“There was a boy that said, ‘What’s up my n****a?’. I didn’t know how to react to that, it was a weird situation for me…. I feel sorry for some of them, they’re so sheltered that they don’t know how it works.” -Teonne Smith (‘19).
Last year Collegiate celebrated its Centennial anniversary, a milestone that represents years of progress and evolution. Surely Collegiate is not the same school it was during 1915, where it was home to just 75 female students in a much smaller location in downtown Richmond. Now, 1,643 girl and boy students roam around the Upper, Middle, and Lower school divisions on the Mooreland and Robins campuses. While the growth of the school over the past 100 years is remarkable, something even more fascinating to me is how the school has progressed in recent years.
Ever since my arrival during freshman year, the identity of the school campus has been in a continuous stage of development. Most notably, buildings such as the Academic Commons and the H2L2 Studio, which have been an integral part of my Upper School experience, did not even exist when I first stepped foot on campus. The old Upper School library that I had grown accustomed to during my first year as a student has now been completely renovated and changed into a library for the Middle School, and most recently the Lower School just celebrated the opening of their own cafeteria.
While the physical changes to the Mooreland Road campus of Collegiate may be the most noticeable, they certainly have not been the most impactful to my high school experience as an African American. From my freshman year to my senior year, I have seen the Upper School become increasingly more diverse, and even more promising is the growth of the diversity in the Lower School.
Founded in 1915 as an independent school in Richmond, Virginia, it should come as no surprise that none of the 75 original students in Collegiate’s first year operation were people of color. However, today there are many more races, ethnicities, and religious groups represented in Collegiate’s student population. In the 2004-2005 school year, 8.4% of Collegiate students were of color; that number has more than doubled to 17.3% as of this year.
A result of the school’s changing demographics has been the openness of the Senior Speeches. In my four years as an Upper School student, I have seen speeches where people have talked about their ethnic backgrounds, religions, and also opening up about their sexuality. This was certainly not the case just a few years ago.
Dr. Richard Bennett, an African American Collegiate lifer, current board member, and alum who graduated in 1990 simply said “No” when asked if students talked openly about race, religion, or sexuality during Senior Speeches in his day. When reflecting upon his time at Collegiate, he never really felt attacked or profiled because of his race. However, he does recall one incident during fourth grade:
“We were playing soccer, and one of my classmates said ‘I don’t want to switch (pennies) with Richard because I don’t want to get chocolate on my clothes’ and the coach kind of just laughed and made me switch with someone else.”
“Change is slow, but you got to believe in it and stick with it.” -Amanda Surgner
Amanda Surger, a 1983 graduate of Collegiate, mother of four Cougars, and the daughter of a civil rights lawyer, admits that the school was not very diverse during her time as a student. She also agrees that topics such as race and sexuality were simply just not discussed in the way they are today.
“I don’t think people talked about sexuality in our time, but now we are so much more accepting, which is promising.”
However, the tone of the discussion has changed greatly today.
“Y’all [students] aren’t afraid to talk about stuff. What I hope is that level of respect continues to revolve.”
While Collegiate has shown signs of improvement over the past few years, it certainly has not completely fulfilled its vision for the future. The administration has made diversity a top priority for the future of Collegiate’s development. Now the outgoing Vice President for Advancement, Surgner began working at Collegiate in the early 90’s and strongly values the emphasis the school has put on increasing its diversity. “I couldn’t work here if it wasn’t a strategic priority.”
The advantage that Collegiate has is that being an independent school, the administration can have a direct influence on the demographics of its student body. However, the challenge is that with a fixed number of spots and a 97% retention rate, it’s hard to make a notable difference in the grades that have an already established student population.
In order to work around this, years before Surgner and former Head of School Keith Evans devised a strategy that would target the kindergarten.
“We used kindergarten as a strategy for diversity and inclusion… Gradually, each year, the kindergarten school has become more and more diverse.”
While this strategy of building from the ground up may be slow and gradual, it is certainly the most effective, This year nearly a quarter (21.9%) of Lower School students are of color, compared to just 13.9% of the Upper School students.
Not only is Collegiate working to improve its diversity in the student body, but also in the faculty and staff.
“It is an important piece of the puzzle. We need to figure out better ways to reaching out to faculty and staff.”
