Tiye Barnes (’19), left, and Kayla Richardson (’20), right, are the first beneficiaries of a COM scholarship for minority students. Photo by Ally Schmaling for Boston University Photography
COM is taking on an industry-wide issue—and restoring a historic connection to Claflin University
By Andrew Thurston
When Ermolande Jean-Simon walked into her first master’s degree class at COM, she had a thought familiar to many people of color entering the communications business: where are all the people who look like me?
“I was the only black person,” she says.
Although COM does well by some diversity measures—28 percent of all students are from overseas and 11 percent are Hispanic/Latinx—just 4 percent of students identify as African American or black. That lack of students of color reflects the broader communications industry. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, public relations—Jean-Simon’s chosen profession—is 87.9 percent white. Most communications occupations can only muster single-digit proportions of black and African American employees.
Jean-Simon (CAS’98, COM’15) says she felt like she didn’t fit in at college: there was no one to talk to about being black at COM; she typically completed group projects with other students from diverse backgrounds. As she neared graduation, she told COM’s dean, Tom Fiedler (’71), about her experiences. She also offered to help.
In January 2017, Jean-Simon joined Fiedler on a trip to Orangeburg, S.C., to make a pitch for COM to students at the state’s oldest historically black college or university, Claflin University. But, even though BU had just received a donation to launch the Claflin Scholarship—a $10,000 merit scholarship for a minority student pursuing a master’s degree at COM—her talk wasn’t a straightforward great faculty, amazing internships, free money plug.
“I told them I want them to come to BU because things need to change, and we have to be the changemakers and not the people who are told to be quiet,” she says. “I also said to them that the communications industry has a lot of storytellers, but who’s actually telling our story?
“Most agencies were formed by middle-aged white men. I feel like now is the time to push those organizations to do a lot more around diversity and inclusion.” At COM, part of the push means restoring a historic connection with Claflin University, formed in the same year as BU—and by one of the same people.
In the Ashes of the Civil War
In December 1869, just seven months after cofounding Boston University, shoe factory magnate Lee Claflin helped launch Claflin University. Like BU, it had Methodist roots and was to be open to all.
The institution, named in recognition of the financial support it received from Claflin and his son William (the Massachusetts governor who signed BU’s founding charter), pledged to admit students “regardless of race, complexion, or religious opinion.”
Even in the Yankee North, the Claflins’ vision of a school educating men and women and people of different races together was unusual; in a South still smoldering from defeat in the Civil War, it was virtually treasonous.
“I think that was so inspirational,” says Fiedler. “They were talking about creating a university where, quite literally, a former slave and a former slave owner could sit in a classroom together.”
Fiedler first read the Claflins’ story while studying BU’s history shortly after becoming dean in 2008, and decided the connection between the two schools was worth celebrating. He reached out to Claflin University and began to lay the foundation for a program allowing Claflin undergraduates to spend a semester at BU (the scholarship would come later). Since the exchange program launched in 2010, about 40 Claflin students have ventured the 1,000 miles north to BU.
“Most agencies were formed by middle-aged white men. I feel like now is the time to push those organizations to do a lot more around diversity and inclusion.”
Donna Gough, professor and chair of Claflin’s department of mass communications, describes her school as rural: its 2,000 students live in a community of just 14,000. Because of BU’s size, she says, students “get some exposure to the wider world” with a broader selection of programs and faculty. “Any time people are challenged and given the opportunity to experience something new, something they’d never thought about before, it really does help,” says Gough.
Fiedler says that from a BU perspective, the program is an affirmation of its founders’ vision of a university open to all.
“It’s critically important that we have more diversity among our student body and our faculty,” he says. “I think it enriches the experience of everyone in the classroom to have people who come from different backgrounds, races, ethnicities and countries. This is a small way of being able to achieve it.”
The scholarship, which was established by an anonymous donor in 2016, gives COM the means to turn the exchange program into a pipeline of potential master’s students.
Kayla Richardson (’20) applied for the scholarship after spending a semester at COM in the exchange program as an undergraduate; now, she’s studying for an MFA in screenwriting. She says those first few months sampling Boston proved to be life changing.
“Before that, I was so against getting a master’s,” she says. “I loved BU and I loved Boston, so I was just like, ‘You know, I’m going to take the chance.’”
Tiye Barnes (’19) had a different journey to BU. After graduating from Claflin with a degree in mass communications, Barnes landed a sales job at tech company Oracle. She spent her days chasing potential leads—and itching for something else. Raised by a single mom who valued education, Barnes says a master’s degree was “always on my mind, but it was a matter of when and how.” When a former professor called to tell her about the new scholarship, she says, “the opportunity was like divine intervention.” Barnes was the scholarship’s first recipient.
As a PR student, Barnes worked with COM’s student-run agency PRLab, interned with medical supplies company Fresenius Medical Care and interviewed Ayanna Pressley, then a city councilor, now a congresswoman for Massachusetts, for a writing assignment. Today, she works at the PR firm LaVoie Health Science.
“The classes are intense,” says Barnes. “Coming to BU, it’s a lot of hands-on work; you’re doing a lot of networking.”
Richardson’s ambition is to land a writing gig in Los Angeles; eventually, she wants to emulate showrunner Shonda Rhimes and become an executive producer. She credits the real-world experiences woven into the COM program for confirming what she’d like to do with her life—and what she wouldn’t.
“I had an internship at Boston Public Schools and found I hated PR,” says Richardson, who by contrast has loved her time with student-run BUTV10. “At Claflin, there wasn’t a place where you could do that and experience that right away. At BU, you can really find yourself.”
Although Richardson studies with COM students from different cultures and countries—and says her professors do a good job incorporating diverse films and writers into their classes—she’s still the only black person in the room. It was the same for Barnes, just as it was for Jean-Simon.
“I would hope that we reach a point that when a student of color or of a diverse background goes into a classroom,” says Fiedler, “she or he will see that there are people like them there—and ideally faculty members like them—and the message will be that not just this classroom, but the profession, is open to me and people like me. That’s ultimately the goal here.”
Fiedler admits that the partnership with Claflin—where 97 percent of students are African American—is just a small step in that direction. “I wish there was a shortcut,” he says.
He hopes donors will step up to endow and expand the scholarship and others like it; Ray Kotcher (’83), a professor of the practice and former Ketchum CEO and chair, recently endowed the Kotcher–Ketchum Scholarship and Internship for African American PR undergraduates. Other initiatives at COM include the formation of a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team to help make diversity a formal part of hiring practices, student outreach and course syllabi; Jean-Simon is one of the founding members.
“There’s not a lot of us in the communications industry,” says Jean-Simon, now marketing and events specialist at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University, “and we need all the support that we can get. For a lot of minority people, there are a lot of factors that fall into place of whether or not you go to graduate school; if there’s not someone supporting your dream to do that, you’re going to end up stuck in a position you don’t want to be stuck in.”
This story originally appeared in COM/365, an annual publication from COM.