Black Student Center, Library Team Up for Oral History Project
By Tim Meehan
The sharing of our history evolved from cave drawings to eventual oral stories passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation.
So when Cal State San Marcos’ Black Student Center decided to team up with the library special collections group for a retrospective on its five-year history, the consensus was to share stories and experiences orally.
The BSC is celebrating its fifth anniversary this month with a handful of events, culminating in a celebration on Feb. 26 where the Oral History Project will be shared for the first time.
“There's a group that we've been working for the last year, year and a half in trying to figure out how we can better serve our community, better serve our regional area,” said John Rawlins III, director of the BSC. “When we first were thinking about the project, we wanted to start with the individuals who were a part of the community prior to the establishment of the center. Some who are student leaders who were a part of ASI, are a part of the Black Student Union, coming together to figure out how they could make a Black Student Center happen.”
The stories will be made available only digitally for now.
They’ll be unveiled at the BSC anniversary celebration along with web pages for each narrator. Additional content in the coming months is expected.
The stories tell firsthand experiences of the driven and energetic community members who worked tirelessly to create a space where Black students could go to both feel comfortable and learn from others.
They convey the passion of the people responsible for starting the center as well as the emotions of those who considered the space a huge part of their time on campus.
While five years may not seem like a long time, where the BSC is now seems like a lifetime from when it opened in 2017.
“You're documenting history,” said Sean Visintainer, the CSUSM head of special collections for the library. “You're providing an avenue to document the history of the center to give recognition to the people that worked very diligently over a period of years to make this happen and advocacy and in support of the student-centered initiative. It's a really interesting story, and that it was implemented and advocated for by students and supported by staff and faculty. It's a really exciting and enticing idea to me in both a professional and a personal sense and in that a lot of the work that we do in archives is trying to preserve and document history.”
The idea for the project was born from a conversation between Visintainer and CSUSM alumnus Jake Northington, a photographer who went on to graduate school in education at Cal State Fullerton.
The two met at Northington’s photography exhibition and discussed the idea of an oral history project involving the BSC. The conversation lasted about 20 minutes, and they set up an interview to further discuss the project. That interview lasted a couple of hours.
“His artwork is focused a lot on representation of the Black community,” Visintainer said. “And he wanted to positively show representation of Black men and women to combat a lot of the negative stereotypes that exist in our society. We talked about the Black Student Center and how that got founded and how important it was. And it was a really interesting tangent to go on, which is one of the great things about oral histories. You can sometimes go on these tangents and end up uncovering things that you didn't have any intention to uncover.”
Jenn Ho, an archivist for special collections, was critical in the project. She and Visintainer trained students in oral history methodology.
The project hit some obvious roadblocks when campus remained closed for an extended period of time due to the pandemic. But once the student team was hired in February 2021, it was onboarded by March. The oral histories were completed by the end of the semester.
“We envision this project being student focused like students learning oral history methodology then conducting the interviews and then doing some of that post interview work as well,” Visintainer said. “These students were all awesome and really enthusiastic about the project.”
Rawlins has been part of the BSC for half of the BSC’s existence. In that time, he has witnessed a tremendous amount of growth for the group in both numbers and support from the CSUSM community.
He spent a good portion of his early days on campus having conversations with faculty, staff and alumni. His goal was to learn why CSUSM needed a space like this.
“It's how we utilize not just the physical space but really thinking about the philosophy around why these kinds of spaces are important and what they can foster for students’ experience,” said Rawlins, who has a bachelor’s degree in human development from Cornell and a master’s degree in communications from Johns Hopkins. “That is what really has helped carry me in my work these two-and-a-half years. Really thinking about how we create opportunities for students for them to take charge of their education, for them to see themselves in what I consider a call of culturally affirming and validating experience at CSUSM. And helping them to put their own spin on what it means to be successful as a Black student or as a student in general at a university like CSUSM.”
The BSC, which is located at University Student Union 4200, not only creates a community space for Black students, it provides professional development and academic success opportunities for students, faculty and staff of all backgrounds. It strives to promote an equitable campus through advocacy education and support services.
The goal is to help students translate that experience on campus to advocating for change and equity upon graduation.
“We really want to get Black students and their families to see that CSUSM is a viable option,” Rawlins said. “It's going from the intention of just having a physical space where both can gather to really the philosophy around how we best utilize spaces, to create community and for students to find community and to be successful.”
Research has shown that students who are more connected to their learning institutions graduate at a higher rate. Keeping high retention levels is a major goal of every university.
But beyond that is the goal of wanting students to connect to something larger than them. To pique their curiosity in the classroom. To help them respect their differences and come together in their similarities.
“Now, of course it doesn't mean that students won't have their share of difficulties, their share of ups and downs as they go on the journey,” Rawlins said. “But when they know that they're connected to a space and connected to other individuals, it makes it a little bit easier to deal with some of the tough times you've experienced in the classroom or even in your own personal life. And this has definitely been that space for a lot of students. We're able to have these conversations to help them realize as you're going through your academic experience, as you're going through just personal circumstances, you don't necessarily have to go to these alone. And if the resource is not within the center, well guess what? We're connected to many other campus partners that we're able to get that student to help in the assistance that they need. And ultimately, I find that that helps students really want to be in the space and be together.”
Eric Breier, Public Affairs Specialist
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