This year, the DDCE is proud to honor Black Graduate Student Association (BGSA) with the Student Legacy Award at the annual Heman Sweatt Symposium on Civil Rights. We caught up with three BGSA leaders to learn more about their good work in making UT Austin a more equitable, inclusive place—and how they are addressing some pressing challenges that are faced by many Black graduate students in higher education.
Academics: B.S. Psychology, University of Pittsburgh;
Third-Year Doctoral Student, Human Development and Family Science
Hometown: Washington, DC
Role: BGSA Co-President
Academics: B.S. Psychology, Oklahoma State University;
Third-Year Doctoral Student, Counseling Psychology
Hometown: Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Role: BGSA Co-President
Academics: M.S. Civil Engineering, Columbia University;
Third-Year Doctoral Student, Civil Engineering
Hometown: St. Louis, MO
Role: BGSA Vice President
What does it mean to you to be honored at the Heman Sweatt Symposium on Civil Rights?
BGSA: It means a great deal to be honored at this symposium! As graduate students, and specifically as Black graduate students, we are often left out of the conversation when it comes to what happens on campus for various reasons. Understanding this, as BGSA presidents, we took it upon ourselves to make sure that this is no longer the case and that the voices and experiences of Black graduate students at UT are not only recognized but celebrated and validated.
How do students benefit from this association?
BGSA: Through involvement in the BGSA, students are able to find community in a space where they often do not see many graduate students who look like them in their respective departments. With the help of our executive board, we are able to provide students with social, academic and community engagement events to ensure that we are meeting our graduate members’ needs in a way that is also culturally affirming.
More recently, we have partnered with IUPRA, the Graduate School and the DDCE to secure upwards of $30,000 of funding in order to ensure that our members have the ability to network and professionally develop as they see fit. We have provided scholar activist awards to our members in addition to providing equitable funding for the various professional development needs of our members.
Finally, in collaboration with the DDCE and the Graduate School, we are also working on putting together UT’s first interdisciplinary Multicultural Research Symposium to provide students with opportunities for experience, networking, research advancement, professional development, and to assist in the recruitment of graduate and undergraduate students of color.
How did you personally benefit from the BGSA?
Lorraine: BGSA has helped me grow into a more confident leader and graduate student. As co-president, I have been able to meet so many new and incredible people on this campus and beyond, who I have been able to network with, both for BGSA and for my own professional development. I was even able to negotiate and create my own fellowship at my college (College of Natural Sciences), because of the DEI work I became involved in on campus, through BGSA.
Shaina: As a Black woman, the BGSA has given me the opportunity to have a voice in my experience on campus, which is uncommon for students of color and women of color in academia. I know that not having a sense of belonging or a community to uplift you can have a negative mental health toll on Black students, and for me it has been life changing to facilitate that community and support for myself and other Black students.
BGSA: It has also given us all the opportunity to be a part of systemic change at the academic level. It is such an amazing feeling to be able to advocate for Black students on UT’s campus, in addition to having a say and a serious impact in our livelihood here.
What would you say are the top issues impacting Black graduate students that need addressing?
BGSA: We would say that the top issues facing Black graduate students are the lack of adequate funding and institutional support at the university level. This is particularly challenging as the needs of Black undergraduates and graduate students are often treated as monolithic. While there is some obvious cultural overlap, the Black undergraduate and graduate experiences are very different and need to be treated as such. There is also a lot of work to be done in recruitment and retention to increase the Black graduate student presence and voice on this campus.
What advice would you give to a new Black graduate student here at UT?
BGSA: We would first welcome them and provide a shameless plug for BGSA. We would also not sugar-coat things and say that being a Black graduate at UT specifically is often not easy because of the underrepresentation of Black students and faculty here. However, there are amazing people on this campus who care about our presence and are rooting for our success, and without these people, We would not have had half of the opportunities and great experiences that we have had these past three years.
Which Civil Rights leader, past or present, do you look to for inspiration?
BGSA: Currently, we are very inspired by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw. In addition to being an accomplished lawyer, civil rights advocate and scholar of race, Black feminist legal theory and critical race theory, she also is credited with developing the Intersectionality theory. This theory is very relevant to much of what the BGSA has been trying to accomplish under our current presidency. By treating the Black student experience as a monolith, academia is doing Black students on this campus a great disservice. Black students come from different backgrounds, hold different positions and intersections, and they have different experiences based on the aforementioned factors. Therefore, in order to actually help Black graduate students succeed and thrive, the university not only needs to be aware of our various intersectional identities, but provide us with experiences and opportunities that affirm these identities.
More about the BGSA
The BGSA is an interdisciplinary organization that aims to empower and provide support to Black graduate students at the University of Texas at Austin. Through academic programming, professional development, community engagement and social events, the BGSA addresses the needs of Black graduate students while also serving as a safe space for learning and discussion. The BGSA recognizes the richness and diversity of African and African American cultures and celebrates the varying expressions of all graduate students on UT’s campus that descend from Africa and the African diaspora. Their goal is to inspire community and collaboration. Students of all majors and backgrounds are welcome.