By Yna Davis, Contributing Writer
On Friday, Feb. 28, Elizabeth Walker, the first black student to attend St. Mary’s (SMCM), returned to the school for a Black Student Union (BSU)-sponsored event in honor of Black History Month. While Walker’s visit was advertised as the main draw of the event, she was joined by a panel of three other black alumni: Kelsey Bush (’94), Jayson Williams (’03), and Esrael Seyum (’09) to discuss their experiences at St. Mary’s.
Held in Goodpaster 195, the discussion was introduced by junior Demara Austin, President of the BSU. The panel spoke in order of graduation year, beginning with Walker (’64), who chose to read a poem she had written about her experiences rather than give a speech. Titled “She Got Through,” a reference to a Mulberry Tree article about her experiences, the acrostic poem addressed her struggles, her faith, and the help she received from her family and community throughout her experience.
Each of the panelists who followed spoke on a different aspect of his experience at St. Mary’s. Bush, a first-generation student, had transferred from Lincoln University, a historically Black university. Bush had focused on creating teachable moments and a safe space during his time here, believing that “college should be a place where you’re safe to ask those questions and not be chastised.” He joked about White students’ questions about hair and tan lines, but also commended the diversity in the panel’s audience: “If the BSU had held an event while I was here, you wouldn’t see the mix!”
Williams, who is now involved in Prince George’s county politics, found his political passion at St. Mary’s. When he began running for Student Government Association (SGA) office, however, he faced doubt that he could win. He said, “There was just this air of ‘you cannot succeed because of the color of your skin’ and it wasn’t coming from the White students, it was coming from the other Black students.” Things changed after he was elected as the first Black SGA President at St. Mary’s, however, and ultimately, Williams said, “The things I learned at St. Mary’s inspired me.”
An immigrant from Eritrea, Seyum, who now works with SMCM’s InterVarsity chapter, came to St. Mary’s avoiding African American students on campus. When an InterVarsity student with a strong belief in cultivating one’s identity pushed him to join the BSU, his experience changed. He said, “There’s something about feeling supported that gives you so much confidence.” Now, he encourages students to embrace their own identities: “Keep pushing your friends…keep embracing who you are.”
After the panel wound down with a few questions from the audience, the BSU presented each panelist with a gift, including a plaque for Walker, who responded with emotional stories from her experiences here. “I was not invited to any of the events that the president of St. Mary’s hosted…she didn’t shake my hand at graduation,” said Walker. “But it’s so good to see so many different people here today supporting each other.” Walker made it clear that a lot has changed since her time here. As first-year Stephanie Sraha commented, “There has been a definite change in social dynamics at St. Mary’s. If there was any doubt that this school, county, and state have come a long way, this reassured you.”