Looking Back, Looking Forward

IN MAY AND JUNE, the Alumni Association invited nearly 30 alumni of color to share their UMaine experiences through a series of conversations via Zoom. The conversations occurred in the context of President Joan Ferrini-Mundy’s public commitment to ensuring “inclusive excellence” at the university through diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

As students, nearly all of the participants were involved in campus life through sports, student government, or student-led organizations. Most of them attended UMaine within the past 30 years. Many of them knew each other during college and have remained connected through social media.

However, only a half-dozen of the participants have stayed engaged in any way with UMaine or the Alumni Association. Those who have not been involved cited unpleasant campus memories and limited outreach on the part of the university and Alumni Association.

But participants expressed interest in the recommendations of Ferrini-Mundy’s President’s Council on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and in the Alumni Association’s own DEI initiatives, including programs related to racial equity and social justice and the formation of a UMaine Alumni of Color group.

The following quotes are excerpted from several hours of wide-ranging discussions and individual interviews. They pertain to just a few of the topics covered and help illustrate the differing and similar experiences and opinions of participants. The quotes are organized thematically, with context added in some instances.

Life at UMaine

Shontay Delalue ’00, ’03G: Your lived experience will often dictate how you engage with your environment. There are people who grew up in predominantly white spaces who didn’t have the same struggle as I and others had at UMaine. My high school [in New Jersey] was predominantly Black, so when I got to UMaine and [found] that my roommate had never engaged with a Black person before, I thought, “that’s impossible!” She was from Machias, and she was just terrified of me. I don’t know what she thought—that I had a gun or knife, or that I was part of a gang and all the other stereotypes [of urban minorities]. It was jarring for me. I had just turned 18. I was, like, “I just came here to go to school!”

Arnie James ’72: I had a very positive experience. I think some of it has to do with my background. I grew up in Rutland, Vermont, a city of 20,000 people with a sprinkling of Black people. There were no Black kids in my class. So, for the most part, in any given situation, I was the only Black person. When I made my decision to come to Maine, I had a high school classmate who was already there as a freshman. I called him and said, “I’m coming to Maine,” and he said, “Great! We need to room together!”

Sharon McGraw Samuels ’03: At UMaine I got to do a lot of things that I wouldn’t have been able to do at any other university, so I cherish those opportunities and experiences. But some-times it was exhausting, and I became resentful of my time there. At 17 and 18 years old, being singled out and expected to give the “Black perspective” on things was a little daunting. I often felt robbed of my educational experience because I was doing more educating. Almost 20 years later, I can look back on my time in Orono as foundational to who I am and am hopeful that other students benefited from the work we did while there.

Gustavo Burkett ’02, ’05G: I’m a citizen now, but I was an international student at the time. From my perspective as a Latino and international student, going to Maine was the first time I was introduced to the idea of a racialized society. It didn’t exist, or at least it wasn’t visible to me, where I came from (Argentina). I would see interactions [on campus] between people and think, “I don’t even know what’s going on here.” I’m not sure we’re in a place yet where we’re prepared to introduce our inter-national population to what they’re going to encounter in American society today, particularly around issues of racial justice and the central place race has played in the history of this country.

Carl Smith ’92: I never had any problems my self, but I know others had problems. For me personally, I was treated with the utmost respect. When I was there, we had people of color we could talk to—[coaches] Trish Roberts and Rudy Keeling, and two police officers on campus. I also think our African American Club was very strong at that time. We always had someone to go talk to. I never felt uncomfortable, but I also put myself out there. I made friends outside of athletics in order to make myself more comfortable—and to make other people comfortable with me.

Jojo Oliphant ’00: When we were at UMaine, you’d be [arguing] with teachers, you’d be hav ing physical fights with white students. It was almost like you had to fight so you could fit in, so that people wouldn’t take advantage of you. I can’t remember any resources we could call. I know there were police officers who were of color, but it seemed that they acted like we were always in the wrong.

Ukeme Awakessien Jeter ’04: I was both an international student and a Black student, so I fell into two different buckets of [underrepresented] students. The International Students program was very involved in integrating students and did a lot of programming. It did quite a lot to keep us from suffering culture shock. Unlike my Black experience on campus, it also gave me more of a safety net for the campus culture and student life. I’m not sure if it was a lack of resources or just the power of numbers—or lack thereof—that created that kind of disparity between [being an interna-tional student and a Black student].

Kimberly Dao ’14: Looking back, a lot of things that people used to say or do or joke about in college—like saying my name with an Asian accent or making comments about rice—people don’t do that anymore with me because they’re thinking, “Oh, maybe that’s not appropriate,” which is true. Honestly, the weird part was that [racial and ethnic remarks] weren’t said by strangers, it was actually my friends. I think maybe they thought I was comfortable with it. I just rolled with the punches.

Doug Dorsey ’89: My perspective will be different from other [alumni of color] who weren’t athletes. When I was there, there was a very different minority dynamic. All the diversity came from sports, so at that point in time, there clearly was no effort to diversify the student population with non-athletes. Athletes are treated very differently in society from those who aren’t athletes. People are a bit more friendly to you. They’re more open-minded and receptive to you.

