Memories of the Past, Hope for the Future : Education: Newly organized SDSU black alumni, part of a pioneering era, are gathering both to reminisce and to discuss the daunting task of getting today’s youths to college.
Wayman Johnson doesn’t remember his days as a San Diego State University student in quite the same way most 1969 graduates of Montezuma Mesa do.
That’s because Johnson was part of the first large group of black students recruited to the campus in the mid-1960s, when SDSU and other universities began reaching out to nonwhite populations.
“It was an environment that many blacks felt was hostile,” said Johnson, now dean of the information systems and instructional resources school at Mesa College. “All of a sudden, a lot of blacks were at a conservative, white campus.”
Still, said 1972 alumnus Darnell (Dee) Hayes, a computer consultant and Mesa teacher, “we competed as equals with everyone. . . . We were focused on academics.”
Most of their peers also succeeded, despite the hardships--financial and otherwise--and spread out across the country in jobs as lawyers, doctors, teachers and business people.
Now they have organized as SDSU African-American alumni and--even before their first reunion this weekend--set themselves an ambitious agenda to focus on some of the daunting educational problems facing black youths today.
Already, in an effort to cast their net as wide as possible, they have invited all black San Diego graduates of any college--SDSU, UCLA, Howard University in Washington, wherever--to participate in the two-day gathering at the Town & Country Hotel. About 80% of the 300 or so participants expected will be SDSU graduates, Johnson said.
The reunion is partly a social gathering to renew friendships and recall college days--the sweet as well as the bitter. But it is also intended to spur efforts to pair black youths with role models covering a wide range of professions and activities.
Organizers are encouraging all black students to attend a special Saturday session at which alumni will talk not only about the importance of education, but about work, personal survival skills and economic planning.
In the past 10 years, the percentage of black students at SDSU has risen little, from 4.2% to 4.8%, or 1,002 students to 1,253. The small increase reflects the campus’ difficulty in sustaining a successful recruitment effort in the face of both budget cuts and the small number of black students graduating from California high schools who are able to meet admissions requirements, said Gus Chavez, ethnic affairs officer at SDSU.
Pat Blevins-Murray, who along with her six brothers and sisters attended SDSU, would like to see the black alumni recapture the early “pioneer spirit” that she and other students in the late 1960s felt while attending the university.
“We brought the (black) community to San Diego State” and vice-versa, said the 1973 graduate and South Bay Union School District teacher. She recalls student efforts not only to obtain equal status on campus but to galvanize black residents to care about education.
Ellen Ewings-Nash remembers professors who refused to call on her and fellow black students, despite their repeated attempts to answer questions in class, “even after we were (counseled) to sit in the front row of the room so they couldn’t help but see us.”
That counseling, along with other student support services by the then-Equal Opportunity Program, kept many black students on an even keel, the alumni organizers said.
In fact, the alumni organization grew out of Johnson’s initial idea last year for a reunion among SDSU students who participated in the first black Equal Opportunity Program, which ran from 1969 to 1972.
“The driving force was (the program’s) ability to identify, understand and deal with an environment that (students) perceived as threatening, hostile, unfriendly and, in some cases, even dangerous: the campus life at SDSU,” Johnson said.
Until the late 1960s, Hayes said, there were fewer than 100 black students on Montezuma Mesa.
“It was genuinely concerned about (student) safety and welfare. . . . The students studied together, attended sporting events and other social events together, and, perhaps most important, their base was the black community, where most of them lived and went to its schools, churches and community events,” Johnson said.
The alumni have no illusions, however, about the difficulty that faces the group in trying to jump-start more youths into college and productive careers.
“I think our generation dropped the ball,” Blevins-Murray said. “Many of us had parents without high school (diplomas), but we heard a consistent message from them, from church, from school: ‘Get an education!’ It was a consistent reinforcement.
“Today, there’s an inconsistent message from society . . . and there’s a sense among kids that there should be instant gratification . . . where we learned that you first had to work hard, and then you achieve.”
Johnson and his group believe, however, that, regardless of the changes in society--or the daunting problems of single-parent households or unemployment or drug addiction--the alumni can “make a difference, to act as surrogates if necessary for the lack of a parent or whatever.”
They also want stronger outreach efforts at SDSU so more students will receive visits from university recruiters to make sure they consider college.
Ewings-Nash was planning to go to work as a seamstress at a local company after graduation from Crawford High School in 1971 until she received the first of several visits from the Equal Opportunity office. Today she is an administrator in SDSU’s personnel office.
Despite the bittersweet memories of their days at San Diego State, the alumni believe that Montezuma Mesa is a hope for the next generation.
“I’m a Sunday school teacher at Faith Tabernacle,” Ewings-Nash said. “I work with kids whose parents are on crack and with grandmothers raising them. And I tell the grandmothers, if they put aside a few dollars a month, they can send three or four or five kids on to San Diego State, because the bottom line is often finances.
“They can get a quality education there.”