By Jacqueline S. Taylor, Ed.D.
Assistant Dean of Students and Director of the Vocatio Center for Life Calling and Career
One is fortunate in this day and age to have the opportunity to serve in a place where she is challenged intellectually, creatively, morally and spiritually on a daily basis. Union has been that place for me—a place which has empowered me to fully embrace the essence of who I am in Christ through a unique calling to serve others—especially students—from all walks of life. No doubt the journey has been colorful, but at times, black and white.
When asked to write this reflection during this Black History Month, I was honored, but I was also frightened by what my mind, heart and soul would remember. To be sure, my initial thoughts ran straight to the many challenges during my time here as a believing Christian who happens to be African-American and female, as well as a student, administrator, teacher and mentor. However, I then turned my attention to the many experiences, especially as it relates to racial reconciliation, that I have been a part of here at Union. Certainly, this would be a therapeutic writing that would remind me of the sorrows and joys of my two decades in this place.
My time as a student at Union began during the 1995-1996 academic year and ended with a December 1999 honors graduation day among family, friends and future colleagues (little did I know). To be a Union student was an honor and privilege—one that I never took lightly. I distinctly remember the first time hearing Dr. David Dockery speak on Matthew 22:37-40 as he issued the challenge to Union to become a Great Commandment University which embraced the diversity of others while being intentional in loving our neighbors. He articulated well the fact that an authentic love for God is shown through thinking and action which illuminates a genuine love for one’s neighbor, and he explained poignantly what that meant to him as leader of this University. Simply put, Union would become a welcoming environment to a diverse student, faculty and staff community unified by the Gospel and grounded in the Great Commandment. I was inspired.
This challenge to Union faculty, staff and students, to become a Great Commandment University—one that loves her neighbor as herself—inspired me to eventually pursue full-time service at my alma mater, almost one year after my graduation day. But four years as a part-time, commuting, non-traditional, minority student enrolled in a traditional program proved quite the journey, to say the least. Not often would I hear words quoted or encounter books written by people of color who were deemed prolific, creative or ingenious. Those days were perplexing because I had chosen Union, a Christian higher education institution to attend, after all. Christian thought dictates that we would see every individual made in the very image of God—fearfully and wonderfully made—worthy of acknowledgment. And, although I would eventually graduate as the Academic Excellence Medalist in English, most class days involved discussions which focused on white, male authors of European descent (American and British) in the midst of students who did not look like me.
In my world, there were plenty of Christians who looked like me, but it was obvious they were not enrolled at Union. Perhaps they had decided to attend Lane College where I had served as a full-time employee just 5 years earlier. At Lane, I served alongside those who looked like me, who were creative like me, who worshipped God like me, who loved Higher Education like me and who loved Christ even more, just like me. Lane College is where I fell in love with Christian Higher Education under the leadership and mentorship of Dr. Camille Searcy, who I would later have the great privilege to serve with again at Union University for the next 15 years. Last year, as I helped her pack up her office in Institutional Research just before Christmas, I could feel the weightiness of the moment. We sat down together—just for a moment—to reflect together on this Union journey. It was sobering, yet we once again walked away hopeful in what God was about to do, for only weeks earlier, her husband, Mr. Lonnie Searcy, the first African-American student to attend and graduate from Union, was honored at homecoming, a reminder to us that God had purposed his time, even our time, at Union to serve as a legacy for those who would come behind and reap the benefits of our time spent here.
I am still grateful for the conversations I had with Stanley, Rogers, McMillin, and Simpson and for the care with which they taught me—acknowledging my isolation while encouraging me to reach higher, despite the circumstances. Mr. Stanley and I still, from time to time, muse over the reading and discussion of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Mr. Rogers exposed me to Rita Dove, the youngest and first African-American poet laureate of the United States. McMillin acknowledged my inclusion of the Top 10 African-American authors in the Outline to World Literature (OWL), which had never been submitted before, and she praised my capstone analysis of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, a work of unfamiliar territory for her. Simpson explored international business intentionally and with a respect for the contributions of people of color in this world which made for a pivotal semester in my education at Union. At the undergraduate level, however, I would never have an African-American professor or professor of color teach me—what a missed opportunity for me and for Union. What should have been a colorful journey was, too often, black and white.
In November 2000, Union would offer me the opportunity to come and serve students in the Department of Career Services. Proud of the wonderful education I had received, I set out to use my education to serve students well and to help them succeed. In my first year at Union as a full-time professional, I would only encounter three African-American students who would seek help with their careers. By the next year, I would encounter three more, one whose name was Renee. She would eventually become my colleague and friend for the next 15 years. Within 2 years, I would be promoted to interim director, and by January 2003, I would be confirmed as the full-time director. Renee would earn her way from part-time to full-time professional status as we worked together to serve all students who entered our doors. To be sure, Union was in shock most days, as were prospective families, to find and acknowledge the two African-American, Christian women in the same department charged with student success beyond graduation day. It was unheard of, and the reactions we often received and receive to this very day still warrant a knowing smile from time to time.
Simultaneously in 2001, I would hire a student named Bethany who would serve with me for the next four years as a student, and then, by God’s grace, she would return years later to serve with me for almost another 7 years as a professional Student Life member. Renee and Bethany were and still are the women who propped me up during the toughest of days and who cheered me on during the brightest. I can only hope I have done the same for them. Together, our focus always remained on serving students well, no matter their race, ethnicity, gender, national origin, socio-economic status or other station in life.
