Black Women are Leading Student Governments With Intention
This article originally appeared in Forbes and is reprinted with permission.
In 2020, vast changes in higher education due to racial justice movements and the impact of Covid-19, resulted in colleges and universities clamoring to respond with diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) efforts. One aspect of this response came in the form of newly elected African American student body presidents and student leaders. Whereas the majority of these posts had been held by White students for decades, the “interlocking” of COVID-19 and racial justice turmoil prompted Black students to create platforms for change on their campuses, and as a result their classmates elected them to leadership positions.
Leslie Ekpe, a doctoral student at Texas Christian University (TCU), is one of these students. She serves as the president of the Graduate Student Senate (GSS) at the Fort Worth, Texas-based institution. Although Ekpe had been active in student government in the past as the Chair of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee for the GSS, she didn’t envision herself as the president — mainly due to a historical lack of diversity in student leadership at TCU. In 2020, she was nominated by the board members of the GSS to serve as president and she accepted the nomination, feeling it was the right time for her to lead.
According to Ekpe, “Being the first Black woman to serve as the GSS president is truly an honor. I do not take it lightly.” However, as she explained, “It took over 140+ years for this change to occur. While I may serve as the first Black GSS president, I am surely not the first who has wanted to be in the position. I am the first that has been afforded the opportunity to do so.”
Ekpe out of positions of student leadership. Now that she is in this leadership position, she sees it as her “duty to continue to open doors for marginalized students across campus and dismantle barriers that are keeping these students out of leadership roles.” She added, “I am Black and a woman. These identities have shaped me into who I am today. I bring these identities into every room I occupy and I hold true to these identities.”
Although some African American leaders have not felt supported in their leadership roles at Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) across the nation, Ekpe feels a great deal of support. TCU is 68% White in terms of the student population and only 5% African American, but Ekpe says that “the graduate student body has been receptive to [her] new role” and “alumni have also reached out asking how they can be supportive.”
Despite the warm reception, Ekpe, says that she is continually grappling with issues of racial injustice happening throughout the nation and how they play out on her campus, noting that she won’t be able to fix everything at her institution. She is optimistic about the change to come. She warns, however, that TCU and other colleges and universities have to stay focused on DEI issues. As she explained, “Being that TCU is a PWI, for years, many of the policies and procedures were ones that benefited the dominant race. As the world continues to change demographically, so will the world of higher education.”
In order to be successful as a college student leader, it helps to have the support of the administration, especially at the highest level. According to Ekpe, “The Chancellor — Victor Boschini Jr., who has been an integral part of my growth, has an open-door policy and has truly made it his duty to establish a relationship with me as the president, in order to understand the needs of graduate students.” She added, “What I value is that our relationship is reciprocal.” Ekpe and Boschini are working towards a more inclusive environment for graduate students but also for the community as a whole. As Ekpe explained, “We ask questions such as who is benefiting from our decisions? Who is being left out? What are the practices and policies that enable privilege while preventing justice?” Ekpe stressed that there is a lot of work to be done at TCU and that she is appreciative that Boschini supports the efforts in “organizing true inclusivity.”
Of note, Boschini is known for his student-focused outlook, having served as a Vice President of Student Affairs earlier in his career. Of Ekpe, he said, “I think she has virtually limitless potential as an educational leader.” Boschini believes that having Ekpe in the position is important for multiple reasons. He shared, “First, as a woman of color she provides an amazing role model to all of our other graduate students and the undergrads as well. Second, as an individual of enormous talent she also serves as an inspiration for our other students on campus. Finally, her high innate intelligence gives her the ability to quickly assess new situations and construct a plan of attack when needed to get the job done.”
Many student government leaders become prominent national leaders once they graduate. For example, voting rights activist Stacey Abrams was the president of Students for African American Empowerment while a student at Spelman College and is now running for Governor of Georgia. From Boschini’s perspective, Ekpe “will definitely one day – and maybe not too far from now – be the president of a college or university. Her amazing skill set is just perfect for that role. She connects with people at such a genuine level in such a short period of time. She works well with others and is wise enough to solicit their ideas and thoughts as each new project evolves.”
In her role as president, Ekpe has been focused on the mental health and financial support of graduate students. As she shared, “The pandemic has exacerbated inequities for us (graduate students) in ways that we could never imagine. This has increased mental health issues across the board. We want to ensure that resources that meet the mental health needs of graduate students are available at little or no cost. Financial issues are also important, and we have established resources (grants) that graduate students can apply for to support them throughout their academic journey.”
As president of the GSS, Ekpe, has the ability and capacity to make changes and as she noted, “she’ll do just that.”
Marybeth Gasman is the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Endowed Chair in Education and a Distinguished Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers University.