“What is Barrett?” Aaliyah Herndon asked their friend when the two of them were first applying to ASU.
“I did honors classes all throughout high school so, it was like, you know, I’m up for a challenge.”
Herndon, a sophomore studying psychology, decided to apply to Barrett, The Honors College because they felt it would help keep them more engaged academically. Once they enrolled as a first-year student in 2021, Herndon found that there were few other Black students in their classes and in the Barrett complex.
“Even within my Human Event class, most of the time I was the only Black person in my class. And then my second semester in that class, I was one of two,” Herndon said. “I was like, I know that there are other Black honors students out there, but there’s not really a lot that brings us together.”
In response, Herndon decided to create a club, the Black Student Association at Barrett, to serve as a support group and a space to foster community among other Black honors students that they felt was lacking. The BSA was officially established in September 2022.
Creating the club wasn’t straightforward or easy, said BSA Vice President Anna-Marie Agyepong, a sophomore studying biochemistry. “When (Aaliyah) was starting the club, there was a lot of pushback, a lot of stalling to get the club off the ground,” Agyepong said.
While Agyepong said The Honors College as an institution was slow to support the BSA, individual students and faculty helped get it to where it is today.
A six-step framework
In fall 2020, Barrett created a frame-work to address racial injustice within The Honors College. The six-step framework included goals including recruiting more Black faculty and students, establishing an ombudsman system — a term for officials investigating complaints — diversifying the honors curriculum and establishing more scholarships for underrepresented students.
The percentage of Barrett’s student body identifying as African American has increased from 2.1% in 2020 to 3% in 2021, according to demographic figures pulled from Barrett’s site.
Comparing Barrett’s demographics to University-wide numbers shows the proportion of Hispanic and Black students in Barrett is lower in comparison to that of the general ASU student body.
Herndon said seeing few students with a similar background as theirs added to an existing feeling of imposter syndrome.
“Do I fit in here? I don’t see a lot of people who look like me,” they said.
Herndon didn’t only feel unrepresented in the student makeup of Barrett, but also in the texts studied in their Human Event class — a required course for all first-year Barrett students.
“The majority were Eurocentric, and then there were a few texts that spanned into Asia, but there weren’t a lot of texts that were spanning into the African continent,” they said. “In the second half of that class, we read Obama’s inauguration speech, but outside of that there wasn’t much diversity in the texts that were there.”
Herndon said some of their friends in Barrett had different experiences with their Human Event classes, but said they wish professors were required to choose a more diverse range of texts while maintaining the ability to shape their own curriculum.
The lack of diversity within the Barrett student body also impacted Agyepong’s experience within her Human Event class. While she said her professor did include a diverse set of texts, she felt that a lack of diversity within the class itself impacted the discussions occurring within it.
“It’s very hard to bring in that inclusion when you don’t have people with those experiences,” Agyepong said. “I was very lucky for my second semester to have another Black person in my class, so when I said something they could back me up or give their perspective.”
Nonso Okonkwo, a member of BSA who is studying informatics, said class discussions in Human Event were always very respectful, but wished that some of her professors would branch out into texts from a wider range of cultures. When she brought up some of her concerns to her professor, she said the professor was open to her feedback and willing to change.
Anthony Pratcher, an assistant teaching professor at Barrett who is teaching three sections of Human Event in the spring semester, said faculty often take it upon themselves to use a wide variety of texts and primary sources from across the globe for Human Event classes.
“All of us have ample resources at hand that we’ve gone out of our way to cultivate so that we can try to give students as much breadth to the diversity of the human experience as possible,” Pratcher said.
Scholarships and signage
As part of Barrett’s 2020 framework, The Honors College said it would create more student programming “in support of racial justice and cultural competency.”
In February 2022, Barrett faculty hosted a teach-in celebrating Black History Month. Unlike many other Barrett events hosted that semester, this event was held virtually over Zoom, rather than in person.
“For Black History Month they did a Zoom in the middle of the week and some Barrett professors canceled their Human Event classes, but not all of them,” Herndon recalled. “It didn’t also account for the fact that people had other classes too.”
Herndon noted that a lot of the time, even outside of Black History Month and including Hispanic Heritage Month and Trans Awareness Week, there seemed to be little done by Barrett to support racial justice other than putting up posters, which they called “the bare minimum.”
