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Thinking Outside the Business: What BU Needs to Understand About Belonging & Culture

Before Boston University begins to open safe spaces for students, they need to rebuild their relationship with students.

Freelance Writer: Samuel Wu

One night I was hanging with a friend and we got to talking about community spaces at BU. I was telling him about this idea I had for a space at BU for low-income students, where they could get support but also just hang with other students who face the same financial struggles as them. As soon as I explained the concept, my friend responded, “there’s gotta be a way they exploit that.” And he was right. Even before I had finished the thought, we were both thinking of ways BU could manipulate, neglect, or outright harm students through such a center.

Many students have either heard stories of BU exploiting their students or have experienced it firsthand. Because of this, a lot of students have a deep distrust of organizations on campus. Moreover, these students are usually the ones the organizations were made for: students of color, low-income students, or other marginalized groups.

My own distrust of institutions began in high school, where I started a Community of Racial Equity club (CORE). The purpose of the club was to provide a space for students of color to hang out and express their identities. Although our white peers were allowed to join, we made it clear that the purpose of the space was to uplift POC.

The reaction to our club was intense. On one hand, the school praised the club for its inclusivity and diversity. They began advertising our club throughout the district. At one point, we had Samuel Roberts of the Washington Post come interview the other cofounder and me. Meanwhile, the club was extremely unpopular with white students. People called me names, claimed I was overly sensitive, and argued that the club was racist. I was suddenly fighting with teachers about the club and its principles. By the time I had left for university, the district that gave me so much praise had fired a teacher for discussing critical race theory concepts and fired my principal/club advisor.

Looking back on my experience, I realized that the high school only supported the club for its benefits. It helped fulfill the district's diversity initiatives without offering any legitimate support for students of color. What our club needed were resources and leadership, but our high school offered neither. Instead, they neglected students while simultaneously benefiting from the club.

Now, with the launch of the new Belonging & Culture Survey and the creation of the new LGBTQIA+ Center, it’s clear that Boston University’s administration is beginning to focus on creating community spaces for students. These are places on campus dedicated to socialization and support, without the need to produce anything. For BU to create these spaces intended for marginalized communities, they have to overcome some deep-rooted generational distrust. They have to prove to students that what they’re offering isn’t trying to profit off of them, isn’t trying to control them, and is genuinely a safe space.

Is BU succeeding?

Well, according to Precious Amiewalan, no. “I would say that the closest community Boston University has provided is the Howard Thurman Center, but I feel like it’s the bare minimum so that they can have something to point at as a one-size-fits-all solution to any issues. The sense of community that I have has been built by student organizations like the Nigerian Student Association, the African Student Organization, and Charcoal Magazine. This is to be expected at a predominantly white institution (PWI).” Precious’s feelings are echoed by a lot of low-income students at BU. Adam Shamsi, a junior and posse scholar, is also aware of BU’s lack of support, claiming that “I think it’s hard to say that BU inherently provides community. In one sense they curated the student body, within which I have found wonderful friends who are caring and inclusive. However, to say BU provides it would imply that there is an active effort at the administrative level to care for students and create spaces where venerability is encouraged. Rather I would say BU allows communities to form. In most instances, with note-worthy exceptions, they don’t quash community but they don't provide the requisite spaces and support to enable them, especially for marginalized students.”

So how does BU regain the trust of its student body? The first major step for the university is to start acknowledging the history of exploitation in private institutions. Prominent BU administrators must demonstrate that they understand the attitude of those they are trying to serve, and the staff working in those spaces must understand it as well.

Second, the spaces must make an active effort to gain students’ trust. Staff and administrators must be active and reliable. They need to provide open hours for students to communicate in person with staff and admin, and they need to listen.

In writing this piece, I was surprised to find that there is an example of community space at BU done right. For a lot of students, the Newbury center is a space they trust, where the admin makes efforts to be approachable and understand the students. “The Newbury center is a safe space for first-gen students”, says Paul Hee, a junior and first-gen student. “My old boss told me to talk to Maria the director because I was doing everything I could to not hate BU and the BU community and it wasn’t working. So I emailed her and we met in her office and just talked about who we were.” Paul, like a lot of students that struggle to find community on campus, found surprising refuge in the Newbury Center. “I can’t talk to other administrators without having this issue with a superiority complex, even now I don’t enjoy talking to the deans or other admin because they do come off as superior. With Maria, I was talking about what it’s like growing up Asian and Hispanic and not being able to identify with either community. She just made me feel understood.”

This is the attitude that BU staff must embody in order for their centers to be successful. What makes the Newbury Center so special is that it understands that the relationship between students and their university is complicated. According to the Newbury Center’s Director Maria Dykema Erb, “I think what we’re doing [at the Newbury Center] is really elevating and celebrating our first-gen students here at the university, not only undergrads but also graduate professional students so that we’re taking away the stigma.”

Maria, who hosts open hours nearly every day, goes on to explain how she supports first-gen students who approach her office, saying “in the past students might not want to have revealed that they were first-gen, but we want students who are first-gen to know that they are the pioneers in their family and that because of their education here, they are disrupting and they are transforming their future generations. We want to make sure that they feel part of this greater BU community.”

The center benefits from having a dedicated space where students can hang out and has staff with a nuanced understanding of the students they support. In my interview with Maria, she cleverly reminded me that not all first-gen students share the same experience, mentioning that she, coming from a low-income family, and Beyoncé’s children are both technically first-gen students. Maria also understood that each student’s needs are different. What’s most important is that she listens to each student’s needs.

Perhaps the best quote to summarize this is from Maria, in a recent BU Today article. In it, she states, “one of the bigger things is making Boston University a leader in first-generation student success so that it gains a reputation as a place where first-gen students know they will be well supported and celebrated” It’s all about gaining a reputation. Building “authentic relationships across campus”(Rimer). It’s about proving to us students through your actions that we can trust you.


Works Cited

Rimer, Sara. “Maria Dykema Erb Was a First-Generation Student. Now She's Here to Help BU's First-Gens.” Boston University, 2 Feb. 2021,