Student Stories

#KnowCareAct: What I Learned at a Summit on Educational Excellence

This summer I had the immense honor of attending the Summit on Educational Excellence for African Americans, which was held at my graduate school, UCLA, on June 26.  The summit was held in conjunction with the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, an initiative that seeks to bridge the achievement gap between black students and their peers, from pre-school through to post-secondary education.

The summit brought together people from all walks of life, and from all backgrounds. From undergraduate students to distinguished professors, accomplished singer/song writers, social justice activists, and more, the amount of passion and energy for the initiative in the room was staggering.  What’s more, it was wonderful to see not only members from the black community in attendance, but those of all ethnic backgrounds there to support and publicize the summit.

Many topics were discussed: the plight of black members of the LGBTQIA community who struggle not only because of the socially built-in disadvantages of their race, but because of the intense discrimination they often receive due to their sexuality and/or gender identity as well; issues that faced specifically black women and girls with regards to discrimination in the classroom and how it affects their ability to learn in a safe environment; the now increasingly publicized issues facing black men and boys, both in their schools and communities, and of course the impact of poverty, hunger, and homelessness on the education of members of the black community.

It was … in a word … amazing!

Productive, candid conversations spurred by testimonies from members of the various panels really drove home the message of the summit, that where there is a problem faced by the community, there is a solution that can be found in discourse, compassion, and commitment to action.  Quite a few of those on the panels discussed their background as troubled youths, often having found themselves in trouble with the law, having to deal with the crippling burden of homelessness and hunger, or simply dealing with the burden of representation that comes from often being the only person of color in the classroom.

Despite members of the panel often having multiple degrees and an impressive résumé, their willingness to be frank about their sometimes painful backgrounds made them easier to relate to and facilitated a practical discussion on steps we could take to achieve educational excellence for the black community as a whole.

From this experience I took away three major lessons that I couldn’t wait to share with you.

First, ALWAYS check your school or work email.  Many of the wonderful internships, volunteering opportunities and more that I have been fortunate to have experienced came from those emails from various organizations that we often relegate to the spam box and forget about.  Now, I won’t tell you to open every email you receive, because that is asking for trouble – that spam box is there for a reason.  But for legitimate emails from legitimate organizations, it could be worth your time to take a peek and see if the opportunity waiting inside sparks your interest.  It was only my readiness to at least give the – legitimate – emails I received a chance that allowed me to go to this prestigious conference.

Next, if you can share your experience with someone younger or less experienced than you, DO IT.  When I went to this conference, I was able to bring a younger cousin of mine – a sophomore in high school – with me.  I wanted to give her the opportunity to explore a university campus, to attend a large scale event on the importance of education, and to experience something with me that she may have not otherwise had the chance to on her own.  Not only did she get all of that out of the experience, but she was so impressed with the campus that she wants to apply to UCLA for undergrad as well!  Taking the opportunity to mentor someone in this way is extremely rewarding, and in this case, it helped me to practice networking with people I’d never met before as I showed her the ropes and introduced her to people at the event.

My last piece of advice comes directly from one of the conclusions of the summit: #KnowCareAct. Basically, understand that whatever it is you are passionate about and whatever problem you are coming up against, there is a way to overcome that obstacle.  Especially with regards to activism and social justice, what is most important to your success is to know that there is a problem and what the particulars of that problem are, to care enough to find solutions to that problem, and to act upon those plans to put the solution you’ve found to work.

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Catherine L. Williams

Catherine L. Williams is a graduate student in Political Science at UCLA. She loves to write and perform her poetry, and has a love-hate relationship with pie. Follow her on Instagram at @msblackcat93!