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WBAA examines race and diversity at Purdue (Part Four)

Purdue University

Tyrell Connor spends a lot of time on Purdue’s campus.  He figures between classes and studying he commits about 35-to-40 hours a week in the school’s buildings.

But, for the fourth year PhD student, one facility in particular represents an ongoing struggle for him and other African American students.

"Even just walking past the Dr. Bell memorial and, of course, going to the Parrish Library, again, this has been a centralized area, so far, as where these racist acts have occurred," said Connor.  "So, running through these places now, those kind of things do run through my mind when I'm in here."

Over the past year, Krannert’s Business School has been the site of two racists acts targeted at African Americans. 

The first involved someone writing a slur across a photo of Dr. Cornel Bell.

Bell, an African American, served as the director of the Business Opportunity Program at Krannert for nearly four decades. 

Seven months later, two white students wrote the 'N'-word on a white board close to where black students were studying in the Roland G. Parrish Library.  The Library is the first facility on campus named after an African American alumnus.

Connor, who is the President of the Purdue Black Graduate Student Association, says he is blown away by the openly bigoted acts.

"I really wasn't expected to see these racist events and things occur," he said.  "There is very few of us here, so why even bother with us.  Were not threatening anybody or about to overtake the university.  So, that's what surprised me most."

…Surprised, but not crippled. 

After the incident in the Roland G. Parish Library, Connor decided to take action.  He organized a forum to address the issues of racism on campus.

He says he is pleased with how it turned out and the spark it lit among some students to push harder for more equality and sensitivity.

"We've had numerous amounts of students coming in and out voicing their opinions, giving ideas of what we can do," he said.  "So, since the forum, we've had a lot more involvement from the student body."

But, he says the student voice is only so loud.  Connor wants to see more action from those leading the University.

"I feel like there is some kind of culture within the administration or top university officials that makes them feel fearful of speaking out against these issues," he said.  "We don't have a voice or some kind of backbone to effectively handle these kind of things.  So when these actions do occur, no one is really held accountable and nothing really happens and so, people can continue to do these actions."

And these actions are nothing new.

"During my tenure as a graduate student, I was called the 'N'-word many time," said Dr. Zenephia Evans.

Evans attended Purdue in the late 1990's and now works as the University’s Director of Multicultural Science Programs and Associate Director of Science Diversity Office.

She says going through those experiences as a student and working to combat them now as a faculty member gives her a better understanding of how to tackle the issue.

"I see it as a vast opportunity for us to educate people on embracing  diversity, not just tolerating you, but embracing this whole concept of what it is to have a diverse environment," said Evans. "Collectively, minds can solve all the problems of the world."

Dr. Christine Taylor said "I think there is a racism problem on campus because Purdue is in America which has a racism problem."

Taylor is the University’s Vice Provost for Diversity and Chief Diversity officer.  She attended the forum hosted by Connor and says she is among those in the administration trying to be more vocal is spreading the message, campus-wide, that racism simply will not stand at Purdue.

"I think we are beginning to have more conversations and that there is a greater understanding about the needs to get involved, more than just at the time of the event, but to be proactive as opposed to reactive.

Cherrie Lemon is embracing that proactive approach.

All eyes were on the Chemistry major as she received her degree this past weekend during commencement, it’s something she’s experienced before.

"I think the biggest challenge was on my face day of class and  I walked into class it was like all eyes on me," said Lemon.  "I think it just took some people getting used to to realize that I worked just as hard as they did to be (at Purdue)."

Lemon quickly shook off the feelings of standing out because of her skin color.  She refused to let that define her.

She went on to become the president of the Sigma Gamma Rho sorority this past semester and Purdue’s first African American Drum Major of the All-American Marching Band.

"One thing I really learned was I am going to be me 100-percent of time.  I am who I am and I am not changing for anyone, especially someone who is in the same position as me.  We are all undergrads.  I have nothing to prove to you," said Lemon. 

Like Connor, Lemon wants to see more support from the Purdue Administration.  But, she says the onus doesn’t only fall there. 

Lemon wants the entire Purdue community to look the problem in the face, because if it doesn’t, she fears the color of those faces will continue to be the source of more hatred and hurt.

"I think real progress would come from making sure the people who are higher, people who are in positions to change these rules and policies, making sure they understand what you need to be done, or what you think should be done and making sure your voice is heard," she said.

Connor insists if campus can keep those types of conversations moving forward, no longer will future Boilermakers have to be haunted by the memories of actions of hate that he feels when he walks through Krannert.

"I want to make it so when future African American freshmen and minority students come in through this door, that the atmosphere is better for them, it's safer for them, they can have a voice here, they can talk, they can feel more comfortable than I felt or how other people feel," he said.

"I know it probably isn't going to happen within my next year-and-a-half, two years here, but it's something I can hopefully get started and we can make that progress."

Part One: Here

Part Two: Here

Part Three: Here