In this in-depth interview with the Student Facilitators Ethel Nalule and Ropa Mungwari, we find out how Black students and community members can better access mental health resources and more positive space. With partnership with Student Affairs and the Centre for Human Rights, Equity and Accessibility (CHREA) Special Projects Coordinator, Faith Mwesigye, joins us for a discussion on how Black students can be better supported at Trent. Below, they told me about how the Black Student Support program operates, how to get involved, and how folks are navigating through COVID-19.
Aras: What is Black Student Support?
Faith- A peer support group led by black students, for black students to seek support.
The Office of Student Affairs in partnership with the Centre for Human Rights and Equity (CHREA) aims to deliver a diverse range of programming that acts to ease the social and academic transition from high school to university. Founded in the Summer of 2020, the Black Student Support program - a safe space for current Trent Black students to come together for support and conversations around their Black experience at Trent, the Peterborough community, and beyond. This confidential discussion group is led by two student facilitators who have a lived experience in the Black community. Also, the program will run other educational and social events during the year open to allies and the wider campus community.
The Student Facilitators this first year that the program is running are Ethel Nalule (4th year Forensic Science and Psychology Major) and Ropa Mungwari (4th Year Business Administration Major specializing in Entrepreneurship), Supervised by Faith Mwesigye (Special Projects Coordinator, CHREA).
Aras: How did Black Student Support come to be?
Krista Kermer (Student Retentions Officer, Student Affairs) -A plan for a Black student-only space came about in the Mental Health Strategy meetings (held in Fall/Winter 2018/2019) led by Mental Health Strategist Kate MacIsaac. After the events of Summer 2020, the group was pushed forward to ensure that Black students had a safe space to connect with peers about current events or other experiences with systemic racism occurring on Trent's campus or in the Peterborough Community.
The conversation around the Mental Health Strategy was that race is a social determinant of health. We wanted to create a space where students could discuss microaggressions, get support, not feel gaslighted, [and to] create more diverse options for mental health/counselling support for students.
Aras: Why did you want to create Black Student Support for students at Trent?
Ethel Nalule – As a black student at Trent University, sometimes you find yourself being the only black person in a classroom or lecture and find yourself with an external pressure consciously or unconsciously to not perpetuate “black” stereotypes, this constant processing causes a lot of pressure and stress which in turn affects your academic life – when I heard about the facilitator role for Black Student Support, I knew I had a lot of advice and guidance, now as a 4th year, that I could offer to help other students going through similar experiences. I also had positive experiences to share about how I pushed through to 4th year.
Ropa Mungwari - Black Student Support Peer Support group is filling a gap that exists in the Trent community - there are a lot of groups on campus that do a variety of networking and fun social events for diverse students, but especially since what happened this summer and with COVID-19 lockdowns, connecting with people more deeply has become even more essential. Black Student Support allowed space for Black students to connect with one another on a deeper level and relate to things that were common lived experiences, allowed us to have empathy for each other, [and gave] us space where we could bring every aspect of ourselves, without shame, guilt, or pressure to be something else.
Aras: What do you hope Black Student Support provides for students at Trent?
Faith – As Ropa mentioned there are some amazing student run clubs and groups on campus that do advocacy work and run social and educational events that are open for all students such as (Trent Association for Black Students, TABS – which is a registered student club, and Trent African Caribbean Student Union, TACSU, which is a student levy group). In addition to groups such as these, I think Peer Support groups such as Black Student Support offer a confidential space for peer-to-peer conversation and education-based discussions, facilitated by student staff who have been trained in how to facilitate difficult topics, trained in active listening skills, and how to respond to confidential disclosures, as well as be knowledgeable about the resources and other supports available on campus
Ethel - I hope BSS provides students a safe space to understand they are not alone, and they don’t have to constantly prove anything to anyone other than themselves, we don’t have to live within the boxes of stereotypes. I hope BSS provides students with the confidence, support, guidance, and a sense of family and friendship – since one of our goals at the weekly discussion group meetings is check-ins with the participants and building those ongoing relationships
Ropa – From an International student perspective – I would have benefited from peer support groups. I knew very little about mental health, and the idea of people being open and freely being who they are was foreign to me. I met my first openly 2SLGBTQ+ person here in Canada for example. It’s important to have a peer support environment where these questions and topics can be discussed safely, and students can be educated by the facilitators without placing the burden on the marginalized students to explain or do the education themselves. BSS can provide a space of learning about different lived experiences, different aspects of the black experience and help us be more empathetic to each other’s needs – creating a safe space within the University and Peterborough for everyone to thrive and bring their best selves to the table. I hope we provide a space where black students can connect with each other. In addition, our educational materials on our social media sites and our educational events are open to all students who want to learn.
Aras: Who is the group for? What do you do in terms of offering support?
Faith- As the name says, this group is for Black Students and led by black student facilitators, and we offer peer support for black students currently enrolled at Trent (both campuses welcome) - more information can be found on our webpage: https://www.trentu.ca/currentstudents/academics/peer-support/black-student-support
The Black Student Support Program is a safe space for current Trent Black students to come together for support and conversations around their Black experience at Trent, the Peterborough community, and beyond. This confidential discussion group is led by two student facilitators who have a lived experience in the Black community.
