UB is a premier, research-intensive public university dedicated to academic excellence since its founding in 1846. It has roughly 20,000 undergrads, 3,000 faculty and staff and 195 buildings. The powerhouse for the undergraduate student population is the Undergraduate Student Association, SA. SA is an entirely student-run government funded through student fees and ultimately overseen by three executive officers, the SA Senate, and the SA Student Assembly in hopes of improving the quality of life of its patrons. Historically, SA has been led by officers that haven’t been ethnically diverse. In all of SA’s history, dating back to half a century there has only been 3 Black, 1 Hispanic, 1 Asian, 0 Native American. This is problematic and not at all reflective of the diverse student population SUNY has perpetuated. In light of this egregious fact, it is important to look back at the groundbreaking work past POC presidents have done, starting with Naniette Coleman.
Naniette Coleman was UB’s first Black President.* As a rising sophomore at the tender age of twenty, and after being elected New York State Student Assembly Delegate in the spring of her Freshman year Coleman recognized that there were several problems at UB that needed to be addressed.
She chose to run for president because “I saw things at UB that could be better not just for people that looked like me, but for everyone,” she said. She would walk into spaces and see how things could be improved for marginalized communities and how things could be done generally better at UB. Her goals as president were to build bridges across different communities and demographics on campus. She worked to create a safe and inclusive space for women, people of color, international students, the BGLTQ community, members of SA’s many religious oriented clubs. and differently abled students especially in SA, hiring students to represent these groups in her administration and invested in attending as many events as she could to support those groups. SA was also known to be a welcoming place for EOP students, athletes (Coleman played Soccer at UB), service-oriented students, members of the Residence Hall Association and members of Greek Letter organizations. In order to truly foster a sense of an inclusive community, she targeted students that were noticeably forgotten about and those that were often ostracized for their differences. She could often be found during the week attending club meetings of different organizations.
At the time, Coleman knew that if elected she would be the first Black President of SA. Not unfamiliar to being a first or an only, she noted that she knew what was at stake: “as a person of color, you do not have the luxury of being in the background of standing to the side, you are always cognizant of your complexion, your race and ultimately your responsibility.” But Coleman knew that she was representing all of her constituents, yes, but she also knew that as a woman of color and the first black woman president she stood for a lot more. She believed it was important for her to get elected into office because she knew that “SA could and should do more than throw parties, and host events, it could be a medium for the advancement of student initiatives that shaped the future of UB, and a voice for communities whose voices might be muffled. I wanted to be part of giving those voices amplification, elevation, and an audience with people in the administration that were making decisions.” In 1998, almost 20 years ago, Coleman was elected into office, running on The Truth Party.
When Coleman was elected SA president she had the experience of serving in the previous administration under the first Latino President, Fernando Maisonette. She had a sense of what to expect and a plan to get things done which began with hiring a diverse staff and investing in them and creating an office environment that was welcoming. From her research at UB, she knew that back in the 60’s it had been a hotbed of political activity. It was the Berkeley of the East. UB has had people like Malcolm X, Fidel Castro, Martin Luther King visit but also a history of protests by white supremacists groups. UB had both history and potential for leading change in the SUNY system. At the time when she was elected, there were a few protests going on being led by student groups, mostly against then Governor Pataki but it was nothing like what students and students leaders are facing now in 2018. Coleman, now a Ph.D. student at the University of California Berkeley in Sociology says that “public universities like UB have been and always will be places of growth, of learning, of change but they are also sometimes battlegrounds for burgeoning/dying political interests. It is visible both within the student body but also in subtle ways like who is coming to speak on campus or who wants to come speak on campus and who is paying for what interests. It is always important in that situation to ask why. During my time as president, there was a sentiment to go back to the days of UB in the 60’s. There was a romanticisation about those times. I think we are now in those times and there is nothing romantic about what leads to large-scale upheaval and in my mind few questions about what it requires of students living in those times. It requires exceptional leadership and it requires a commitment that exceeds what most of us expect when we arrive for our first day of college. I definitely did not expect to see explosions and Molotov cocktails,
police in riot gear or students struck by rocks when I arrived at Berkeley and yet here I am. Here we are at this time in our history and we have to do something. You cannot be silent.”
