There are many institutions that fail to recognize the disparity that Black individuals face in society. And unfortunately, it’s rare to see those institutions do anything about it. UTSC has taken a significant step in the right direction, and has made it their mission to deeply recognize the experience of Black students. The Black Student Engagement (BSE) is a program created by the university to provide Black-identifying students with support, knowledge and access to services and events that aid them in reaching their full potential. Stemming from the strategic vision, Inclusive Excellence, BSE was created to further combat anti-Black racism and has done an outstanding job at providing a safe space for Black students. Andria Lewis-Alexander, a UTSC staff member with a passion for the Department of Student Life, worked closely with her colleagues Adrian Leckie and Efe Chehore, to turn the dreams of BSE into a reality.
Like many people in the Black community, Andria recognized a need for Black individuals to have a safe space: somewhere students could connect and bond over shared cultures, all while being unapologetically Black. BSE has been able to successfully fill that void. “When I was younger, programs or clubs like BSE didn't exist,” Andria said, “that's why BSE became a passion, because it feels like I'm not only advocating for myself but everyone that resembles me. It's like every student became my own child.” She laughed while explaining her relationship with the BSE students.
Black student engagement is necessary, and I am proud that UTSC has taken this step, not just in creating my position, but for creating opportunities for students to come together.
Negative stereotypes often cause Black students to feel a sense of exclusion when it comes to collaborating or socializing with their peers. BSE has been a pillar of acceptance that welcomes Black students with open arms. “Although we are in Scarborough, a city known for its diversity, there are still many instances in which you are walking into a space as the only minority,” Andria explains. “We are empowering our students to know there's always space for them at UTSC. It’s our job to fill the gaps that exist in regard to connecting them to the right people and services. BSE is not just about the social aspect, it’s about providing our students with the tools they need to be successful within our University.” Through the guiding light of Inclusive Excellence, the humble beginnings of BSE, included two events; “Black Student Welcome” and “Evening with Black Professionals.” These events, led by Assistant Dean Nadia Rosemond, provided immense support for the Black students who participated in the Imani Mentorship Program.
The impact BSE has had on Black UTSC students is tangible. The program has facilitated an environment that focuses on connecting students not only with services but with other Black-centered clubs around campus. Denise Nmashie and Euloge Oyono, two executives of the African Students’ Association (ASA) and members of the Black Students in Business (BSB) group, have expressed their gratitude for the work BSE has done in supporting student clubs, “I appreciate BSE not only for facilitating more spaces that increase solidarity and community among Black students, but for going the extra mile in offering itself as a resource for Black identifying clubs,” Denise shared. “BSE has sponsored both ASA and BSB events, making them a reliable resource for Black clubs to turn to.” Euloge added.
BSE is a community that continues to bring Black students comfort, and a sense of belonging. When asked what community meant to Andria she responded, “Community is family, laughter, and being able to share every emotion. Community is togetherness.” BSE exists not only to be a helping hand, or a shoulder to lean on for Black students, but to uplift and encourage Black students by providing them with the necessary tools they need for academic and personal achievement. One of Andria’s favorite aspects of BSE is the way the program is able to bring international students together. “Seeing our international students walk in and find their people is a beautiful thing.”
With the current success of BSE, it is no surprise that Andria sees a bright future for the program. “I see BSE evolving in so many ways. I see us supporting career initiatives and giving students opportunities to evolve holistically” says Andria. “I see us helping students develop far beyond their academic side.”
The dedicated and passionate team of Black staff behind BSE has been devoted to fostering the growth and improvement of the Black Student Experience. Andria Lewis-Alexander and her colleagues continue to exemplify Black excellence on our campus. They curated a space designed specifically for Black students, to come together and thrive as a community. Because of BSE, many Black students now have the confidence in knowing they will always have a place at UTSC, and will always belong.
Written by Chasya Williams
Photos captured by Marc Alolod