Honors Thesis Spotlight: Black Space and the Effects of Belonging: The Black Student Union House at Florida State University.

The Black Student Union on Florida State’s campus was founded in 1968 with its sole purpose of being the voice and representative for black and minority students on campus. Its mission statement is to “remember our past, build on the present and fight for our future, so that jointly and strongly Black students on Florida State’s campus could be understood.” On Florida State’s campus, the Black Student Union is one of six identity-based agencies that provide a source of inclusion and safety on campus. The other agencies are the Women Student Union, Pride Student Union, Asian American Student Union, Veteran Student Union, and Hispanic Latino Student Union. Out of these six agencies, BSU is the only agency on campus that has a physical location for its members.

The original Black Student Union house was built on Florida State’s campus in 1972, and the new Black Student Union building was built in 2018. There is an assumption, by the students and administrators on campus, that these buildings were placed on campus to help the Black students feel included, represented, and respected. These locations also stand in place for available space for programming and fellowship of the Black Student Union and other student groups on campus. The Black Student Union at Florida State Union acts as a mental and physical space for Black students on campus and attempts to showcase the relationship(s) between a sense of belonging and institutional support; or the lack of. As a social organization of Florida State’s campus, the BSU on Florida State’s campus was created to fill a void for belonging at predominately white institutions.

With the Black Student Union at Florida State University or other Black spaces at campuses that mirror FSU, it could be said that students tend to group with each other in an effort to “connect with peers from one’s own racial group during the immersion stage of racial identity development.” There is also research on why individuals choose to connect with people who share similar identity categories as them. For example, certain researchers have highlighted the tendency of individuals to prefer identification with persons with whom salient categories are shared. This racial identity development is important because there is a creation of social peer networks that allows for students to not only feel included but allows for the creation and connection to resources that then leads to higher retention rates and graduation outcomes.

This thesis draws on data from a larger oral history project that includes interviews with Black undergraduate students and alumni of Florida State University. The methodology in this study is a qualitative approach based on peer-interviewing and theme analysis. The analysis for this thesis is focused on interviews with four (4) participants, all of which identified as women. These participants were currently enrolled undergraduate students during the Fall 2019-Spring 2020 school year, who were recruited from a compiled list of names of undergraduates who were known to be involved with the Black Student Union and/or to have taken African American Studies courses.

The research questions are as follows: 1) What are the effects of the Black Student Union’s house on Florida State University students concerning feelings of ownership, perceptions of access, and sense of belonging at FSU and within the BSU? 2) How does the Black Student Union at Florida State affect Black students’ sense of belonging on campus? And 3) Why are Black spaces within predominately white institutions important?

This thesis explores the psychological effects that the Black Student Union and its physical location have on students and how these effects manifest through the student experience. Overall, the data shows that having an organization such as the Black Student Union, and having a physical space for Black students at Florida State University, does have psychological effects on the Black students that attend the university. These effects are present whether they feel connected to the house personally or not. These feelings are in relation to ownership, access, and sense of belonging on campus. The data also shows that a student’s sense of belonging in their college community is dependent upon their level of involvement in extracurriculars on campus and their understanding of the roles of the BSU and its Coalition of Black Organizational Leadership (COBOL) organizations, physical spaces on campus and overall student government laws and policies. This data suggests that Black spaces are 1) important to Black students attending predominantly white institutions and 2) are needed to improve mental health, facilitate feelings of belonging; all of which will allow Black students to combat symptoms of imposter syndrome.

In conclusion, findings show there was an effect on feelings of ownership, perceptions of access, and sense of belonging at FSU and within the Black Student Union due to the BSU House. It was also shown that the effect that the Black Student Union had on Black students at FSU was dependent upon students’ identification with their racial identity and their level of involvement on campus; however, the idea that support was there regardless of connection was a common theme across the interviews. The findings also supported the need for black spaces within predominantly white institutions and that there is a need for education equity, which is allotting proper resources to all people regardless of their class, race or status, and or making all resources available to people that are at a disadvantage; which includes both social and cultural capital. The data also supports that the cultivation of community is an integral part of retention on campus, but its effects on academic excellence could not be proven in this study.

Serena Bradshaw is a Florida State University graduate. Serena is continuing her education at Howard University studying counseling psychology. You can learn more about this project here.

The feature image is from Pexels.

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