Returning to Coleman’s time in office, one of her goals was to re-open the lines of communication with the administration. She took very seriously the idea that one of SA, one of her main roles was standing up for students. Advocacy. If she could not get and “keep the ear of the administration” then she “could not do her job for students.” Prior to Coleman, SA had a rocky relationship with the administration. Coleman wanted to create a space where protests, concern, conversation, advocacy, and discussion could all happen.
When it came to impact across SUNY, Coleman rallied all of the New York State Student Assembly (NYSSA) delegates, student government presidents, a number of elected officials and worked to institute a SUNY-wide policy that halted the practice of individual campuses raising tuition and fees when classes were not in session. When it came to her impact at UB, a number of initiatives on campus that still stand, have her imprint: Coleman envisioned and founded the Academic major’s fair with the help of her Academic Affairs Director Steven Cosme; She used her membership on the Faculty Student Association to launch usage of campus cash off campus for things like cabs, supermarkets, and Pharmacies; her administration participated in the process of expanding the housing on campus to apartment style housing; the Coleman administration participated in the process of expanding computing services on campus to bring UB into the future; under her leadership SA’s sizeable investment in the UB Distinguished Speaker Series led to SA becoming its first non-corporate sponsor and free attendance for undergraduates, Martin Luther King III spoke during the first funded year; and finally the Random Acts of Kindness Fund.
The Random Acts of Kindness Funds, RAKF, is what Coleman believes is her biggest accomplishment while at UB and potentially in life. The RAKF is an endowment fund designed to help undergraduate students who are experiencing financial difficulties stay in school as matriculated full-time students. It is believed to be one of the only emergency relief programs in the country funded primarily by student donations designed to provide short-term assistance to students who face sudden changes that could prevent them from finishing school. This includes death in the family, personal illness, poverty, or any other obstacle that could prevent students from obtaining their degree. RAFK gives students who apply a one-time cash gift that supports students in whatever facet the money could be used towards. The idea for RAKF came to Coleman during her freshman year when a friend of hers, told her his mom had cancer. She never saw Nick again. Coleman felt that if there had neeb an endeavor that could support students in financial need and also focus the university’s resources and attention to the student, her friend would have never left. Naniette and SA started raising money her Freshman year by adding a dollar on to a few events which continued into her Presidency. After she left SA, and during her time as a Fellow in Development at UB Naniette worked to make RAKF her Senior classes gift (2002) and in 2002, thanks to SA President Chris Oliver, SA President George Pape and Development Officer Judy Mackey the Student Association made a Major gift which made RAFK a permanently endowed fund at UB. The fund took on particular significance for Coleman in 2000 when she lost her own mother Arlene Hamlet Coleman to Cancer and in 2003 when she lost her father Gregory D. Coleman Jr to a stroke and heart attack. Coleman hopes to make her own gift in her parent’s name, to accompany the many gifts of friends and family have made over the years, once she graduates from Berkeley and becomes a Professor.
Overall, Coleman reflects fondly on her time at UB and on her one year as SA President. After a lot of thought, Coleman opted not to run for a second term and instead took on an advisory role mentoring the next generations of SA presidents. Alongside founding RAFK she is also very proud to say that the two Presidents that followed her were both women: first Nicole Piotrowski and then the second woman of color to hold the office, Monica Monyo. Naniette said, of her time in SA, that she “learned what it meant to be inescapably in the spotlight. More than once I ran into my constituents in the hallway as I was returning from the shower in Red Jacket or got pulled aside at the close of class when someone had a concern. When you are President you can’t hide, You can’t just talk about it you have to be about what you stand for. I learned how to trust my own voice and my instincts even in the face of negative press or naysayers. I learned how to be at home anywhere with anyone whether we shared values, skin color, political beliefs, religion, major or not. I truly believe that if you dig deep enough you have something in common with everyone. And I learned that no one does anything alone. Good work is the product of many hands so anything any of us have ever achieved and will ever achieve is the result a lot of conversations, a lot of ideas, and a lot of work by a lot of people. It takes a village and especially in tough situations you need a village.” Drifting off into her own thoughts Coleman concluded by saying that “if I had to do all over again I would still pick UB. It was a wonderful place, the best place, for me to learn and grow and the Student Association, well the Student Association was my universe when I was at UB and I am better for it…and I like to think that UB is better because I was there too.”
