During the weekend of July 24-26, the St. Cloud State University alumni reunion hosted a series of events. The activities included gatherings at Boom Island on Friday and Saturday, which is where I caught up with some of the alumni who have enrolled in and/or graduated from St. Cloud State (SCSU) over the past 20 years.
Talking with former students of color yielded varied accounts of their experiences at SCSU. While many recent graduates (those who have graduated within the past five years) had an overall pleasant experience, the majority of alumni representing classes from the late 20th century and the early part of this decade recalled a racially hostile and intimidating climate.
Marvin Lyman, who attended SCSU from 1994 to 1999, describes his tenure at the university as “an interesting experience” and believes that “definitely God had me there for a reason.” He goes on to explain that he “met some great people, encountered a lot of obstacles, mainly due to racism [and] prejudice. But by the grace of God, we’re able to have this reunion with a bunch of other students of color who attended the university.”
Shazad Ahmad, director of multicultural student services at SCSU, was a student in the 1980s and has seen how the school and the community at large have changed over the years. “It’s a place where people of color have to be for bringing about change, and getting an education…and helping the community to build,” Ahmad says.
While acknowledging that it has not been the most welcoming atmosphere for minorities in the past, and that there is still more work to do, Ahmad claims to have seen progress. He believes that the staff at SCSU is very supportive of students of color; there just needs to be more of them.
“We need people, we need students,” Ahmad says. “We have almost 1,300 students of color, but we have a long way to go. We want to get more.”
Samuel Bass, who graduated from SCSU in 2001, says bluntly, “It was a difficult experience there. It really introduced me to a whole different world — a whole different class of racism…
“It was a very challenging four years up there,” Bass recalls. “It was actually a breath of fresh air when I graduated and got out of there.” Not only does Bass cite the community as problematic; he claims that people of color were treated harshly in the classrooms as well.
Alexis Figueroa graduated in 2008 by way of the Advance Preparation Program (APP), where she enrolled in 2004. Coming from New York to live in neighborhoods with low populations of non-Whites, it was a bit of a culture shock for her.
“I had a core group of friends, and I was networked with a lot of people on campus,” Figueroa says. The relationships she built with her peers in the APP program helped her stay focused and go forward with her education.
Demetria Ann Williams attended SCSU in the 1990s. She feels that the improvements in relations at the school, and the camaraderie among the students of color as a whole, have benefited from what she and others had to go through.
“We had to [go through] some phenomenal challenges,” says Williams, “that really created the environment you feel here [at the reunion], where there’s camaraderie, there’s compassion, there’s love, there’s a passing of the baton. [Here there’s] an understanding of the generational principal of ‘each one teaches one’; the legacy continues.
“And,” Williams adds, “we have some very productive people in this environment. That’s one of things that I will always remember and cherish about St. Cloud State.”
Williams goes further to reference Floyd Balentine, who graduated from SCSU in 1998 with a degree in aviation, became a flight instructor and later a pilot at Mesaba Airlines, where he is currently employed as a captain flying a CRJ-200.
Balentine was the chair of the reunion events. “Since I left St. Cloud State, I’ve always had a passion to give back,” he says, “because St. Cloud gave a lot to me. I wouldn’t be where I’m at right now without St. Cloud.”
Nevertheless, he is quick to point out, “I did go through a lot of things up there. Yes, I did have to deal with racism. It didn’t make me a weaker person, but it made me a stronger person.
“I think it’s about how you respond and react to negativity,” Balentine adds.
“For me, I didn’t run away from it. I ran to it — to try to help people understand who I am, so they can understand racism a little bit better.”
Unfortunately, racism was not hard to run into up there. “I dealt with a lot of racism in St. Cloud, y’ know. It just made me stronger. I went there with a purpose and a goal, and I wasn’t going to let anything stop that.”
Balentine hopes that putting together events such as the reunion will help him connect and build relationships with current students of color who attend SCSU as well as alumni. He hopes to start an alumni of color chapter soon.
Earl Potter, starting his third year as president of SCSU, joined the reunion festivities. “I encountered a community that was struggling to find itself,” he recalls of his first impressions at SCSU. “Enrollment of students of color is steadily growing, and I think the strength of our family as a community is growing too,” says Potter.
He does not hide from St. Cloud’s past: “Let’s be real clear — St. Cloud has a troubled history as far as relations among people of different races goes. But I think there’s been tremendous change in the last 10 to 15 years as the community diversifies, and as the numbers of students and faculty of color on our campus grow.”
Potter believes that people in the city of St. Cloud look to the university for leadership, and he believes the school is doing a good job of leading the way.
Overall, though, it seems the real leaders were the students who stuck it out and fought through the racism and bigotry they faced while just trying to obtain an education. As Katina Kellum — a 1996 graduate — puts it, “Without these people here [her fellow schoolmates of color], I would never have made it in St. Cloud.” Her classmates’ “whoop-whoops” shouted in support showed that her friends and fellow SCSU grads still had her back.
The events were held in Minneapolis rather than in St. Cloud for reasons of convenience for the alumni, most of whom live or would be staying in the Twin Cities while in town. (Many graduates have since moved out of the state.) The alumni reunion was organized by Floyd Balentine with generous support by the SCSU Office of Multicultural Student Services and the St. Cloud State Alumni Association.
Jamal Denman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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