Brianna Powell, a current Loyola senior, walked into an Interdisciplinary Honors Program lecture hall her first week of classes back in the fall of 2017 and looked around the room. As she skimmed over the sea of white faces, she counted on her hand how many Black women joined her in the room — she said she saw three out of a lecture hall of about 300.
Almost four years later, Powell is now the President of the Honors Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) Coalition, a student-led organization at Loyola working to amplify BIPOC voices and diversify the Honors curriculum, student body and faculty.
“From my very first day, I felt very isolated in a program where I didn’t see people who looked like me sitting next to me, teaching the curriculum [or] represented in the curriculum,” Powell said.
According to Loyola’s website, the Interdisciplinary Honors Program is “designed for high achieving students seeking a challenging academic experience.”
In 2019, the Honors 102 Course Syllabi — the second semester of the first-year Honors seminar — featured texts from 10 authors, nine of whom were white men and one of whom was a white woman.
Now, the Honors BIPOC Coalition (HBC) hopes to change characteristics like this through five goals they announced on their Instagram page Jan. 27. If achieved, the Honors program would diversify its curriculum, recruitment process and faculty as well as provide more accessible resources dedicated to BIPOC students.
BIPOC Honors students decided on the goals after months of meetings with one another, according to Powell. Powell, who was described by HBC Vice President Diya Patel as the “spearhead” of the coalition, reached out to BIPOC peers in the Honors Program through a Google form last fall. Now that the coalition has an established board, they have shared a petition asking members of the Loyola community for support.
Since mid-February, the coalition has been in close contact with members of the faculty including Virginia Strain, the Honors Program Director, as well as other professors in the program.
Strain, who started in her position last July, said she adopted the old structure of the curriculum with openness for change.
“One thing to remember is that times change,” Strain said. “The people who designed this program in its current iteration thought that they were welcoming diversity. Students and academics today want us to reflect on this curriculum and see whether or not it still works.”
In a department-wide email posted on the HBC’s Instagram account, Strain invited HBC to hold a round-table discussion at the upcoming Interdisciplinary Honors Program student research symposium April 10. In the same email, Strain also invited HBC members to meet with her in May.
“I can’t speak for or know the experience of students themselves,” Strain told The Phoenix. “I have to lean on them to tell me what their experience is of the community. I am very open to thinking strategically and differently about the community and curriculum.”
Due to the urgency of the situation, HBC members met with Strain and faculty on March 4. While Strain doesn’t plan to meet with the HBC again until May, members are still continuing the work.
“For us as a team, we really believe this work is imminent,” Patel told The Phoenix. “The work that we’re doing can’t wait until the summer especially because we have senior members who are graduating at the end of the semester.”
In addition to the meeting change, the previously suggested round-table discussion at the Honors symposium was replaced with an upcoming town-hall meeting March 24 at 7 p.m.. The meeting will provide a space for BIPOC students to discuss their experiences and have faculty, peers and community members listen in, according to Powell.
Strain recognized the impact of HBC’s work after hearing their goals.
“[Members of the HBC] have taken on a huge burden and I think it will pay off with the program,” Strain told The Phoenix. “The whole program owes these individuals a huge debt of gratitude. They represent the best of the Honors program — they are amazing student leaders.”
Strain’s appreciation for the coalition and it’s members was reciprocated by Patel.
“In terms of student, faculty and staff support, they’ve been overwhelmingly positive and really great in terms of having us not just reflect as student activists and having that holistic view but also critically thinking about the work that we’ve accomplished,” Patel, 20, said.
After the March 4 meeting between the two groups, HBC is now prioritizing the wants and needs of the students.
“After our meeting last Thursday we’ve really pivoted towards a student focus,” Powell told The Phoenix. “So our work is focused first and foremost on building community and affirming students within the Honors community.”
While the HBC is affirming the voices of BIPOC students, Patel said she believes diversifying the program will be beneficial to all members.
“[We’ve been looking into] how we can expand everything to be more inclusive and diverse, not just for BIPOC students for all students, including the straight white male,” Patel said. “They also have a voice in this program.”
Like Patel, Powell said she believes diversifying the Honors program will only make it stronger.
“What would it mean to expose students to something that they never learned before?” Powell said. “I think that truly is the mission of the Honors Program.”
Junior Honors student Chloe Lilliston — who isn’t involved in HBC but has become aware of their work — said she has seen the damage the non-diverse faculty and curriculum has had on her education.
“The lack of diversity in our staff hurts the program as a whole because it is supposed to be an interdisciplinary approach to learning,” Lilliston, 20, said. “It’s hard to learn about topics from multiple perspectives when all of those perspectives are white.”
Corrections: A previous version of this article said a petition was put out last fall asking the BIPOC students in the honors program for their support of HBC, it was not a petition, it was a Google form. A petition was later sent out by the HBC asking the Loyola community for their support after they established a board.
A previous version of this article said Virginia Strain, the Honors Program Director, invited HBC members to hold a round-table discussion at the upcoming Interdisciplinary Honors Program student conference April 10 in a department-wide email. The event was actually the Interdisciplinary Honors Program student research symposium, and the email also included an invitation for HBC members to meet with Strain in May.
We regret these errors and have corrected them.