowledging its history.
“It’s very interesting to be here,” she added. “It’s quite emotional. But I’m very encouraged by what I’m hearing and what I’m seeing.”
Michael Allen, an architect and alumnus who attended Clemson on a football scholarship, said he found support among other students of color across campus.
“The Black students who were here at the time I was here, we jelled,” Allen said. “It was a community. It was like our own HBCU.”
Byron Jeffries, a Clemson alumnus who received his bachelor’s degree from the School of Architecture in 2009, spoke of “a small group of minority students, and each year it got smaller and smaller. When I graduated, there were only three left.”
Jefferies later received his master’s degree in architecture at Clemson and is now a lecturer in the School of Architecture, helping to mentor Black students.
Leading by example
Maya Hislop, an Assistant Professor of English who teaches African American Literature, said it’s difficult for Black students to walk by Tillman Hall and Fort Hill, buildings whose names represent a history of racial strife.
Sethunya Mokoko, a student in the Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design Ph.D. program, drew attention to the work being done to shine a light on Clemson history. He mentioned Rhondda Robinson Thomas, the Calhoun Lemon Professor of Literature, who is painstakingly piecing together the stories of the enslaved persons and convicted laborers who helped build Clemson University.
Mokoko also mentioned alumnus A.D. Carson, now an assistant professor at the University of Virginia, whose “See the Stripes” video and campus campaign also focused on the troubling aspects of Clemson history.
“Clemson has a unique opportunity to lead other universities by example,” Jefferies said. “The conversations about racial injustice are not easy but they’re becoming easier.”
“First we have to acknowledge the truth, then we can find a solution as a community,” said Michael Urueta, a Clemson alumnus in architecture and incoming graduate student.
Hislop suggested that all new students should be required to take a class in the University’s history.
“An environment has to be created for conversation, one where young people can be heard and listened to,” Brown said.
Andreea Mihalache, Assistant Professor of Architecture, created the “Design, Race, and Social (In)Justice” lecture series to answer the question, “How can we create a learning environment that is able to reflect and address the changes in this world with resoluteness, thoughtfulness, respect and care?”
The next public forum in the Clemson Conversations on Race and Reconciliation will take place at 5 p.m. on April 15 at the Owen Pavilion at the Madren Center. A panel of seven students, faculty and staff will discuss “Clemson Family?” with Nicholas Vazsonyi, Dean of the College of Architecture, Arts and Humanities, serving as moderator. Limited seating will be available to accommodate physical distancing. The forum will also be broadcast in a Zoom webinar that can be accessed at this link: https://clemson.zoom.us/j/94629443159
Attendance is free and there is no registration required.
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