One thing that Collegiate has done is reaching out to former Upper School Spanish teacher Erica Coffey, who has stepped into a more administrative role as Director of Inclusion. While the objectives of her newly-appointed role at the school have not been entirely spelled out, next year she will have to focus on three primary goals: retaining and recruiting faculty of color, professional development, and working with the admissions office.
By recruiting other faculty and staff members of color, Coffey hopes to partner with colleges around the area in order to develop a network and also find a way to reach out to people through social media. While increasing the diversity in the student body appears to be an easier task than the faculty and staff, the real challenge that Collegiate faces is how the school manages the changes in demographics.
“It’s not just about bringing in students (of color), but also how we make the experience meaningful,” says Surgner.
When talking to other students about their experiences at Collegiate, I encountered a wide variety of responses. Sonja Kapadia (‘17), who is half-Indian and has been at Collegiate since kindergarten, says that her ethnicity has “actually helped” her social life as a student, despite being the only Indian American student in her class until freshman year. But she still feels as if many Collegiate students may not be correctly exposed to different cultures and communities.
“I think people at Collegiate aren’t educated enough about what’s going on in the world.”
However, for African American student Teonne Smith (‘19), who came from Anna Julia Cooper Episcopal School last fall, the transition to Collegiate’s social atmosphere has not come easily. As his first year here as a freshman, Smith admits that adjusting to Collegiate has been rough at times. He notices that there have been instances where other peers act differently towards him because of his race.
“It’s the way I talk and the way that I present myself. I’m just being myself, but there are times where I feel like I don’t belong… I’ve had people come up to me and say ‘Teonne, we don’t talk that way here.’”
Senior Alex Parham (‘16), an African American has experienced similar struggles to Teonne.
“I was the first black guy [in my grade], at first it was really bad because people didn’t know how to act.”
However, he also says that his experiences have gotten much better during Upper School, and he has also taken notice of the progress Collegiate has made during his time as a student.
“It’s crazy to see how much color there is now. I never thought they could do that in a couple of years.”
Even though extreme or blatant racism is not necessarily an issue at Collegiate, many students of color or different religious backgrounds have to deal with incidents of microaggressions. While most Collegiate students have good intentions, they may use jokes directed towards someone’s race or religion that can actually be offensive, even though that wasn’t the original intent.
“I feel like it’s fairly easy to make friends, but there are always jokes made… At one point (during Middle School) someone asked me if I was hiding a bomb,” explains sophomore, Mohith Dhillon (‘18), who is Indian-American.
Jewish senior John Cantor (‘16) adds, “It happens a lot. I’ve learned to shut that aside. Whenever I get a Jew joke, I just laugh it off.”
Chelsea Cheon (‘17) who is Korean says, “You have no idea. People will never understand until they are in my shoes, but I’ve developed a tolerance. I had a hard time in Middle School, but I’ve learned to get over that.”
As discussed in Beverly Tatum’s book, Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, there is common stereotype in school systems around the country that students tend to self-segregate by race. And the answer to the question of why this occurs is because generally people feel more comfortable around others that look like themselves.
“It’s more comfortable being around people that you can relate to,” says Smith.
So going forward, the challenge for Collegiate is: As it gets more diverse, how can the student body become more cohesive instead of more divided?
“A lot of it is how you’re raised, offering diversity at an earlier age will definitely help.” explains Cantor.
With Collegiate’s strategy of focusing on the kindergarten, it appears that the school is approaching this issue from the right angle. Nearly all of the students interviewed say that Middle School was the most difficult time for them. Cheon reflects on her time as being the only Korean student when she first came to Collegiate in fourth grade.
“It was weird, once I came to Collegiate I noticed that I didn’t really fit right in. I did all the things the white girls did to fit in… I even tried to get my mom to become more normal.”
Dhillon adds: “I was the only Indian kid and at first I didn’t really talk to people.”
Despite some of their negative experiences early on as Collegiate students, they all agreed that they felt that they have seen significant improvements in Upper School. One of the reasons why, as some students have pointed out, is the presence of Mosaic. While Mosaic has the reputation for being the “black club” at Collegiate, this year especially it has taken new efforts to rebrand itself as a club for all students. “It’s straight to the point, and is not just for black people,” says Smith.
