Editor’s note: This letter from a Utah State University student to the school administration is being republished here as a “Soapbox” article.
Dear Utah State University:
You have failed your marginalized students and have set a precedent of diversity only when it is convenient.
In October of 2020, during a speech given at USU, the founder of the Black Lives Matter Utah chapter was rushed off of campus after a death threat. In December of 2019, the head equipment manager for the football team used a racial slur and retained his job after the investigation. In April of 2017, Jerusha Sanjeevi, a Malaysian woman studying for a Ph.D. in psychology at USU died by suicide after months of bullying and racial comments from a fellow student in her cohort. These are just some of the few examples of the ways that Utah State has utterly failed in helping create a safe environment for diverse students.
My name is Tomoya Averett, I am a first-generation Black senior at USU studying Global Communication, I am a Truman Scholar finalist, I am an Ambassador for USU, and I am deeply involved in campus and scholarly activities. I am writing this letter because as graduation approaches, I have been reflecting on my experience here and how it has shaped me. To put it plainly, my experience has been pervaded by constant racism.
It should not come as a surprise that as a Black student enrolled at a predominantly white institution — Black students make up less than 1 percent of the student body — I face challenges most of my classmates do not. However, in the midst of a global pandemic that has disproportionately impacted people of color and a contemporary civil rights movement, I hoped the leaders of Utah State would take this opportunity to make sweeping changes to address the needs of marginalized students and unite the university community under a new call for racial equity. University offices and affiliated organizations released statements in support of Black lives, and a few took additional steps to provide opportunities for education and discussion. Yet, the university largely failed to take actions beyond performative activism and made no substantive effort to support minority students. Some even criticized these inconsequential statements as being too political. Furthermore, in response to the statement releases, some members of the Logan community dismissed the existence of systemic racism overall.
All I wanted was to be able to feel safe at the place I’ve called home for the past four years — and to be met with love, and support, and acceptance. Instead, I was met with bigotry and hate. In one instance, an individual wearing USU apparel subjected me racial slurs and other hateful comments. While organizing my own efforts in the Black Lives Matter movement, I even received death threats from an individual in the Logan community on social media. In my reflection about my time at USU I have realized a couple of things: 1) This university says it is committed to diversity for public-facing reasons. USU is not committed to creating an environment where diverse students can actually feel safe and respected 2) Diverse students at USU notice that “Go Aggies” seems to apply only if you are not a minority.
This spring, I will graduate from Utah State walking away with an experience branded by racism and wondering if it could have been better had university leaders stepped up sooner. Furthermore, as a choice that I don’t know I would’ve made again if I could talk to my younger high school self, looking for a university that would provide me with the tools to champion who I truly am. Thankfully, I was able to provide that space for myself.
After months of advocating on social media with my peers for change, I finally got asked the question from a person in a position of power at USU asking what they could do better and what I hope the university should do. Here’s my answer: I want a future where it won’t take another involved Black person at USU to pressure the university into caring about the value of the lives of the marginalized students here. I want minority students at USU to feel safe and welcomed with open arms. It should not be controversial for faculty, professors, and students to tell them that their lives matter. I want this university to be proud of me for more than just my accomplishments that make the university look better but also because of the essential characteristics that make me who I am — especially my black skin.
This letter was not written with the intent of deterring diverse students from coming to USU or to encourage Aggies and readers to hang their heads in shame. I believe that if you love something, you ought to be committed to the betterment and progress of it, and I love Utah State. Although I experienced the disproportionate challenges of being a Black student in addition to the ups and downs of every college student, I am blessed to have found the people I love the most and memories I will cherish for a lifetime.
The point of the matter is, I want USU to be better for the students who come here in the future. I implore the people reading this letter to take the time to make sustainable change and equitable change. Do not let this renewed call for racial justice be a moment in time but rather a persistent effort to be better.
This needs to be more than just a statement, though that’s certainly a place to start, since the university hasn’t even said “Black Lives Matter.” But going past a statement, USU needs real action in order to create real change. Set specific goals and timelines for achieving change, recruit and hire Black faculty in every college and department, build a Critical Race Studies Program, promote and support Black student leaders — not just in the Black Student Union but in student government, promote Black staff and faculty into leadership positions, hold all leaders — from department heads to the President, accountable for meeting goals on racial equity. Put people of color on your marketing team, give students of color adequate representation that doesn’t include tokenizing them on your brochures, investigate incidents of racism in all forms and take action against it. “The Aggie Family” won’t truly be a family until it’s a family for all students, not just white ones.
Tomoya Averette is a global communication major in senior year at USU. She grew up in Columbus, Georgia, but moved to Utah as a teen and attended Clearfield High School.