By 2004, I realized that the vision for a Great Commandment University was slow in coming to fruition. So did Dr. Dockery. So, in 2005, an appointment as the Assistant Dean of Students, with my first major assignment being to provide leadership for the Minority Task Team, would yield the intentional embrace of Great Commandment thinking and action. Fortunate to have 30 plus dedicated individuals join me in strategically planning towards this vision, our unified work yielded some substantial gains for Union in its quest to become a Great Commandment University. Marketing strategies which promote diversity; the founding of Mosaic; the establishment of Minority Scholarships; newly established traditions in annual, multicultural programming; increased hiring of qualified minority faculty and staff; and the increased recruitment of students of color are all advances towards the Great Commandment vision. As founder of Mosaic, I am excited that our alumni (Matt, Melanie, Rachel, Esperanza, Jonathan, Kevin and Alma) serve or have served as professionals at Union, working diligently every day to meet the critical needs of all students.
From 2007-2013, the annual Black History program became a wonderful tradition on our campus. Speakers like Dr. Camille Searcy, Mr. Harrell Carter, Dr. Jeff Wilson, Dr. Renita Weems, Dr. Sephira Shuttlesworth, Dr. Frank Anderson, Pastor Bryan Loritts and Dr. John Bryson came to our campus to inspire action for the cause of Christ. They promoted Christian higher education that fully embraces the idea that to love God, we must show love through equity and justice towards others. I remember Ms. Roslyn Wilson’s powerful prayer of support and blessing; it sustained me and others for many years to come.
In 2014, the opportunity to develop and teach Christian Perspectives on Education, Race, and Justice over 5 weeks helped to further enlighten both campus and community. I am quite thankful for that opportunity, even today. Almost 50 students completed the course with up to twenty community guests attending each night. Town and gown came together for significant discussion and deep contemplation on the historic intersection of education, race, and justice over the span of over 200 years. That course was one of the highlights of my tenure here at Union, not because I facilitated the course, but rather because three Union campuses across middle and West Tennessee, along with people within our community, came together vowing to listen anew, and ultimately, accept the call to action. The heartfelt conversations with lecturers and engaged students from diverse backgrounds and ethnicities left the entire class a little better off; I was left a little better off, too—empowered even. In Fall 2015, the Legacy of the Civil Rights Movement would capstone town and gown discussions on civil rights in the context of the Great Commandment.
Fast forward to February 2016. It is Black History Month, yet this month of February feels very different than those past. Mosaic took 15 students to visit the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis this month, but I remember a time when much of the campus came together to learn about Black History through annual highlights and programming which featured nationally-recognized speakers and local and regional educators and activists. The reasons for this missing tradition on our campus carries with it an insightful history that must be set aside for another writing. For as colorful as this tradition was, the results were unmistakably black and white.
When I reflect on these 20 years at Union, I often have to fight back tears. KKK graffiti, racist posters, inappropriate classroom discussions, racial profiling, inequities in scholarship awards and conversations grounded in a white fog of majority privilege, forces me, momentarily, into the double consciousness that W.E.B. DuBois warned about. But then, I search for the strength to love. Dr. King’s profound words earnestly remind me often that the ultimate measure of an individual is not where she or he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where she or he stands in the difficult times of challenge and controversy.
Today, at Union, the realities are sobering. There are fewer minority faculty, especially African American, teaching on the Jackson campus than in past years. The scholarship awards as of last year were dismally disproportionate when comparing Dean’s & Provost’s Scholars awards to that of Minority Scholars. Only 8%-10% of the traditional student population is minority and the minority student support budget is greatly insufficient for minority student needs. At this writing, the core curriculum does not require a course on diversity or multiculturalism, and with the absence of a President’s Council, senior leadership now includes no people of color.
Furthermore, I have watched both of my daughters attend Union; my oldest is a 2010 graduate. But she experienced her share of uncomfortable classroom discussions and experiences, including those where her professors and peers, upon hearing from her that her mom worked at Union, would often guess that her mother served in housekeeping. And while I greatly admire our housekeeping staff (for they are truly servant leaders), it is painful to acknowledge the fact that never once did my daughter’s professors or peers surmise that her mother held a master’s degree, let alone served as a professional administrator in Student Life. My youngest daughter attended Union in Summer 2014, and by the end of summer, she had decided to matriculate at another institution of higher learning. She enrolled at Spelman College in Atlanta, GA, a top 50, nationally-ranked college, which is also an HBCU commissioned to nurture women of African descent. Summer and early Fall 2014 of the Union journey had simply proven too much. Indeed, it was a colorful summer which had turned black and white by early fall. My daughter had witnessed what she perceived to be the greatest of injustices. My husband simply encouraged me to continue to serve well; I am grateful for his gentle nudging to remain steadfast and to continue to care authentically and without regret.
To be sure, Christian higher education calls for us to care about all—to care about the biblical mosaic as prophesied in Revelation 7:9 as well as the enriching opportunities provided for us to live authentically in community and in accordance with the Great Commandment mandate of Matthew 22:37-40. On January 31, 2016, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article entitled Evangelical Colleges’ Diversity Problem. The sentiments found therein were validating of the experiences that I (as well as my colleagues of color) have long endured. Romans 8:28 is an absolute truth that has sustained me in this calling. So, as I continue to reflect on what this all means—this colorful journey at Union University, which too often turns black and white—I choose to remain hopeful that past traditions will not be forgotten and new ones will be born such that the lives of students will be changed and enriched while those who teach and serve together will choose to transparently work in unity for the cause of Christ. For this is the only way that we all (red, yellow, brown, black and white—indeed, every nation, tribe and tongue) can vouch for Union as the Great Commandment University which was envisioned 20 years ago.