During convocation on Wednesday, three Goshen College graduates and one current student shared their experiences at Goshen from an African-American perspective. Diversity at Goshen isn’t a new topic, but it isn't every day that the student body hears it from the African-American perspective.
Nate West Jr., a current Goshen senior opened the chapel. Coming from the city of Canton, Ohio West said that when surrounded by the Mennonites and Amish buggies, he experienced cultured shock.
“I didn’t even know what a Mennonite was before I was at Goshen!”
The beginning of West’s Goshen experience was hard. He mentioned that students weren’t very friendly and that he would’ve liked to go home. His parents, knowing what home held for their son, wouldn’t let West return.
“Eight percent of African-American males graduate from college," he said, "I wanted to break that cycle.”
As West comes to the end of his Goshen experience, he said was grateful for Goshen College, which “not only taught [him] how to survive, but excel.”
Arvis Dawson, a '76 graduate said, “Goshen College was the best of times and the worst of times. It was the best decision that someone else made for his life.”
Transitioning from the south side of Chicago to the south side of Goshen wasn’t easy for Dawson. As the ninth of 13 children, he had never known racial discrimination until he came to Goshen.
Dawson told a story of sitting in Professor Roman Gingrich’s class. The professor unintentionally mistook the names of two black students, defending himself by stating their physical similarities. What might be offensive to some African-Americans, Dawson knew his professor well and didn’t take it personally.
“After all,” he said relating to Gingrich’s mishap, “if your name is Miller or Yoder, I’m just going to let you all pass by!”
Anne Berry, a 1999 Goshen graduate and current assistant professor of art, is the product of Mennonite culture and education. Mennonite youth conventions, hymn sings and choir tours were normal for Berry, as was her parents’ interracial marriage. Years later, Berry was shocked to find that her beloved grandfather objected to the marriage between his daughter and an African-American man.
Berry challenged the reasons for the acceptance of diversity.
“On campus, we may like to think of ourselves as accepting of diversity because it’s the politically right thing to do; not necessarily because of our hearts, or actions,” Berry suggested.
While on Study Service Term in Jamaica, Berry recounted her group members expressing their feelings of sticking out in a predominantly black crowd. Berry found herself dumbfounded by the reactions of some of her group members, because this was a part of her everyday life.
“I’m fortunate,” Berry said, “that my friends and family have nurtured me to be self-confident in myself.”
Dominique Burgunder-Johnson, a 2006 graduate, spoke of her thesis research paper, “Black, White, and Mennonite: African-American Students at Goshen College 1968-1983.”
Burgunder-Johnson challenged students, faculty and staff to get outside the boundaries and take a risk. As a black woman with German heritage, who is a bilingual pacifist from a militaristic family, Burgunder-Johnson understands diversity.
In her thesis research, Burgunder-Johnson was supportive of the steps by the Center for Intercultural Teaching and Learning (CITL) and the Multicultural Affairs Office to increase enrollment of minorities.
In 1971, Goshen College reached a record number of 64 African-American students. Currently, African-American students represent 3 percent of the college.
Copies of Burgunder-Johnson’s thesis paper may be found in the CITL Department.