Microaggressions and Hostility

EDITOR’S NOTE: Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a microaggression as “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group, such as a racial minority.” Most of the alumni participants mentioned experiencing microaggressions as well as outright hostility while at UMaine. Those experiences ranged from having a stranger or casual acquaintance touch their hair out of curiosity about its texture, to being mocked, threatened, or assaulted because of their skin color, ethnicity, or culture.

Kimberly Dao ’14: First off, we physically stand out, whether we want to or not. There’s this whole thing with the model minority amongst Asian Americans, like “Oh, they’re the ones that get straight A’s.” It’s sometimes like an expectation that all of our successes are attributed to our race. People will make assumptions and just lump us together. Regardless of their color, people don’t like assumptions made about them. But unfortunately, that’s how many people look at the world.

Kyle Hill ’99: In the classroom we realized quickly that we were different. In freshman English class, you’d have professors ask you for the African American perspective, as if you spoke for all African Americans. And no other group had to do that. Or having a teacher say, “Can we have an answer from the “[athletic] scholarship section?” No other group had that experience. So, having to navigate that at a such a young age was difficult to do.

Doug Dorsey ’89: During my time, if you were Black on campus, you were male and an athlete. I remember talking with [President Dale Lick] about this, that the problem was when other students go to college, they’re asked, “What’s your major? Where are you from?” But when they saw a Black student, it was, “What sport do you play?” The conversation was completely different than that of a typical person who was at Maine to improve their education and create opportunities.

Vesnier Lugo ’99: A few people [participating in the Zoom discussions] have said they haven’t been back to the university since they left or maybe they went back very rarely. I’m one of them. I went back for Homecoming right before COVID for the first time in almost 20 years. It just speaks to the wounds that a lot of us carry from our time at the university. There are plenty of happy memories, friends I made, experiences I had. But oftentimes the human brain recalls the trauma more so than the happy moments. There’s real evidence that a lot of us carry those wounds.

Jojo Oliphant ’00: It was a [hostile] time. When people would tell you “You’re not from here,” or say, “What are you doing with our [white] girls?”, “What are you doing at our club?”, it’s tough to hear that. Because we have every right—everyone has the same right—to go to the university, go to clubs, talk to women, talk to guys, whatever you want to do.

Arnie James ’72: At Rush time, I went around to the various fraternities. Everybody was very gracious. I got a bid from Delta Tau Delta— that was the only bid I got—and one of the brothers in Delta Tau Delta said to me, “We want you to be part of our house and we don’t care what the national fraternity has to say about that.” So, I was welcome there. I met some people that I’ve had lasting friendships with. Two of the brothers in the house—they were white people—asked me to be their best man.

Finding A Sense of Community

Gustavo Burkett ’02, ’05G: From a Latino perspective, a lot of things resonate with me. There was a Latino dean for some time, and a Mexican American person, but other than that, the only support folks that were around were the Spanish [language] teachers, and they were all part-time professors or instructors. The Latino Club was the only place where you could take your “mask” off for a few minutes and just be with people that “get” you, speak your language, that will eat the food that you eat and not make fun of you for eating some “weird” thing that nobody has seen before. It may seem small, but it made a big difference.

Dhakiya Hinton ’20: I was very grateful when I found the Black Student Union, the African Student Association, and the Caribbean Club. If I didn’t, I probably wasn’t going to go to UMaine. My mom definitely made sure that when I got there, I needed to find my group because if I didn’t, I’d be lost. I needed friends that would help me stay focused. So when I showed up for school, my mom dragged me to the Multicultural Center because the new-student orientation [tour] didn’t go there. The multicultural office was up in the attic on the third floor.

Kimberly Dao ’14: There was this unspoken camaraderie among the POC [People of Color] groups on campus, at least as I saw it among my POC friends. You just find each other. But there are plenty of POC that I had nothing in common with, yet we’re put in an area together. It’s like, “Yes, you’re a person of color and I am too, but we actually have nothing in common.” You need more than one common denominator [to create and feel a sense of community].

Doug Dorsey ’89: Basically I was part of a fraternity of 100 guys chasing a Yankee Conference [football] championship, and a decent amount of us were Black. But for [students of color] who weren’t athletes and whose families thought Maine would be the right institution, their experience would be very different from mine. I wanted them to have the comfort of coming to the institution and having the same experience as any other student who wasn’t of color.

The University and DEI

Kyle Hill ’99: If the university takes on the job of being the one who’s educating all of its students on diversity, equity, and inclusion, it takes the responsibility o” of students of color to have to do it.

Shontay Delalue ’00, ’03G: We should have been having this conversation a long time ago. $e reality is that the George Floyd incident really prompted a lot of organizations to examine their culture. It put a mirror up to them and made them [think about] the opportunities [for change] that were missed.

Gustavo Burkett ’02, ’05G: There needs to be transparency by the university to own its identity as a PWI (predominately white institution) and calling it what it is. So that when new students are coming in, they know what they are getting into instead of presenting UMaine as something it’s not. One memory related to this that comes to mind is seeing the same picture of an Asian student, a Black student, and two white students sitting on the Mall in front of the library. For years it was the same picture placed on different brochures and other marketing materials. When I was a student orientation leader or was working with some of the student groups, students [of color] would come and say, “This is not what the brochures show! I’m looking around [and seeing a mostly white campus].” That stayed with me.