Dela Yador, UB’s first black male president, has similar sentiments. “Being elected as SA president was important because the students gave me their vote of confidence to be their representative. Having a POC in office, I believe, is especially important because inclusion from a decision-making standpoint is essential in the ever-changing and evolving community that we live in,” he said. In light of so many decisions at UB being made for minority students, having someone of color play a role in that decision making was crucial. Dela before becoming President served as the Vice President of SA.This facilitated bringing his initiatives to fruition. “My impact on the student body began while I was Vice President and it carried over into my presidency. My e-board and I started the push for the North Campus Medical Center, started the online syllabus program and brought SATV to life. In addition, we brought credible names to the university such as Kanye West,
with the student mandatory fee.” When asked what the sociopolitical climate at UB was in 2005 he responded, “While I was president in fall 2005, New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina and it shook our UB community and our social climate to the core. I remember George W. Bush was President and Kanye proclaimed “he didn’t care about black people.” Looking back on those times to where we are now, both periods presented opportunities for all of us regardless of skin color, political affiliations, sexuality, religious beliefs etc to come together as opposed to being apart. In 2005 we came together and I hope the UB community continues to do so now.” The hardest obstacle Presidents try to overcome is finding innovative and creative ways to connecting all 20,000 undergraduates and finding a positive outlet to celebrate everyone’s uniqueness.
Being President of a multi-million dollar entity and overseeing a staff of 50-80 individuals while representing twenty thousand students isn’t an easy task. Dela learned that “as president, anyone who ever tried to please everyone is potentially a miserable person. I learned that people want to be heard and as a leader, giving them your time when you have it is important. I learned that prioritizing your time isn’t an option. I learned that having a strong circle of friends to confide in is essential. I learned to listen to my opposition; taking their advice into account as exploring how it laddered up to my administration’s goals and how it served the greater good. And most important, I learned to stay connected no matter how far I went because that’s who made me who I am.” He stressed the importance of not losing sight of who you are and what’s important to you.
Students from all walks of life think it is pivotal to have people of color in SA. “I believe it is important to have people of color in SA because it will give us hope that we can actually be part of something big in this school, which will cause more people to run for officer positions thus diversifying SA in the long run. UB takes pride in being a diverse institution and SA diversity is a good start at promoting that,” said an Ackers Scholar Neneyo Mate- Kole who graduated Summa Cum Laude with a biological sciences degree. “I think it’s important to have people of color in the office of SA because I think it’s very important for students of color at this university to see people of color really prospering and doing great things and actually having someone being an advocate for them. It makes students of color feel a lot more comfortable being at a university where there is a lack of diversity,” said rising sophomore Anyssa Evelyn. “Seeing a person of color in office brings Joy. It’s Just like seeing a family member reach a milestone. You can’t help but feel like you won too! In this case, the person of color didn’t just win for themselves they won for all of us, they opened the door for many others to come after them, they inspired many, their progress brings hope and lets us know that we too can break boundaries,” said rising Junior Nsama Nkolonganya studying finance. “We are underrepresented, and the lack of diversity hurts the educational and social aspects of our undergraduate years. UB constantly endorses diversity but is constantly ran by non-POC people. The University needs a different perspective, they need a different view on topics,” said Justin Edwards a Mechanical Engineer at UB.
Students at all Universities and college campuses, but specifically those at UB seek to find others like themselves that look like them as a means of establishing their identity and navigating their college experience. Despite integration, gains from the civil rights movements and the quoted era of diversity and multiculturalism, UB sits on one of the most segregated cities in the country. It is important for students that aren’t white, to feel welcomed and accepted at UB. Finding a supportive community can band students together to promote change in college and promote educational excellence. People of color in office are instrumental in providing support in the survival process and persistence to graduation to their constituents. Seeing that physical representation resonates with students and lets them know that they too are capable of doing anything they set their mind to.
*Another woman of color was elected before Coleman but was removed from office before the end of her term.