Like college students across the globe, Kristopher Andrews planned to expand his mind while pursuing a degree—to learn about the world, his chosen field and, more importantly, about himself.

For Andrews, part of learning about himself meant learning how others saw him and rethinking how he shaped his identity. He said that realization came in his sophomore year when he was asked an earnest question about his ancestry.

“If you see me, I’m a Black man,” Andrews explained. “I have curly hair, darker skin and ethnic African features like my father, so when people see me they see an African American man. But my mother is Native American.

“To be asked about my heritage was acknowledging a level of me beyond my phenotype,” he continued. “It made me feel like I didn’t have to fit into a box because of what people assumed of me. I didn’t have to fit into their preconceived notions of what they see in me.”

A native of North Carolina, Andrews moved to Mississippi in late childhood so his mother could be near his ailing grandmother who lived on the Choctaw reservation just outside of Philadelphia. Still, it wasn’t until arriving at Mississippi State and being asked about his family’s roots that he began to embrace his Native American heritage.

“Finding a community is so important for ensuring students don’t suffer in silence if they feel discouraged. Having a community can ultimately provide the support needed to complete a degree, and we want to encourage community building any way we can.”
~ Regina Hyatt

Despite being in Starkville—less than an hour’s drive from the reservation in Choctaw where his mother now lives—Andrews said he noticed a lack of other Native American students or a connection to that culture on campus.

“Looking around, not only did I not see the physical presence of Native American students, but I didn’t see a supportive presence,” the civil engineering senior recalled. “There’s a Black Student Association, a Latino Student Association, but where’s the group for Native Americans? I did not see it as an identity being supported like others and I felt it was needed.”

To address that issue, Andrews partnered with Genesis Ferris, a junior in criminology and member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. Together, they established the Native American Student Association—the newest identity-based student group within the Holmes Cultural Diversity Center at Mississippi State University.

“I’ve always supported the advocacy of Native Americans,” Ferris said. “With this group, we hope other Native American students can feel comfortable on campus. Whether they’re from out of state or just down the road, we want students to find a place here and feel like they belong.”

Mississippi State’s history of identity-based organizations dates back to the 1960s when students formed Afro-American Plus to promote equality at the land-grant institution in the years following integration. Now, the university’s Division of Student Affairs and the Holmes Cultural Diversity Center—named for Dr. Richard E. Holmes, MSU’s first African American student—are home to dozens of groups meant to celebrate students’ similarities, whether it’s an interest or career goal; a racial, ethnic, religious, gender or sexual orientation-based identity; or shared experiences like veteran status, homelessness or being a transfer student.

Ra’Sheda Forbes, MSU’s vice president for access, diversity and inclusion, said the existence of groups like these can be instrumental in student success.

“Many students coming into a large university are looking to find their fit,” Forbes said. “These organizations give students the opportunity to find a community around their interests or their identities to help them feel a sense of belonging, express who they are and understand who they are.”

Regina Hyatt, MSU’s vice president for student affairs, agreed, noting it can be easy for a student to feel isolated at a large university.

“At an institution the size of Mississippi State, it’s very easy to move around and feel like you’re the only person who is of a particular identity,” Hyatt explained. “Having a sense of place and to feel that you matter is critical to success at a university, and our cultural or identity-based student organizations help students find that here.

“Identity-based organizations also provide a representative voice for students and student populations,” she continued.

“I’m all about conversation and sharing perspectives. Really breaking down and being transparent with people like you and with people who aren’t like you, who come from different backgrounds, is something that really entices growth.”
~ Alysia Williams

Town halls and other meetings with these groups help give students a platform to express concerns about a variety of topics including support, belonging and academics. Forbes said the exchanges are not just important to the students but the institution as a whole.

“Finding a community is so important for ensuring students don’t suffer in silence if they feel discouraged,” she said. “Having a community can ultimately provide the support needed to complete a degree, and we want to encourage community building any way we can.”

Alysia Williams said seeing that openness and community building was part of why she chose Mississippi State over a historically Black college or university.

“When you come to a new environment, you’re naturally going to gravitate to people who are like you or at least like-minded, so having organizations that encompass that can feel like being part of a family,” Williams said. “But here, everyone wants to know you as an individual, too—where you come from, what’s your story—and I appreciate that energy.”

A junior in architecture from Atlanta, Williams said she felt inspired by what she saw within the Holmes Cultural Diversity Center. She became 2019-20 president of the Black Student Association, the largest of MSU’s organizations for underrepresented populations, in part to provide opportunities to build the community and encourage what she calls “transparency” among students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds.

“I’m all about conversation and sharing perspectives,” Williams said. “Really breaking down and being transparent with people like you and with people who aren’t like you, who come from different backgrounds, is something that really entices growth.”

Williams said the one thing she would have liked to do more of as president was to increase membership of non-Black students. Diversifying membership is a wish that’s shared by many identity-based student groups whose leaders note it’s not just about finding a community of individuals like yourself but also including others to show them a new perspective.

“We want to help recruit Native American students to MSU and have a voice, but we’re not going to check your DNA for membership,” Andrews said jokingly of the Native American Student Association. “We do not discriminate and actively encourage people of all backgrounds to come and just celebrate this culture.”

Anirudh Aditya echoed those sentiments saying part of the mission of the International Student Advisory Board is to promote the exchange of ideas. A Mississippi native who spent eight years in India, ultimately graduating high school in Bangalore, he said helping promote understanding is an important aspect of the group.

“There’s a culture shock to being in a new place—you don’t know anyone, where to look for an apartment or even where Walmart is—so we help with those aspects to make an easier transition, but it’s so much more than that,” the senior biochemistry major explained. “We’re about ensuring our international students share their culture with domestic students and that domestic students share their culture and traditions with those from other countries.

“It’s a cultural exchange,” he continued. “The more you learn about each other and the more you share, the more you’re able to fight off ignorance and racism. It’s through our differences that we can see how similar we actually are.”

By Susan Lassetter | Photo by Beth Wynn