When senior Ariyonna Cousins stepped onto IU's campus her freshman year, she found herself experiencing culture shock.
Having grown up in Indianapolis, Cousins, a Black student, wasn't used to being in an environment where so few people looked like her. The high school she'd attended was racially diverse, and IU is a predominantly white university.
"I just never had been in a classroom where I was the only person who looked like me, or I'd walk in the street and be like, 'where is everyone at?'" Cousins said.
Her upbringing, she said, meant she had been a bit more sheltered from blatant racism and was around her own community more often. Coming to IU was a different experience—one that wasn't easy, but that has led to leadership and self-discovery.
Cousins is the president of IU's Black Student Union, a campus organization dedicated to creating community for Black students and educating people about anti-racism and Black culture.
While Dina Kellams, director of University Archives at IU Libraries, said there isn't much documented history about the BSU, she said the organization has existed since at least 1972. The welcoming space it creates helps Black students to feel like part of a community.
"I feel like a lot of people share the same story as me," Cousins said. "This is the first time they're on their own. I think the BSU really allows a space for people to do that self-searching and it also allows them to know that these issues they're facing—there are tons of other students on campus facing the same issues."
As BSU president, Cousins said she strives to make and keep connections with other campus leaders. Because it can systemically be more difficult to gain access to resources for those in the Black community, developing relationships with IU faculty is an important part of her job, especially in continuing the work of the BSU when new leadership steps in.
“There are a lot of people who I feel like are in my corner in terms of if I need assistance, but I feel like there’s no blueprint for ‘how do I do X, Y and Z,’ especially for Black leaders,” she said.
Cousins said the BSU typically meets with the provost once a semester, and also regularly meets with the dean of students and IU’s president to raise awareness about issues within the Black community and work to make change. Recent discussions have centered around divides between Black and nonblack communities on campus after the presidential election, Bloomington’s Black Lives Matter movement, and issues such as COVID-19 protocol, she said. She’s hopeful that within the coming years, there will be much-needed changes to shift the campus climate and make progress. Black faculty and staff have been particularly instrumental in helping, Cousins said.
Although the work Black advocates do is beneficial and important, it can also be taxing mentally and emotionally. Cousins said exerting the energy to host meetings and events can sometimes be exhausting; one way she likes to practice self-care and relax is to cook a nice meal and enjoy it while watching TV in her room. She especially loves to make pasta, she said. Spending time with her dog, working out, and catching up on sleep when possible also helps.
February marks Black History Month, a time dedicated to dismantling systemic racism and celebrating the history and accomplishments of Black people. The BSU hosts a special series of social and educational events each year. This year, the celebration is taking place the week of Feb. 14., running side-by-side with the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center's series of events.
During the week of Feb. 14, Cousins said the BSU will host a spelling bee on Monday using the names of historical Black figures, African American Vernacular English, and other aspects of Black culture; Tuesday will be a Money Smarts event, focusing on healthy money usage; Wednesday is a cultural dinner with food catered specifically to Black culture, along with information about the history of each menu item and its significance; Thursday is a de-stress painting event, and Friday are the Black Excellence Awards.
"We kind of shine a light on students and faculty members that are serving in the community that may be overlooked," Cousins said.
The BSU tries to strike a balance between lighthearted social activities and hard-hitting educational events. While she doesn't want students to feel like they're being lectured, Cousins said, it's also important to know what is happening on campus and in the world.
"When we put on events, we focus them around, ‘how do we make students feel comfortable, like they can express whatever's going on, but also, how are we putting on events that take their mind off of class and work and being at a predominantly white institution?" she said.
To Cousins, Black History Month is a celebration she takes great pride in, one that allows her to express herself and her culture more than usual. She said she likes to spend the month educating herself about Black historical figures that aren't typically taught in school. Recently, she's been researching Marcellus Neal and Frances Marshall, the first Black man and woman to graduate from IU, for whome the Neal-Marshall Black Culture Center is named. Cousins has also been learning about Malcom X, an advocate for Black empowerment and a prominent figure in the civil rights movement.
All are encouraged to participate in Black History Month by learning about Black culture and making a commitment to advocacy and anti-racism. Cousins said it’s important for nonblack people to educate themselves outside of just talking with Black students and community members.
“In order to learn more, you can’t just always take the teaching from text,” she said. “You have to apply it. It is okay to ask for more information.”
While the BSU’s events are Black-focused, Cousins said she encourages nonblack people to attend, too. She said she loves to see people take the time to inform themselves and show that they’re interested in the Black community.
“We are a very inclusive group, so anyone can come, and we really do love it when other people from other races or ethnicities come out to our events,” she said.
For those who are Black, February is a time to dig deeper, Cousins said. Learning more about where your family comes from, the town you live in, and more about yourself and your history are ways to celebrate Black History Month, she said.
“Also, celebrate being you,” she said. “Don’t feel like you need to dim your light down.”
While Black History Month is important, Cousins said the learning and celebration doesn’t have to end with February.
“You can still support the Black community, of course, after February and before February. You can still be proud of who you identify with, your community, and where you come from, not just in February,” she said. “It’s okay to talk about that.”