Vesnier Lugo ’99: It’s the university’s responsibility to the entire student body to keep students safe, and a lot of it relates to mental and physical health. When those things are not addressed or people aren’t paying attention to those things, health is compromised. I really do think it’s part of the university’s responsibility to focus on the health of the entire student body when it talks about DEI.

Gabriela Reyes Jusino ’20: The university should not just rely on the multicultural center to pull the majority of the weight when it comes to reaching out to students of color. Whether it’s domestic or international students, [the university] needs to make sure they’re OK, staying on top of things, and feel-ing all right about being [in Orono]. As much as I love UMaine, there’s so much more that the university can do to support [its diverse populations]. We shouldn’t have to just rely on student organizations [to] completely support the students’ needs.

Silvestre Guzman ’13, ’17G: The Office of Admissions has been a bit more intentional in sending [recruiters] of color to urban areas. That has helped attract more students of color to UMaine. The Flagship Match has helped students who meet the [academic] requirement to come to UMaine for the cost of tuition in their home state. My biggest concern is the retention rate. We do get students [of color] to come to UMaine—it’s not that we aren’t able to attract them—but unfortunately and sadly they may leave early [due to feelings of isolation]. We need to do more.

Kimberly Dao ’14: It’s important to have dialogue about POC and with non-POC but it needs to be organic, not forced. It’s really hard to have these conversations in a thoughtful way if people feel forced to [participate].

Donna Loring ’86, ’17 Hon. L.H.D.: I have been a member of various diversity committees over the years. None were ever able to implement anything lasting or effective. It is my belief that there needs to be action. Implement just one recommendation. UMaine cannot be taken seriously unless it addresses the recommendations of the first people. The university has a wonderful Land Acknowledgment. It is not enough. The most important action it could implement is to make a course in Maine Native History a requirement for all [College of Education and Human Development] graduates.

Doug Dorsey ’89: It’s important to create an environment where people feel welcome and valued and can contribute something. And there’s got to be an infrastructure to support the students with advising, tutoring, cultural aspects, mental health, navigating the system. That’s important for retention, for keeping them [at UMaine]. Ultimately, to increase the numbers, the goal is to increase the number of students [of color] who graduate from the University of Maine.

Aaron Dashiell ’00, ’02G: The university is supposed to be educating folks for the real world and for what’s to come. The college is not just here to educate the folks that are born, live, and stay in Maine. You have to be able to make sure that people are prepared for when they leave Orono and the possibility that they’re going to go all over the world. You want them to have different sorts of experiences, and you have to give them a foundation for that. In order to do that, you have to be thinking about the entirety of the student’s development. $at is another reason to make sure that there are specific areas of DEI that the university looks to include. It is important that all students are being prepared for what’s to come.

Kyle Hill ’99: As an institution of higher education, it’s important that UMaine take steps toward diversity, equity, and inclusion. For multiple reasons. One is that it’s built on Native American land. I think the more that American universities take ownership of how the country, and all of its institutions, were built on the back of racism, it will help all students under-stand and have a more clear-eyed view of what America is. $e ideal of America is great, but the promise of America has never been realized. If UMaine wants to give its students a differ-ent experience, it will take an honest look at its history and its own state and its place in the country to say, I want to open our students’ eyes to what America really is and hopefully create a generation that will help the promise become a realization.

Shontay Delalue ’00, ’03G: I’ve worked in higher ed most of my career and the institution I’m at (at the time, Brown University), what I find is that alumni of color are really engaged. [At UMaine] the relationship with the university is frayed, at best. To me, the groups that miss out are the current students. We had the experience, now we’re out in the world, we’re successful, and yet they don’t have the liberty of engaging with us in a structured way so that they can see themselves out in the world in a few years. That’s at the heart of why I agreed to do this – to help build some opportunities for engagement between alumni of color and current students. [Today’s students] are experiencing the same things we experienced. They are hungry to engage with alumni who look like them and who made it through [UMaine].

Jason Solomon ’03: As I talk with other university folks in the Boston area, the networks and resources that are available for their students and alumni are far more developed from a competitive standpoint than [what UMaine offers]. As alumni, we owe it to the folks behind us to do more to help them, and the university does, too. I would hope there are more regular people of color there today than there were when we went to school—I mean, that they outnumber the athletes. $at’s my hope.

Jeff DeVaughn ’18, ’20G: We need to have the proper voices in the room. We need to do a better job of connecting our alumni [of color]. We’ve got a good base now, but so many [alumni] just don’t know it.

Gustavo Burkett ’02, ’05G: Having these conversations is great but taking action is even better. I think we’re in a position where we can present recommendations to the institution. It’s a little friendlier now and UMaine’s leadership is willing to listen. So, what recommendations can we offer? We’ve got to be thinking about that. M


< Back to Summer 2021 MAINE Alumni Magazine