For some incoming students, campus hate crimes are cause for concern
Petition started by freshman earned over 1,400 signatures
Summer at American University. The campus is quiet, the weather is hot, and a steady stream of new students are headed to AU for their Eagle Summit orientation sessions. It’s an optimistic time: new students are getting their first taste of college and what the next four years will bring.
But AU’s incoming class of freshmen are arriving at an uncertain time. Hate crimes targeted black women in Anderson Hall in September, and again in May, on Taylor Dumpson’s first day as the student government’s first black female president. The news left some students questioning their decision to come to AU.
“I’m a black woman,” said Alyssa Bailey, an incoming freshman from Portland, Oregon who plans to study international studies and Spanish. “It freaked me out.”
In a phone interview, Bailey said that before the hate crime took place, she was thinking about pledging Alpha Kappa Alpha, the sorority targeted in the attack.
“For them to be targeted … I was just like, I don’t know if this is the right choice for me anymore,” she said.
Along with some classmates, Bailey started a group chat for incoming students of color after news of the hate crime spread.
“It’s a place where we talk and kind of get to know each other, get a stronger network and feel more comfortable when we get [on campus],” Bailey said.
As more news broke about the hate crimes, students in the group chat became fed up, Bailey said. Most members live in majority white areas or go to majority white schools such as AU, she said.
“Everybody was like, ‘you know, I’m not about to take this when I get on campus,’ you know, just keeping their guard up,” Bailey said. “For the most part, people are ready to charge in there, not being a victim to racism and things like that.”
Bailey was not the only new student appalled by the hate crime on May 1. Katie Blair, an incoming freshman from New Jersey planning to study justice, law and society, created a petition in response to the hate crimes in May.
Titled “Address the instances of hate speech on AU's campus and hold the perpetrators responsible,” the petition demands that “the students responsible for this must be found and held accountable for what they have done.”
The petition goes on: “If these students remain a part of American University after these horrible actions, then it is clear that to American University the messages [depicted in the hate crime] do have a place in the community.”
Bailey talked to her future classmates through an AU Class of 2021 Facebook group before creating the petition. They acknowledged that they wouldn’t be on campus to voice their concerns but wanted to get a message out, and the petition was born.
“When stuff started happening, we were like, what do we do now?” Blair said.
Blair was homeschooled, so she created the petition in part because of her inexperience dealing with racism and a desire to help, she said. The petition garnered over 1,400 signatures as of press time, a number that surprised Blair. She said current students, incoming students, parents and alumni signed the petition.
But Blair also got a response from somebody she wasn’t expecting — a member of AU’s administration.
Jeremy Lowe, AU’s associate director of admissions, reached out to Blair through an email, Blair said. The email stated that AU was committed to continuing a dialogue, and told Blair to tune into a webinar that AU was hosting the next night about cybersecurity.
“I listened to the webinar, and I was like … that didn’t really address what happened,” Blair said. “The whole talk was about AUx [AU Experience]. 75 percent of the talk was about AUx.”
AUx is also known as the “American University Experience,” and will be added to the general education curriculum fully in the fall of 2018. According to its website, AUx aims to create conversations about diversity, inclusion and other issues that the university community faces.
During a June interview with The Eagle, University President Sylvia Burwell said she was working to address diversity and inclusion through her summer listening tour.
"In all of these conversations, issues of diversity and inclusion and some of the issues that we’re all working on on the campus are always going to be a part of this conversation and have been a part of many of my conversations," Burwell said.
Although Blair was upset about the reaction from the administration to the racist incident, she said that administrators were in a tough spot.
“To be fair, a lot of us didn’t know how they should respond either, because it wasn’t something that any of us had thought about,” Blair said. “But we knew it wasn’t the right way.”
Fanta Aw prepares orientation leaders for questions about safety at Eagle Summit
The University also grappled with how to address the hate crime during summer orientation sessions known as Eagle Summit. The Eagle reached out to Jennifer Johnson, the University’s director of orientation, transition, and retention, who declined to comment. Emails to the general orientation staff were not returned as of press time.
Dr. Fanta Aw, interim vice president of campus life, said she is aware of student concerns and that the hate crime is still fresh in administrators’ minds. Aw took over as interim vice president on April 1, and has been a part of the AU community for 25 years. She previously told The Eagle that the May 1 incidents were the “worst she’s ever seen” in her time at AU.
“This is something that we take very seriously,” Aw said in a recent interview. “It’s certainly on our minds.”
Aw said she held a meeting before orientation sessions began with all who play a part in the process to get them on the same page. She wanted to bring everybody together — because Eagle Summit is not only an event for the orientation staff, but the entire AU community, she said.
She told staff at the meeting that they can expect to get questions and concerns about safety from both students and parents, and that going from high school to college is a big adjustment.
“Students are coming in with their belief systems, their value orientation, and are coming to a University setting where they may not be fully cognizant or verse about what our values are,” Aw said. “This is also a time where we begin to talk about our values as a community, that’s open to ideas and open to differences, and what that means. Those were the kind of conversations that we had.”
But given the national climate, Aw said, students want to know what kind of community they would be coming into.
“Coming into the community, it’s a combination of understanding what you’re bringing into the community, and understanding what you can expect from community. And the message there is that it’s going to take everyone doing their part,” Aw said. “And people understanding that you’re going to be in an environment where differences will exhibit themselves, but where there’s also an expectation that human dignity needs to prevail.”