The club’s main purpose is to hold diversity-based discussions and provides students with opportunities to attend diversity conferences such as the Student Diversity Leadership Conference. “I randomly went to some conference, but when I went it was amazing.” says Cheon.
The creation of Mosaic, a club that did not exist during Dr. Bennett’s time as a student in the 1990’s, is one example of how Collegiate has grown as a community over time. However, it is unclear what changes the future has in store for Collegiate as the changing demographics in the Lower and Middle school continue to slowly carry over to the Upper School.
What is certain is that the school will continue to emphasize the implementation of African American literature and multi-ethnic literature into its curriculum. Around eight years ago, the Upper School offered a semester long course of African American Literature and another semester long course of Multi-Ethnic Literature as an English elective. The courses were offered for three years but struggled to gain popularity among the student body.
“It got to the point where we couldn’t even get a section,” explains Dr. Linda Rouse, Upper School English teacher (and Director of Upper School Scheduling). “At the time there was not a big African American or multi-ethnic presence.”
The English department did the best it could to advocate for the class, but was dropped from its curriculum to make room for other, more popular electives. Instead, the department has decided to weave African American literature and multi-ethnic literature into English 9 and 10, which are required courses for underclassmen. Required books include Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston and Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.
The challenge for teachers is how to present such material to their class, since it often does include more sensitive topics such as race and religion. “I feel like I’m more comfortable talking about it than my students,” says Dr. Rouse. “Part of the problem is people are afraid they might say the wrong thing.” Even with the efforts of the English department, there are students who aren’t satisfied with the course offerings. Cheon believes Collegiate should “broaden the spectrum of culture.”
One of the most successful classes in the eyes of many students is the semester-long Religion course required for sophomores. It allows students to be exposed to the principles of other religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, especially since some students think that Collegiate does have a slight bias towards Christianity.
Dhillon, who is a follower of Sikhism, thinks, “Everybody is represented fairly, but there is a slight lean towards Christianity.” Cantor adds: “Collegiate advertises about not having religious affiliations but it still kind of does.” This is in response to Collegiate traditions such as Lessons and Carols and Pageant, but as explained by Kapadia, these events aren’t required for students.
“I don’t think Pageant is bad since people who don’t believe in it don’t have to participate.”
The challenge with further implementation of religion and multi-ethnic studies in the Upper School curriculum is how we can make these discussions easier and more comfortable for students in a classroom setting. Collegiate does devote assembly time towards addressing these issues, but as explained by some, the message is not always well-received among the student body. “I don’t know if it’s Collegiate’s fault, it’s more of how the kids accept it,” says Cantor. Surgner adds, “Just because someone doesn’t buy in, you still have to continue with it, because that’s how you grow.”
So there should be no doubt that Collegiate will continue to do more of the same in its assemblies.
“I’m ok with people being uncomfortable,” says Coffey, who is involved with bringing in guest speakers and Mosaic announcements and activities during assembly. “My goal is to grow empathy in the student body and faculty as well.”
Growth is the key. My great-aunt Elnora Pace, who is approaching the age of 100, was a housekeeper for many Collegiate parents for most of her adult life. She shed tears joy when she heard that I had been accepted into the school during my freshman year, since she never thought there would be a day when someone related to her would be able to attend Collegiate.
So certainly Collegiate has grown significantly and is well on the path of continuing its growth in the future. This growth is all for the better, as it will bring together a stronger community of not only students and faculty, but also parents and families. America is in a position it has never been before in its history as demographics are shifting in the 21st century. It’s estimated that by the year 2042, for the first time in American history since the first European settlers arrived, whites will make up less than half of the total population. Over the past 50 years in particular, America undergone an era of great change in demographics, resulting mainly from immigration, an increase in interracial marriages, and the decline in the population of non-Hispanics whites in recent years (in 2013 and 2014, there were 61,841 more deaths than births).
It is essential that Collegiate prepares its students for the next wave of American society. Collegiate students, and students across the country, will need to be able to collaborate and connect with people who may look different or have different opinions than themselves because colleges, business offices, and communities will be much more diverse than they have been in the past. Collegiate will continue to undergo efforts in order reflect the changing American society, and by doing so, a more inclusive, cultured, and empathetic Collegiate community will emerge.
All photos courtesy of Collegiate’s official website and Facebook pages.