Opinion Sig

Dear readers,

My name is Temi Onayemi, and I am one of 676 black students in an institution that boasts nearly 26,000 students. That number is strikingly low, and it has been for several decades now. Furthermore, there are only 34 black faculty out of 1,397 faculty that are on campus. Often, we forget that statistics have stories and meanings behind them. It is hard to ignore those numbers when they play a direct role in our everyday lives.

Race is of the utmost importance to me. There has not been a single day that I am not reminded about the color of my skin. As a black person, I understand that many people brand me as uneducated, violent and lazy long before they have heard me speak. 

As a black scholar, I have seen the impacts of education on my brothers and sisters across the country. As a black student, I fully understand that I am at a primarily white institution. But, as a black leader, I believe that it’s my responsibility to express my discontent with the lack of representation on my campus.

I am in the College of Arts and Sciences, the largest college at UNL with 4,386 student representatives. Of that number, only 870 students are minorities. To break that number down further, you would see that 169 of those students are black. One hundred sixty-nine students that have most likely been the only black student in at least one lecture, class, or recitation at some point throughout their college experience.

The psychological pressures of these statistics often go unnoticed, because it quite literally only affects 2% of campus. There is no reason why I, or any of my black peers, should ever have to be the spokesperson for the black community in a classroom. Every word we say, each question we get wrong, and each time we miss a class is the representation of how a black student behaves in a classroom. Our jobs as students is to learn. We did not enroll in a four-year institution to educate our peers and professors on black culture, nor did we enroll to speak for other members of our community.

In any success story, the protagonist usually has a mentor to guide him or her on the journey. The role of a mentor is arguably the most important position someone can have in a relationship. I have 34 to choose from. Thirty-four black faculty members who understand the struggles of black students and have created spaces for us on our campus. Although I am forever grateful to each one of them, I am also aware that mentorship is not in their pay grade. They have been gracious enough to remind black men and women that we are good enough and that we belong.

I didn’t meet a black faculty member on campus until the end of my second year of college. The late Reverend Dr. Michael Combs changed the trajectory of my life within the first day of setting my eyes on him. I was finally able to see that it was possible to be a successful black man in Nebraska. To know that my white peers have 1,317 possible mentors makes me feel like I’ve been cheated over the past four years. It is a constant reminder that we have not created a space for everyone to succeed.

With everything that’s been said regarding the state of diversity on campus, tokenism needs to be brought to light and exterminated as a concept. It’s false advertisement, and essentially lying to the masses. We are enticing other minority students to come to a campus and a state that is not ready to receive them and doesn’t necessarily want them. Nebraska’s slogan, “Honestly, it’s not for everyone,” has racial undertones that might not have been intended, but were received nonetheless. 

Diversity and inclusion is supposedly a main pillar for the University of Nebraska, but we have been dropping the ball. I am embarrassed to know that we provide so many anecdotes for why diversity matters, but have had minimal support from key stakeholders. Rather than exaggerate the current state of diversity and inclusion, we should put our words into action.

Like other situations, the first step is to admit that there is a problem. The fact of the matter is that racism plagues the state of Nebraska and its education system. Too many generations have swept the issue under the rug. This is not about pointing our fingers at other states and saying how much worse it could be. This is not about telling me to find a new school to go to if I don’t like it here. This is about being honest and having those conversations. Conversations that focus on listening to the wants and the needs of marginalized groups. Conversations that allow those marginalized groups to make the decisions for a change.

The second step is to create a community to receive and retain diversity. It takes more than the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and a few offices in the Jackie Gaughan Multicultural Center. It requires everyone to participate and get out of their comfort zones. It requires each of us to get very comfortable with being uncomfortable. The multicultural center should never be the only place that people see minorities on campus.

The third step is to understand that inclusion is an important step to this process. To bring students into the state and the university system takes more than just seeing the numbers. We need to give minority students, faculty, staff, administration, and alumni a reason to be involved with this university. This manifests itself in having welcome events planned by minority students, decisions made by minority faculty and staff, more mentorship opportunities for minority students. The years of pipelining minority students into a university that has nothing for them needs to end. Each move we make towards a more diverse and inclusive campus must be strategic, sustainable, and intentional.

The looming pressures of graduating leaves me terrified, not for myself, but for future generations of black students coming in and out of the University of Nebraska. The four years that I have had at this university has been a unique experience. The pain, frustration and patience it takes to be black on this campus shocks me. It is a struggle that my community intends on overcoming.

My only request for this university stems from my biggest fear. I hope that no other black student needs to write a piece like this again, but this plea has been ignored for too many generations before me, so I know someone will.

Temi Onayemi