African American students share their stories


Alakananada Mookerjee

Take a look at the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures and chances are you will be surprised by the size of South Dakota’s African-American population: 0.6 percent out of a total population of 754,844.

If one were applying the rule of proportional representation to South Dakota State University’s sports teams, one would expect the university to have virtually no black athletes.

That person would be wrong.

But contrary to popular perception, African-Americans make up approximately 14 percent of both the football and basketball teams.

“Last year, we had 13 African-American players. And this year, we have 14 on our team,” said John Stiegelmeier, head football coach.

Fourteen out of 100 on the football team and two out of 15 players on the basketball team are black.

Judging by state-level statistics, the African-American population is certainly well represented in the university’s athletic department. However, the same is not true across campus. Out of a total of 10,561 students, just 78 are black.

One reason for this low number is that the university faces an uphill battle in wooing African- American students. The campus has an 89.4 percent white population. Because of this, minority students visiting the campus or studying it from a distance harbor the impression that SDSU may not have an environment that will be culturally conducive for them.

A significant number of the African-American students on campus are here mostly for athletics. In addition, they are here, not because they have heard of SDSU from friends who go here, but because of the school’s ongoing drive to promote “diversity in education.”

Last year, the university appointed the first official Minority Student Recruiter, who looks for meritorious minority students from all over the country.

Speaking about his journey from the West Coast to the heart of the Midwest, 22-year-old Anthony Robinson said, “I was in California when I received a call from a recruiter asking if I’d like to play football for SDSU after I was done with junior college. I was being offered a scholarship and I took it up.”

Sylvester Walker, a Student Assistant on the men’s basketball team, is also here because he was offered an athletic scholarship to play for SDSU’s basketball team.

As far as living on the prairie goes, most African-American students seem to agree on two points: 1.) South Dakota is a good place to live in, but it’s a tad too quiet and 2.) the absence of a broad base of ‘support groups’ is keenly felt.

Though mechanisms like the Minority Peer Mentor Program and student organizations like the Black Student Alliance, aim at helping minority students to make a smooth transition to the socio-cultural life of South Dakota, most black students feel that South Dakota, as a whole doesn’t hold enough attractions for them.

One student remarked, “I hadn’t heard of South Dakota actually. When I first got here, I suffered a culture shock because I didn’t see too many of my race here.”

Another said, “There’s nothing for me here socially: in terms of music, clubs and radio stations.”

In explaining why most African-American students feel alienated, C.D. Douglas, the assistant director of student activities and multicultural affairs said, “How would you feel if you had just three of you in a party and the remaining 97 people were different? Would you be at ease if you were in the midst of people who had different conversation pieces, different social etiquette, and even different tastes in music?”

Douglas also said there has been racial prejudice at SDSU.

“A few years ago, an African-American student had told me that one day, when he was walking down the street, a white motorist shouted the N***** word at him as he sped away in his car! The good news is that since then, I haven’t heard of something like this. This means that we made some progress,” he said.

To prevent such unfortunate incidents from recurring, the university set up the Office for Diversity Enhancement in 1999, which together, with the Office of Multicultural Affairs is actively engaged in bringing about multiculturalism within the university community.

“Diversity in education has significant, practical, cognitive and social benefits for students and the community as a whole,” said Dr. Allen Branum, director for diversity enhancement.