In addition, the program will run other educational and social events during the year open to allies and the wider campus community. If you want to get in touch with Black Student Support send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or get social with us on Facebook or Instagram: @trent.bss
Aras: How is the group coping through COVID-19?
I would say we’re coping relatively well. We have an amazing supervisor who has been really accommodating in helping us adjust to this role in the middle of the global pandemic. Because Black Student Support started off as a Zoom peer support group, that is how we have been operating. So far, we have only had minor internet connection issues in terms of connecting to Zoom and Instagram live. This is also a time where all groups on campus are operating primarily on social media, and because of the screen fatigue from everything being online, I think that has affected our outreach capacity. To deal with this, we (student groups and peer support groups) are all working together to assist each other in sharing posts from our different groups to our different audiences, and it has been working out really well.
Aras: Do you have future plans or events in the works?
We had an amazing educational event on February 26th, 2021 called; Harm-less: Honoring Black Grief and Rage in White Public Institutions. It was a success and well attended by the Trent community. It was a presentation and workshop with Aneesa Holliday-Dingle, LSW (licensed social worker) from Decolonizing therapy. The event had two sessions, first one was a presentation open to all Tent students, staff, and faculty (including Trent Durham), (slides are available for anyone who missed it and would like to see them) and the second session was a more focused body mapping workshop led by Aneesa for black students. Cayo Whyte the new BIPOC Counsellor was in attendance for the second session as well.
Aras: How can the community actively support you/the group?
Ethel -The community can actively support our group by adding us as a resource for students seeking peer support, sharing our posts, and attending our events. There is a lot of information on the Trent website under peer support that explains in further detail of what black student support is.
Aras: Are you working with other groups around campus/the City? If so, can you tell us more about it?
Faith- Yes, we are well acquainted with most cultural groups on campus and in the Peterborough community. As we are mostly a peer support group that is our main focus, supporting students by holding confidential weekly discussion groups. But we have a supportive relationship with various groups on campus such as TACSU, TABS, Out on Campus, Peer Support, Consent at Trent, Student Affairs, and more, sharing each other’s content and attending each other’s events in support, etc.
Aras: What other supports do you think Trent University needs to put in place for Black students?
Ropa - Based on feedback we have gotten from the peer support group – the way students report microaggressions and subtle racist experiences from Professors and TAs needs to change, there has to be a clear reporting framework – the current reporting system doesn’t allow for issues like microaggressions to be discussed safely - the way it is set up right now requires individuals to relive the trauma and justify why they believe the Professor or TA was showing prejudice towards them
There have been some good strides in the peer support groups and the counselling services hiring a BIPOC counsellor is all steps in the right direction – but the reporting process needs to be better – Perhaps having evaluations at the end of the year of Professors and Teaching Assistants that include questions about inclusivity and equity and how safe students felt in that course
Ethel – Perhaps mandatory workshops with relevant education and training for Teachers, Admin, Trent University Faculty Association (TUFA). Workshops such as Anti-Oppression, Anti-Racism, Anti-Blackness, how to handle difficult topics and conversations, active listening, etc. – especially for programs and courses handling content dealing marginalized groups or international contexts. This will ensure more harm isn’t being done in the lecture halls and classrooms with the course materials and discussions being had there.
Racism needs to be seen as a mental health concern at Trent, -- it's seen as this other thing – it is an urgent mental health concern and can result in serious mental health consequences just as much as other stressors like COVID-19 lockdowns, family stressors, financial stressors, etc. Racism is a confounding factor in depression, attention deficit, etc. it's not just a joke, or just a comment, opinion – these microaggressions that marginalized students experience daily have lasting impacts on the students and that needs to be addressed.
Aras: Is there anything else about Black Student Support that you’d like to share for the article?
Ethel - It’s been long overdue, happy this program exists now, can’t wait to see where it will go in the future – This is only the first year, but it holds a lot of potentials, so many students needed this so it is nice to see space exists – safe spaces allow students to just be, in a world where you can’t just do that sometimes —I hope it builds a community of confident black students who know they can do anything and know they can succeed and know they have a group that understands them
Faith – I’ve received this question before so just noting that having an exclusive space for marginalized students to be supported isn’t promoting segregation - it’s about creating a more equitable environment by allowing marginalized students who often feel excluded from the majority of dominant spaces, be able to feel connected and supported and that they are not going through it alone, and to be able to share freely about their specific experiences with peers who have had similar experiences.
Ropa – We take it for granted that resources like this should exist – I think it’s important we have BSS support and similar groups in the Ptbo community and at the Durham campus - there is definitely a gap when it comes to supports available for black students across the university sector – supports that recognize and celebrate our differences – there must be spaces that allow people to have that --- it is a necessity to have BSS for the growth of students – student life and demands are getting more and more hectic so even if folks don’t show up to the weekly discussion group every week, it’s good for them to know this support still exists when they do need it – so it needs to remain available
For more information and ways to get involved with the Black Student Support program check out the links below:
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