“I would also see them decorate the Barrett courtyard and they’d have a bunch of tables and have a whole event outdoors. I was like, you did an in-person event that was outdoors but for (Black History Month) in particular you only did a Zoom in the middle of the week?”
A list of “steps taken to date” for its racial justice framework is active on Barrett’s website. Under commitment area six, which involves developing more programming in support of racial justice, the accomplishment “We created more visible signage in Barrett locations on all four ASU campuses in support of our racial justice programming and dedication to inclusion efforts” is listed.
Another of Barrett’s commitments was to establish more scholarships available for “underrepresented minority students.” So far, Barrett has one scholarship for students identifying as LGBTQ, two scholarships for first-generation students and one for students in the National Pan-Hellenic Council — a council of historically African American sororities and fraternities.
Barrett’s Justice and Equity Honors Network class began in 2021. According to the JEHN website, the program will “inform and empower (students) to achieve personal growth and goals, but more than that, to equip them to see and identify changes in society and to bring them about.”
“The events and crises of 2020 ... prompted us to think about ways we could form a coalition of students to learn about and analyze these issues and work toward solutions. This was the genesis of the JEHN,” said Barrett Downtown Associate Dean, Olga Davis, in an email.
Davis cited the Barrett Legends Scholars Program, among other programs, as helping The Honors College move toward racial diversity and inclusivity. The program is a partnership between the National Football League, Sports Metric and Barrett to support minority groups at underserved schools in the Phoenix area through scholarships and mentorship.
The Barrett Summer Scholars program, “designed for academically talented and motivated” high school students, allows for students to engage with college-level coursework. Davis said this program has been expanded in order to support more students from Title I schools — schools that serve high numbers of low-income students.
The ombudsperson listed in Barrett’s commitment to racial justice currently does not exist. Ombudspersons for general ASU faculty and students can be found online, but the ombudsperson for Barrett is not currently listed.
Barrett Dean Tara Williams said Barrett’s “planned ombudsperson moved to a new leadership position in another unit at ASU,” in an email. “With the leadership transition from Dean Jacobs to me, we’ve been working with the University Design Institute and the Barrett community to assess our current operations and future opportunities, and determining how to most effectively fulfill this commitment to the ombuds system is one of the top priorities in that process,” Williams said.
Williams became the dean of Barrett in fall 2022. When asked about how she sees Barrett working toward diversifying its institution and classes, she mentioned JEHN, clubs and establishing a “test-blind” admissions process, and said the school is continuing to reach out to students, faculty and staff about ways to further improve.
The lack of inclusion in honors colleges is “an understandable critique,” Williams said, adding that “the work of racial justice at Barrett is ongoing work and all such calls to accountability are important.”
Given that Barrett is housed “within a university that is deeply committed to access and inclusion,” Williams said The Honors College strives to center those same values.
Herndon feels optimistic about Barrett making lasting changes toward becoming more diverse and inclusive.
“At the very least, compared to last year, I’ve definitely seen a lot more changes and a lot more activeness within Barrett to make these changes. And the fact that there are so many faculty and staff within Barrett that are helping and wanting to support me — it gives me hope,” they said.
Agyepong thinks the efforts made toward diversity and inclusion have largely come from individual staff rather than the institution of Barrett itself.
“I don’t think that they’re putting that much of an effort,” she said. “I think the most they’re doing is really adding Black faculty and staff and basically putting them in charge of it and saying, ‘Here, go ahead. Do something about the Black demographic, the Black experience.’”
She would like to see The Honors College put more effort into diversity and inclusivity outside of where it’s “required,” as well as having more open conversations about the topic of diversity in the classrooms.
Okonkwo said she wouldn’t know about the resources available to give feedback about concerns she had at Barrett if she wasn’t a peer mentor for the school. Both Herndon and Agyepong said they would like to see Barrett more actively educate its students about what it’s doing in regards to diversity and inclusion. Neither student knew about the efforts Barrett was making toward increasing its diversity until they became more active within the school.
“I think that another thing is making sure that they actually put it out there that (the Barrett diversity framework) is a thing,” Herndon said. “You can say it, but if you don’t let other people know, can you be held accountable?”
Edited by Sam Ellefson, Camila Pedrosa, Alexis Moulton and Greta Forslund.
This story is part of The Culture Issue, which was released on Feb. 8, 2023. See the entire publication here.
Keetra Bippus is a reporter for State Press Magazine and a journalism student at Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. She's previously reported for AZ Big Media and the Downtown Devil.