First semester of Black affinity housing: Creating a sense of belonging and community for Black students
‘You know you can always come home to your safe space’
Last semester was American University’s first semester hosting Black affinity housing and the long-awaited residential experience has provided Black students a community and a safe place with the return of on-campus schooling.
“Anytime that you have a community that’s kind of put together with intentionality, there’s going to be benefit and value to that,” said Lisa Freeman, the director of residence life. “It’s finding your home away from home. It’s being able to see people who look like you reflected in your everyday interactions and engagement. It’s about celebrating identity.”
The Black affinity housing program had been in the works for about two and a half years before it was implemented, according to Fanta Aw, the vice president of campus life and inclusive excellence. Students had advocated for this residential experience for even longer.
“I know for years there’s been a lot of advocating for Black affinity housing because so many other universities have that,” said Karissa Frederick, a junior in the School of International Service and an events coordinator for AU’s Black Student Union. Frederick pointed to The Black House at Georgetown University, a community-centered space for students of color, as an example.
One of the appeals of this residential experience has been its ability to facilitate community building among Black students.
“We know for American University based on consistent data year after year with our campus climate survey, our Black students have had the lowest sense of belonging,” Aw said. “So anything we could do to really in many ways enhance that and do that for all of our students, the better we’re going to all be.”
Frederick said Black students’ low sense of belonging at the University can also be attributed to the University’s status as a predominantly white institution. Just over 55 percent of AU’s undergraduate population is white, according to the fall 2021 academic data reference book.
“There are quite a few kids who’ve never navigated this sort of environment before,” Frederick said. “So [I’d] definitely say join Black affinity housing because, one, you’re going to make friends, two, if ever you don’t feel as though you can’t be comfortable in your own skin as you are, you know you can always come home to your safe space.”
Nadine LeeSang is a freshman in the School of Public Affairs currently living in Roper Hall, where Black affinity housing is located. LeeSang found out about the program when she was filling out her housing application form. She was drawn to the residential experience because LeeSang, like many other Black students, see the residence as a space where they don’t have to conform and can connect with other people with similar experiences.
“I feel like a lot of people I talk to who live here, when they give reasons why they chose it, hair is a big thing,” LeeSang said. “So whenever I go to sleep and I want to put my bonnet or scarf on, I can walk through the hallways and feel like I won’t be judged.”
Despite the safe space that Roper Hall has provided, LeeSang also has some criticisms of the residence. The lack of promotion for the residence hall was one problem she thinks needs improvement.
“I feel like lots of people don’t know, one, that it exists or, two, where it is,” LeeSang said.
Frederick also pointed out how isolated the residence hall is from the rest of the campus.
LeeSang also felt that promotion for the residence hall before the fall semester was lax. She only found out about the program when filling out the housing application. Both Frederick and LeeSang initially thought that Black affinity housing would be allocated to one floor because of the lack of promotion.
“When they broke the news that it was going to be in Roper, I will say I was initially somewhat disappointed because I just feel like we need a bigger space,” Frederick said. She envisioned the University designating Black affinity housing to an entire floor in one of the other residence halls, like a living learning community.
LeeSang said she had no idea what her residence hall or dorm would look like because of the lack of photos and video provided of the residence.
“Even if you don’t necessarily want to live in Black affinity housing, I feel like everyone could benefit from just knowing about it,” LeeSang said.
In some respects, the building has issues with accessibility because they don’t have an elevator.
“If someone on the second floor breaks their leg or if something happens, you’re kind of done for,” LeeSang said. “I think compared to other dorms, like you can really tell [others are] newer and… some things are better quality.”
The pandemic has also been a hindrance to residence activities for this first year of Black affinity housing.
Initially, a more robust program with additional in-person community activities had been planned for the spring semester. According to Freeman, the University was planning to have a speaker series with some in-person speakers, to visit historical parts of Black D.C. and were working with the Black Alumni Alliance to create a mentoring program with Black students and Black alumni. However, with the surge of COVID-19 cases from the Omicron variant, it is yet to be seen whether the University will still enact these programs.
“[Students] want more programming and they want more in-person programming,” Aw said. “Being in the middle of a pandemic, we are still challenged with trying to make sure there are as many opportunities while also trying to be as vigilant as we can from a health and safety perspective.”
After seeing the benefits of Black affinity housing, students say that the University should implement similar programs for other communities.
“In order to have Black affinity housing, they scratched previous affinity housing to just accommodate that,” Frederick said in reference to previous all-female and gender neutral housing in Roper. “I believe that we need every single affinity that we can get because people deserve to have their safe spaces where they can be them and there are other people like them too, where they can find friends and build their own on-campus family.”