After spending years as a leaders at their respective high schools, students come to Badger country to further the Wisconsin Idea and join the ranks of scholars like Kimberle Crenshaw, bell hooks and athletes like Ron Dayne and Melvin Gordon. For Black students, it can be difficult to build community with the vast array of people, groups and clubs at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
With Black students making up just 2 percent of the university’s student population, according to the university’s 2016-2017 Data Digest, many Black students find themselves lost in a sea of faces and culture unlike their own. In addition to this stratification between Black students and others, there exists another divide – that of between Black student athletes and Black students.
Some students have named conflicting schedules and a lack of understanding as the root cause of the gap between the two groups. Former Internal Communications Specialist for Student-Athletes Equally Supporting Others (SAESO) Tiffany Ike is a senior studying communication arts and psychology and a former jumper for Women’s Track and Field. Ike is one student who has dedicated much time to connecting Black students across playing field.
“I think it starts at a perception level,” Ike said. “I’ve noticed that Black student athletes don’t necessarily have the opportunity to just see what the community at large on campus has to offer and because of that the Black students on campus feel as if the Black athletes are not engaging rather than not even knowing [opportunities] existed.”
First year student Nile Lansana, who is from the Southside of Chicago and a scholar of the First Wave Urban Arts Program, recognizes athletes’ busy schedules but also feels athletes should make an effort to seek out communal spaces like the Black Cultural Center (BCC) which opened May 2017.
“I have seen maybe one or two Black athletes ever come into the BCC and I know [they] are busy but it’s just like coming in and sharing space,” aspiring sports journalist Lansana said. “I feel like that connection is extremely important and can open a lot of doors but also just really making real connections in all facets of this university as Black students because this community is small but this community is bussin’ and this community is making moves and Black athletes need to be a part of that.”
With 2018 Black History Month in full fruition, Former Badger football wide receiver George Rushing is one of many students who hope to participate but Rushing said he also found it challenging to fully connect with Black students and events.
“I didn’t know anything but Black people before I came to college,” Rushing, who is a Florida native, said. “So, going to a school like this you’re kind of forced to conform. It’s not to say that you don’t like Black people, it’s just that you don’t see them on campus. You gon’ talk to [who] you see.”
Rushing also noted that the timing of campus events usually collided with his schedule. For football players, he listed Sundays during the fall semester and weekends in the spring as the best time for student athletes to engage with the broader community.
“Some events we can’t make; some people just don’t want to go to events,” outside linebacker Arrington Farrar said. Originally from Atlanta, Georgia and now a junior studying finance, investments and banking at the university, Farrar came to the university three years ago for much more that football.
“I always knew I wasn’t going to be defined by my athleticism,” he said.
Attending campus events hosted by Black students and making new friends is very important to Farrar,
“I never asked about football,” he said about his campus visits prior to committing to the university. “I was always concerned with on-campus life. Once I finally got on campus. I said ‘I need to get out of this athlete bubble before anything.’”
From the demanding work-out schedule and game day chronicles of the ball player to the dynamic life of the student turned full-time organization president, finding a medium between the lives of Black student athletes and other Black students on campus is no small feat. However, people like Farrar show that the connection possible with some effort.
“I think a way to bridge the gap between black students here on campus and Black athletes on campus is to figure out how we can go about equally supporting one another,” Black History Month Planning Committee Chair Breanna Taylor said. “whether that be attending events or hosting conversations or hosting events convenient for both parties.”
Taylor, who is a senior, also suggested non-athlete Black students can show support to student athletes by attending games and other events hosted for and by student athletes.
Ike proposed that the Inclusion and Engagement Department within athletics should continue to branch out to other diversity and inclusion coordinators on campus to help facilitate building community between the students.
“They’re making attempts but I think their main focus currently is getting dialogue within the athletic department and not necessarily the integration of athletes and the Black students on campus.” Ike said.
A reoccurring suggestion to mend the stratified community was to have more people get to know each other without the pressures of misperceptions, jersey numbers or heavy campus-climate discussions. With Black History Month continuing to unravel this February, it may be the right time to have that transformative fellowship amongst the two groups.