Tiffani Saxton has been at the University of Tennessee for three and a half years. She will graduate next May with a degree in broadcasting. And the native of Pinson, Alabama, does not mince words in talking about her soon-to-be alma mater.
"I love UT," she says happily. "I have had a wonderful time at UT—a great support system all across the board. I chose the right school for me. Sometimes it's about finding your niche and getting out there."
Saxton, a friendly and quick-witted 22-year-old, has obviously found her niche. She's sitting in the conference room of the Black Cultural Center on Volunteer Boulevard, a converted house that is either cozy or cramped depending on your point of view. Downstairs, the living room space is split equally between Christmas displays and an exhibit of Yoruba sculpture. In one corner is an artist's rendering of the expansive new Black Cultural Center, currently under construction on Melrose Avenue next to Hess Hall. It is due to open next fall.
In the meantime, Saxton, who is vice chair of a student group called the Black Cultural Programming Committee, spends a lot of time here. Maybe the only person who spends more is the guy sitting next to her, Torri Fuller. Also a fourth-year student, Fuller is a biochemistry major and the chairman of BCPC. Together, they provide an interestingly mixed perspective on the life of African-American students at UT. And despite Saxton's warm personal assessment, which Fuller largely shares, both acknowledge their experiences are by no means universal.
"All of the things that affect African-American students on the UT campus affect all students at UT," Saxton says. "It's just that the spotlight is so much on the minorities."
Jane Redmond agrees. As assistant vice provost for student affairs, and also director of the Black Cultural Center, she sees many black students struggle upon arrival in Knoxville. For one thing, a large number of them come from predominantly African-American schools in Memphis and other West Tennessee cities. On the Knoxville campus, they become minorities in a way they've never experienced before. Of 25,474 students on the Knoxville campus last year, just 1,540 (about 6 percent) were African-American.
"When they get here, more than anything it's a culture shock," Redmond says. "What we've had to do the last eight to 12 years is really work on making sure students have a realistic view of the university and the environment and the campus."
Saxton thinks there's still some work to do. "They recruit heavily from Memphis," she says. "And it makes sense to recruit heavily from Memphis. But I think some students feel like they got a false representation of the campus."
On the other hand, the environment was exactly what attracted Fuller. He graduated from a high school in Jackson, Tennessee, where he says more than 90 percent of students were black. But he didn't want to stay in such a familiar setting. "I sort of wanted a more realistic view of the world," he says. "I knew where I chose was very important, because I wanted to interact with other ethnic backgrounds."
UT didn't disappoint him in that respect; in many classes, he has found himself the only African-American in the room. Saxton was already accustomed to that. Coming from a mostly white high school, she says UT actually gave her increased opportunity to interact with black peers. As a result, she says, she found with surprise that she initially entered a largely black social group.
"I never had more black friends," she says, "without even thinking about it, without being conscious of it. My [dorm] floor was half-black, half-white, everybody was cool, everybody hung out. But I did migrate without even thinking about it to a very large group of other black freshmen."
Over the past three years, she has developed a more racially diverse pool of friends. But she and Fuller say it's natural for minorities to seek out each other.
"That is true across the board," Fuller says. "We have a tendency to migrate to someone we feel we have something in common with."
The result is a somewhat segregated student body, with black students largely socializing with other black students, going to parties at black fraternities and getting involved in black student groups. Sometimes, that alienation can produce tension. Last fall, a series of incidents—including a painting of a confederate flag and an art exhibit of nooses hanging from trees—led to African-American student protests.
Redmond thinks those flashpoints can be educational. "It's an opportunity when those things happen on campus for us as an institution to begin the discussion," she says. "So students can receive multiple positions, insights on things they maybe hadn't thought about...We don't have the dialogue that's critical to diversity. There's not enough dialogue."
To that end, Redmond and other faculty members six years ago formed a group called FOCUS (Finding Our Common Understanding and Strength) that encourages students of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds to meet each other and talk openly about their views, concerns and questions. It has about 60 members. The group has taken road trips to learn about Gullah culture in South Carolina and to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
"It's a good place for students to step out of their comfort zone and know that we're not going to be judgmental," Redmond says.
On a less formal level, Fuller says he tries to do the same thing. He thinks it's incumbent on all students, regardless of their race, to get to know people different from themselves.
"In my own way, I'm being an activist," Fuller says. "I'm being active instead of passive. We all must take an active part in saying, hey, I'm going to make a difference in how I interact with people of a different ethnic background."
But Fuller and Saxton know that's not easy for many students. And for African Americans in particular, the normal pressures of college combine with the sense of being under a microscope. In some cases, they just leave. UT's retention rate for African-American students is lower than the retention rate for the school as a whole. Of black students who entered school in 1995, only 44.4 percent had graduated by 2000, compared with 52.6 percent of white students.
"People transfer home, people just quit school, maybe sit out a while and come back to UT," Saxton says. "The retention rate is so low, and you're going to notice it when the number [of black students] is already so low and the spotlight's on it."
She and Fuller agree that UT's setting in Knoxville doesn't help matters. Although many black students do make contacts in the local African-American community—they're often forced to, Redmond notes, simply by virtue of looking for a good hair stylist or a church to join—the city as a whole is culturally underwhelming for students accustomed to a vibrant black scene.
"Knoxville is lacking in resources," Fuller says flatly. "Whatever the resources may be, if you think about it, Knoxville may be lacking it."
Saxton adds, "The worst thing about Knoxville for the African-American culture is no FM radio station. That is so key. African Americans are the most loyal listeners, and there's nothing for them here. That's a huge sign of what the culture is, to me."
The Black Cultural Programming Committee seeks to address the imbalance. The group brings a steady flow of black performers, comedians, artists and lecturers to campus, for events Fuller and Saxton say are well-attended by both black and white students. (The most recent visitor was author and Memphis native Eric Jerome Dickey.) The events are especially important, they say, given UT's difficulty in recruiting and retaining black faculty members—which leads to a dearth of black adult role models.
Overall, Saxton and Fuller say they're happy with their UT days, in no small part because of their determination to get involved and make themselves a part of the university. But that doesn't mean they haven't had second thoughts. Saxton admits she didn't even consider the effects of UT's racial make-up when she decided to come here.
"I guess I didn't forward think how much impact that has," she says. "I kind of wish I had considered it. Not that it would have changed my decision. But it might have."
Her younger sister is getting ready to apply to colleges this year. Saxton is cautioning her to take a close look at the racial situations at each school.