On August 27th while I waited for the SGA retreat in the lounge outside the MPR, I sat down at a table. At a table over sat another student. He was on the phone with his aunt, begging her to come pick him up. Alas, she wasn’t able to make it to Ship until 10 pm, so he told her that he’d take the bus to Harrisburg and get a train back to Philly from there. This was at 3p.m.
He looked over at me, exasperated, and asked if I was from around here. I replied saying that I was a Shippensburg native. He asked me, “How do you do it? How do you live here?”
What followed was a conversation – nearly two hours long – revolving around the culture here at Shippensburg the dynamic between black and white, gay and straight, and the disconnect between different cliches and subgroups. We talked about the demographics of the area and how badly people treated one another.
This student was an 18-year-old person of color from Philadelphia. As we spoke, I learned that he graduated from his high school a year early and was valedictorian. He came to Ship for the low-tuition and its proximity to home, and he was hoping to complete a triple-major here at Ship.
Yet, after his first week, he was begging to go home. Why? He told me how alone he felt, how disconnected, and how dehumanized. He said a white student told him he didn’t belong here as he was walking from one class to another. While shopping at Wal-Mart for groceries, he said a local purposefully bumped into him, shoving him. He told me some of the terrible things said to him and about him, things I won’t repeat here.
Since his aunt couldn’t make it until 10 pm, he resolved to take the bus. To make sure he didn’t miss the bus – which could come earlier or later than scheduled – he left the CUB thirty minutes early, and for those thirty minutes, he stood at the bus stop in the pouring rain – determined to get off this campus.
He didn’t feel safe or secure enough to stay another five hours. How is it that in 2021 Shippensburg University has a campus where a black freshman from Philly becomes so traumatized after just a week that they have to find the quickest route of escape?
As the conversation progressed, I learned that he was going to transfer to Temple. They couldn’t take him this semester, but he had been automatically accepted to begin in the Spring. He decided to spend the fall at Community College of Philadelphia. We had a student who had the potential to do great things – to do great things here at Ship-- and we let him slip away because we’re too afraid to effectively combat the racism and homophobia on our campus and in our community.
Those of you who have been around for a while know this is not a new phenomenon. Shippensburg has never been devoid of stories like these, nor has it ever been free from racism and other forms of prejudice. It’s going to take a lot of work – this is not an easy problem to solve. But for the sake of our community, our campus, and above all else, our students, we need to put in the work to make this campus and community truly diverse and inclusive.
How many times does this sort of story have to play out before we deal with it?