The HBCU Oasis at UCI: Center for Black Cultures, Resources & Research
By Dianne Anderson
Knowing the numerous variations of blackness, of skin tones, of ideology and backgrounds, Dr. Adisa Ajamu set out to make a home away from home at UCI that, in some ways, resembles his alma mater.
Probably the most important thing that his HBCU provided was a safe space for students to be loved on, supported and nurtured.
“I did my Ph.D. at Howard University, and my goal was to see how close can we come to an HBCU experience at UCI?” he laughs.
No small feat considering only about 1,500 Black students are on campus. It was a stretch.
He wanted stronger programming to offset the challenges and crises that students were sure to confront in classrooms and dorms.
From the start in 2016, his culturally-based approach addressed the whole person, mentally, spiritually, physically and financially. Some Black students could be dealing with anti-Blackness, others with food insecurity.
Black students comprise 3% of the student population.
“There’s only so much you can do to insulate them, but we say this is the place that when you get roughed up, come home,” said Dr. Adisa Ajamu, founding director of the Center for Black Cultures, Resources & Research.
Many programs at the center are run directly by the students, some are majoring in applied innovation, STEM fields, health, biological sciences. One student leads economic development, another finds scholarships and internships for students. Anyone interested can tap entrepreneur skills.
Helping students in surrounding schools access their resources is also part of their mission. They also provide mentorship programs at two high schools in Long Beach (Wilson and Cabrillo).
All students leave the program with practical skills, and their resume is strong. They know how to make a budget, they write grants, develop, design and implement programs, evaluation and assessment.
The physical hub is as impressive with a 55-inch big screen, and all streaming media. Students can hang out or study in the library area. He said the university was generous to provide an atrium and lounge. Macbooks and laptops are available as loaners.
During his early years, Dr. Thomas Parham, past director of the counseling center was his mentor and inspiration. Together they have written two books, and often talked about the need for the center. When the opportunity opened he was in Atlanta, but decided, under Dr. Parham’s urging, to throw his hat in the ring.
Ajamu said the Black cultural center came about as a result of student protests in 2014.
“A lot of students who had graduated by the time the center came online said ‘I wish we would have fought for this sooner because we could have used this,’” he said.
Now help is for the asking.
Stress-related issues have been edging up in the last four years, but with a two-fold effect, he adds.
“It has exacerbated tensions on campus, and also made Black students value their blackness more. The other side of the coin is you have Black students that don’t feel they are treated right around white folks, but they aren’t comfortable around Black folks,” he said.
Dr. Ajamu, who holds his Ph.D. in psychology, said the Inland Empire is probably the largest feed of Black students to campus, followed by Oakland, Long Beach and Los Angeles.
For the Inland area, he said a lot of parents moved from Los Angeles, but somehow the kids missed out on cultural awareness, probably an under-awareness of the black experience stemming from their school experience.
Despite the disconnect, he adheres to a no-bullying and no barriers policy at the center for any students that identify as Black.
“We didn’t want to create a litmus test, it’s wherever you were at. Part of the center is that you don’t want those students coming from the IE and have folks from the neighborhood say you ain’t Black, why you here? It’s a double insult,” he said.
Mental health help has gone up significantly through the pandemic. He is working more these days than before.
“Some of it is that the family gets on your nerves, and then there is suicide ideation or severe depression. In those instances, we refer them to the counseling center, the center is usually the point of first contact,” he said.
In developing the concept for the center, he said that he wanted it to be up front and center for students and parents, and to help ease the jitters of social isolation.
“The idea was that all initial points of contact in coming to campus would be to see someone Black,” he said. “You sit down and talk to the parents and say, hey look, your baby is going to be taken care of here.”
To learn more about the center, see https://blackcultures.uci.edu/resourcesservices/Services.php