From the Winter-Spring 2023 edition of IUP Magazine

A young man with more than 20 younger people standing behind him holds up his phone facing himself and the crowd to take a selfie. They are in a large, lobby-type space with an “Indiana University of Pennsylvania” sign in red near the ceiling and a carpet with long rectangles in shades of gray.

Jamaal Gosa took a selfie with students from the Crimson Scholars Circle program after he and Debra Evans Smith talked with them in August about the Black Experience Alumni Committee. (Brian Henry)

More than a dozen Black alumni, some of whom attended IUP 40 years apart, are working with their alma mater to improve the college experience for current Black students, putting them on a path to success.

The new initiative, the Black Experience Alumni Committee, aims to build relationships with Black students and to connect them with needed resources—including IUP’s vast network of Black alumni.

BEAC Weekend

The Black Experience Alumni Committee invites all Black alumni to return to campus April 14–16 to network, reconnect, support students, promote a business, and more. Find information or register for BEAC Weekend.

 “We want to be that bridge for students,” said Jamaal Gosa ’15, M’17, cochair of BEAC (pronounced “beak”). He sees the group as an “umbrella of support,” bringing together students, new graduates, and existing alumni.

IUP welcomes the help, which dovetails with efforts such as the Crimson Scholars Circle, a new support and mentoring program to help Black and Brown students stay in school. Retention has been an issue at IUP and elsewhere, with a national study showing the retention rate for Black students around 9 percent lower than for all students combined.

Gosa has targeted retention before. As an IUP undergraduate, along with Ron Gleaves ’17 and Patrick Myers, he cofounded Creating Higher Standards, a peer-mentoring and support group now in its 10th year of helping students succeed.

Gosa’s motivation for helping others was that he had struggled in his early years at IUP. Through BEAC, he talks about that experience with current students to help build connections.

“I think the students are able to relate to someone who felt every emotion, who got academically dismissed, and who was on academic probation,” said Gosa, now a doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh and a restorative practice coordinator in Pitt’s School of Social Work. “I’m older now, but I think that relevancy is prominent.”

A man sits and a woman leans on a short gray-stone wall with lots of shrubbery around it as they look at the camera and smile. The man is wearing a jean jacket with a shirt and tie under it. The woman is wearing a jacket with a check pattern over a light sweater.

Jamaal Gosa and Debra Evans Smith are cochairs of the Black Experience Alumni Committee. (Barry Reeger)

When students identify with the alumni in BEAC, they realize that they, too, can overcome obstacles and succeed, said Pittsburgh native Debra Evans Smith ’81, who cochairs the group with Gosa.

“It lets them know they’re not the only one going through what they’re experiencing at this point in their lives,” said Smith, an FBI retiree, IUP Distinguished Alumna, and alumni association board member. “You’ve gone through it, you’ve conquered it, and you’re doing just fine.”

Gosa said he turned things around at IUP with help from a network he created, made up of caring faculty members and administrators.

“It lets them know they’re not the only one going through what they’re experiencing at this point in their lives.”

“Without that support, I wouldn’t be pursuing my doctorate; I wouldn’t have done the work I’ve done,” he said. “Because they showed me that care—that launched a lot of who I am today.”

He hopes BEAC can have a similar impact. During listening sessions the group held in 2021, students said they had trouble with finances and with finding campus resources. In response, BEAC began compiling a list of scholarship opportunities and of IUP offices and employees to contact for a range of needs.

During IUP breaks, the group has held networking events in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia to connect students with graduates of the same major and to drum up alumni interest in BEAC.

While IUP has in place a protocol for responding to racial incidents, which includes supporting the victims and community, BEAC members say this is another area where they can help, particularly because they faced similar challenges coming to a predominantly White campus and town. That cultural shift—and the need for more support around it—was at the center of BEAC’s formation.

In spring 2020, IUP classes were remote and had just wrapped up when George Floyd’s murder shook the country. The university reacted by sharpening its focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion and by organizing activities ranging from discussions to trainings to town halls. That spring, individual departments condemned racism through written statements, and IUP posted a message on social media about its need to build an anti-racist community.

Gosa took issue with that post, saying a show of support for Black students should be present at all times, not just during a national uproar. He also felt the message “was vague and wasn’t specific to our hurt and pain.”

A woman wearing a sleeveless yellow mock turtleneck and her hair in a ponytail motions with her hands as she talks to people who are seated in a room, and a man who is also standing at the front of the room, in the background, watches her talk.

Smith and Gosa shared their experiences and advice with new students in the Crimson Scholars Circle program in August. (Brian Henry)

In response, he wrote an open letter to President Michael Driscoll that suggested ways to improve the experience for Black students—from offering a course on race and equity to hiring more faculty and staff of color.

“We want students to have another outlet, and BEAC encompasses people who have had the same types of experience they’re having right now at IUP.”

Among those who contacted Gosa was Khatmeh Osseiran-Hanna, IUP’s vice president for University Advancement. Their conversation led to Gosa’s introduction to Smith, a member of the President’s Commission on Diversity and Inclusion at the time. The two then joined IUP’s Office of Alumni and Friends (now Alumni and Constituent Engagement) in identifying members and starting BEAC.

From personal experience, Smith and Gosa know that racial incidents happen occasionally on campus and in the community. They want to help IUP and its students by serving as an additional source of support.

“We want students to have another outlet, and BEAC encompasses people who have had the same types of experience they’re having right now at IUP,” Smith said.

BEAC members also want to help students learn to advocate effectively for themselves. That preparation will help them in the workplace, too, where they may experience disparaging comments or other forms of discrimination, Smith said.

“Most Black and Brown students and women in general are going to encounter discrimination or microaggressions,” she said. “That’s one thing the students can talk to us about, because we’ve dealt with it.”

This school year, BEAC members are getting specific about how to help Black students and work toward educational and social equity, Smith said.

Ultimately, Gosa wants to see BEAC become the strongest Black alumni committee in the State System. “I want students to know they have a network they can go to for all things,” he said.

He and Smith are pleased that students have attended their events, have listened, and have shared their concerns.

A young woman wearing a fitted white shirt and a red open sweater stands in front of a white wall and smiles slightly in the light and shadows created by sunlight coming through the windows of a building.

A senior majoring in English education, Dimonquie Allen values the connections she has made at BEAC events. (Brian Henry)

A senior majoring in English education, Dimonquie Allen thinks that, for young students especially, BEAC can make the difference between finishing or not finishing college.

“The thing that motivates me most is seeing people like me and seeing that they made it.”

“When you don’t have people to talk to—I can speak from experience on this—it makes things difficult,” she said. “You don’t know who to go to, you don’t know who to ask—you’re doing this on your own.”

The president of Creating Higher Standards, Allen was introduced to BEAC through Gosa, a fellow New Jersey native who became her mentor. She said she values the connections she has made at BEAC events, as well as the example these alumni set.

“The thing that motivates me most is seeing people like me and seeing that they made it,” she said.

“These people were here, and even with the struggles and differences they went through in college, they’re telling you it’s okay that you’re going through stuff, you’ll make it through, and you’ll get to the finish line. . . . And, I know I can do it, because I’ve seen other people who did it.”