UTEP Black Affinity Group Champions for Minority Populations
Last Updated on February 26, 2021 at 12:00 AM
Originally published February 26, 2021
By Christina Rodriguez
Kityara James, a doctoral student at The University of Texas at El Paso, is not averse to relocation. She was raised in Detroit, moved to Atlanta and received her undergraduate degree in Savannah, Georgia. In 2019, she arrived at UTEP, drawn by the University’s doctoral program in legal psychology.
However, the excitement of a new opportunity in a new city was dampened when James discovered she was the only African-American student in her department. In a campus with nearly 25,000 students, she felt isolated and out of place.
In 2020, the UTEP Black Affinity Group (BAG) formed on campus in response to the vast social injustices that afflicted African-Americans nationwide. A group of Black UTEP faculty, staff and students came together to start the organization with the mission to ensure the successful matriculation, recruitment and retention of Black faculty, staff and students and provide a sense of community for the Black population on campus and in the greater El Paso region.
As Black History Month concludes in the United States, BAG continues to serve as an outlet to discuss societal issues and their impact on academia as well as provide a support network to minority populations on campus. The organization, which hosted several events throughout the month of February, aims to provide resources and knowledge to allow people of all races and ethnicities to be allies and work together to solve societal racism by focusing on mentorship, advocacy and community.
“The outcry, the need for social justice resonated with many of the Black faculty, staff and students at UTEP. There was really no place or organization on campus that could allow for educators, students, scientists and scholars to come together and contribute to the narrative and try to solve social-justice-type problems,” said Calvin Stewart, Ph.D., associate professor of mechanical engineering and BAG president. “Furthermore, at UTEP the Black population is a minority within a minority – we represent maybe one or two percent of the University population. When you are walking the halls or across campus, it can be pretty lonely. And with COVID-19 going on, being isolated and stuck at home, there's even further lack of community and ability to be with others who share your culture.”
In addition to hosting a variety of monthly events to build community and socialization, BAG aims to also promote education and create channels for members to pursue crucial research funding from national agencies such as the National Science Foundation.
“Our members are pursuing funding to increase and study the diversity of students at UTEP and use our expertise, research and knowledge to help improve the environment,” Stewart said. “Specialized recruitment and retention programs and scholarships are key targets for funding. This is definitely a big part of our mission.”
David Alexander, a mechanical engineering doctoral student, was eager to join BAG to gain knowledge, become a better communicator and advocate on issues surrounding the Black experience.
“Whether I personally experienced a situation or if I am just being the voice of an experience from a fellow African-American … I hope to facilitate true continuity among the different groups of people at UTEP and the community, and truly instill that we all are more alike than we are different,” Alexander said. “I believe BAG will facilitate broadened perspectives and education by exposure to historical information to increase the thoughtfulness of future decisions and actions for UTEP students and the community.”
After joining BAG, James — who has since seen another Black student join the legal psychology doctoral program — now feels much more connected, and being part of a group of like-minded individuals has tremendously enhanced her experience at UTEP.
“BAG came at the right time,” she said. “Every BAG faculty member I have encountered has been amazing, supportive and insightful. Without them, I do not believe I would have continued my graduate career at UTEP. BAG will contribute to my experience in advocacy. I hope to use this experience to bring diversity to my department. I also hope to use the information I receive through BAG and educate those around me.”For more information about BAG and a full list of upcoming events, visit https://www.utep.edu/black-affinity-group/.