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Two students from different backgrounds work together toward an inclusive campus

January 27, 2016

Two students stand on the steps of East Ambler Johnston hall.
Seyi Olusina (left) and Skyler Mueller (right) stand on the steps of East Ambler Johnston, where they've hosted two seminars regarding race relations.

In a nation that struggles with its history of discrimination and racial tension, a black student and a white student decided they’d fight for change together.

When Seyi Olusina of Beaverdam, Virginia, arrived at Virginia Tech in the fall of 2014, he recognized a need for dialogue on race relations, both on campus and in the world. Instead of waiting for an event to occur, he decided, as a first year student, to plan one himself.

That’s where Skyler Mueller of Malvern, Pennsylvania, comes in. Skyler, a resident advisor in the Honors Residential College where Seyi lives, has the same convictions as Seyi: he recognizes the need for education on race relations, and he wants to be a part of a transformation of Virginia Tech's campus. But, unlike Seyi, he’s white.

In the spring of 2015, Seyi organized a renegade seminar — a conversation hosted by students about big ideas that shape the way in which they look at the world. Entitled “Let’s Talk about Racial Diversity,” the seminar was deemed one of the best Honors Residential College events. Seyi, a sophomore majoring in human nutrition, food, and exercise in the College of Science, organized a panel of students from a variety of backgrounds and enlisted Tricia Smith, director of the Intercultural Engagement Center, to serve as moderator.

Nearly 70 students came out to engage in civil conversation about race relations, and no one left the room unaffected. Seyi asked Skyler, a junior majoring in English in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, if he’d be willing to share a bit about what it looks like to be a white, heterosexual, male in America

In November, Seyi planned another seminar — this one entitled “How Are We Racing Together?”— and Skyler again shared his perspective.

The seminars don’t shy away from the tough topics. Questions such as the ones below invoke vulnerability, debate, and, as Skyler said, “People were uncomfortable, but that’s a good thing.”

  • What are some of the most prominent racial issues at Virginia Tech?
  • Can the “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter” movements coexist on our campus?
  • What are your limitations of being an advocate to a community to which you are not a member?
  • Should the confederate flag be a symbol of Southern pride?
  • What does racism mean to you?
  • How can white people use their privilege to create more racial equality?

The November seminar drew an even larger crowd than the spring’s, and it coincidentally took place at the same time national news focused on a series of racist incidents at the University of Missouri.

Virginia Tech recently interviewed Seyi and Skyler and, through their frank conversation, gained insight into their remarkable friendship as well as their commitment to improving race relations at the university. They dream of making the university one defined by its inclusion and diversity, and they’re not afraid of being the agents of change.

Skyler: In a sad way, we could’ve done the seminars at any time of year and there would’ve been something in the news around the same time. That’s just how it is, and it seems like it’s escalating.

Seyi: If you have to start with the word “another”—another shooting, another black teen, another event—it doesn’t speak well to our situation. People almost become numb to it—it’s not like they don’t care anymore, it’s just that it keeps happening.

Seyi: One thing I really love about our relationship is that we can both come to each other open and honest, and I love that we often disagree.

Skyler: Yeah. We have really open conversations. One day I was on [R.A.] duty—

Seyi: He was “on duty,” but he just came to my room and we talked for over an hour about this stuff.

Skyler: Hey! I was still on duty! I was “getting to know my residents.”

Seyi: I don’t think I can count on one hand who I can go to and talk like that.

Skyler: Seyi is the first person I want to hear from [when racial tensions come up]. We disagree about some things, but not the big things.

Seyi: I walk away from our conversations and know — without a doubt — that someone else cares as much about these things as I do.

Skyler: I feel very grateful that Seyi is open to talk about these things and share his experiences. Especially at Virginia Tech, especially in the [Honors Residential College] … I don’t know his experience, and—Seyi, I’m just really grateful you share your story with me.

In October 2015, both Seyi and Skyler were honored as recipients of the Division of Student Affairs Aspire! Awards, which recognize students who embody Virginia Tech’s Aspirations for Student Learning. Seyi received the award for Civility and Skyler received the award for Courageous Leadership.

Skyler: It’s not courageous for whites to speak about privilege.

Seyi: He’s being very modest. At a place like Virginia Tech, where it’s mostly white students, how many white people do you actually see step up? I consider it courageous for you to be a leader and step up.

Skyler: It’s not courageous. It’s more of a duty. It’s a duty to me.

Seyi: But it becomes courageous because so many people slack at their duty. How many people say they care but fall through in doing something about it? You actually step up. You could follow the crowd and not step up, but you take initiative. And you’re being way too modest for this interview.

Skyler: Alright, I see that. I just think it’s more courageous for you, as one of the few black males on this campus, to share your experience, than it is for me to speak about white privilege.

Written by Holly Paulette.

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