Adjusting to the Midwest was a process for Jonathan McElderry.
McElderry, the director of the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center, was an undergraduate in Fairfax, Va., attending George Mason University, then the top-ranked school in the country in terms of diversity. He was accustomed to the fast-paced city atmosphere.
In the fall of 2011, he went to Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, for his master’s degree in education.
“I’m originally from Virginia, but my time in Ohio allowed me to realize that things are different the farther west you go,” he said. “My high school was very diverse and had a good mixture of students.”
McElderry worked at the Office of Student Conduct for his first 1 1/2 years at MU. While pursuing a Ph.D. in higher education administration, he moved into his new position at the BCC and got involved in other organizations, such as the Legion of Black Collegians and the National Association of Black Journalists.
Having never been to Missouri before, the atmosphere of MU was a culture shock to McElderry. But there were some perks, he said.
“Our campus is very unique in that we have a lot of centers,” said McElderry. “To have a Black Culture Center, a Women’s Center, a Multicultural Center, an LGBTQ (Resource) Center – I think we’re very good at meeting the needs of the students and making sure that everybody has a place on campus to feel comfortable.”
Making sure all students are comfortable is an ongoing concern for McElderry and the BCC staff. Although the center celebrates black culture, he wants to continue making it a welcoming environment for students of all backgrounds.
According to McElderry, celebrating black culture is celebrating all differences of people within that culture; not lumping them into one category.
“The biggest thing I think I’ve learned growing up is that, a lot of time, people like to put other people in boxes,” McElderry said. “They’ll say, ‘You’re white, so you should be a certain way’ or, ‘You’re black, so you should act a certain way,’ and I’ve learned that being black is very subjective. We all have different stories and are from different walks of life, and it’s the intersection of our identities that make us who we are.”
Over the past couple of years, McElderry and the BCC staff have worked to rebrand and improve the BCC’s perception on campus. The biggest part of achieving a good campus reputation is improving programming and reaching out to other organizations to collaborate, McElderry said.
Through programming and education, McElderry thinks MU can continue to establish itself as a diverse campus.
“What I’ve noticed from being in Missouri and the Midwest is that there are a lot of areas where students come from that may not have had a lot of exposure to people from different cultures,” McElderry said. “I think that having different programs and events to get people to intermingle and not be so segregated within their own communities really helps us.”
Throughout all of February, the BCC has participated in and held several events to celebrate Black History Month. One event, held on Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, provided free testing to students.
“The next week, we hosted an event called ‘Am I Still Black If,’ which was a program that challenged the notion of what it means to be black in 2014,” McElderry said. “There, we talked about different issues, for example, if black students are less black if they join Greek Life, date outside their race or choose to wear their hair a certain way.”
McElderry said he wants to continue to lead by example and to educate on local and national levels.
“My long-term career goal is to be the dean of students, because I have a passion for working with underrepresented groups, and when I went to school as a first-generation college student, I knew nothing about attending college,” McElderry said. “It was the administrators on my campus that really got me through it. They really saw something in me and got me involved with different leadership positions, and ultimately that’s what I want to do for the students here.”
McElderry notes the support of MU and its community in many student organizations’ advocacy for diversity.
“I think MU is definitely headed in the right direction and continues to head in the right direction as far as diversity in concerned,” McElderry said. “I’ve done a lot of research on the history of MU for my Ph.D., and I saw the other day that the black student population at MU has doubled in the past ten years.”