The UC Santa Barbara Office of Black Student Development staff and vision fellows reflected on the Vision Fellowship program, which is now in its second year of operation and brought on a cohort of five vision fellows for the 2022-2023 academic year.
The Vision Fellowship is an Office of Black Student Development (OBSD) scholarship that funds UCSB undergraduate students’ passion projects under the categories of research, media and arts, community wellness and athletics. Recipients of the scholarship are eligible for a $750 project stipend, the publication and distribution of their project and participation in the annual Vision Fellowship reception.
The recipients of this year’s fellowship are third-year psychological & brain sciences major Antoinette Obiefuna, first-year psychological & brain sciences major Gloria Zearett, third-year environmental studies major Kendalynn Ross, fourth-year art major Leah Moment and second-year statistics and data science and Black studies double major Zoe McCullough.
OBSD was created in 2020 to fulfill the demands of the 2019 Black Student Union (BSU) Demands Team, which in part called for the office’s creation and the hiring of eight personnel to staff the office. Last spring, OBSD unveiled the opening of its office suite located in the Student Resource Building (SRB), creating a physical space on campus for serving and supporting Black students.
OBSD Academic Achievement Counselor Ashlee Priestley launched the Vision Fellowship last year after brainstorming with her colleague to devise scholarly initiatives that would engage students in a more creative manner and not have to be directly related to their major.
“We had this creative, brave moment of, ‘What if we do this fellowship program and students can apply with any project that they like as long as it’s something that they’re really passionate about and something that they would like to continue on in the future?’” Priestley said.
“[We wanted] to get a little bit more of that scholarly rigor out of students, but not necessarily in a purely academic way,” she continued. “From those first conversations, the Vision Fellowship was born, and we are proudly on our second cohort of vision fellows now.”
The program received 23 applicants for the fellowship during fall quarter — four times as many applicants in comparison to last year — from which they selected five fellows based on the uniqueness and creativity of their projects, as well as how it highlights different aspects and issues of the Black community.
The applicant pool “was extremely rich and diverse and very competitive, so when looking over these applicants, it was a hard decision,” according to Priestley.
“The [candidates] really stood out in their creativity in the different types of initiatives that they wanted to engage in, especially in how it highlights the Black community,” she said.
Priestley emphasized Vision fellowship’s few eligibility requirements as a unique aspect of the program. With no class or grade point average requirement, the program purely works to engage in student creativity and passion, according to Priestley.
“Not a lot of the time do we get to do something that we’re really passionate about, especially when we might have a major that our family wanted us to do or when we’re deciding between majors,” she said. “This opportunity is unique in that way, where it gives students that ability to be able to express themselves outside of whatever box they might conceptualize themselves in.”
Every selected fellow is tasked with finding a staff or faculty mentor to help supervise the project and generally manage their project in its entirety. The fellows are required to have a stand-alone presentation of their project in whatever format they choose, as well as present their projects as a cohort at the vision fellows reception in June.
The fellows also have the opportunity to socialize with one another through bonding events as well as by utilizing academic advising to ensure that they are balancing their academics with their individual projects.
Zearett’s passion project focuses on the visibility of Black dancers at UCSB. They spoke on the lack of spaces and representation of Black dancers in the performing arts community on campus.
“The general purpose would be to build a space to have Black dancers feel seen because one thing I did notice was that the main group of hip-hop dancers at UCSB are not made up of a lot of Black students,” Zearett said. “I’ve also noticed that in other performing arts, there’s not a lot of Black students involved.”
Zearett is splitting up their project into two parts — first to hold weekly choreography workshops every Friday at Robertson Gym to generate interest in their project, and second to organize a dance festival for Black dancers and artists in the spring. The workshops will be focused on the modern technique style of dance but is open to individuals of all dance backgrounds.
“[The workshops] are to get an idea of who is interested in dancing and being in a dance space outside of school, and hopefully whoever that group is might be choreographing in the spring,” they said.
Zearett spoke to UCSB being a predominately white institution and how, although people of color are represented in the racial demographics of the university, there is still a general pattern of conforming to whiteness.
“Even if you look at the high numbers of Asian and Latino students, there is still an idea of conformity and upholding whiteness,” they said. “I think that translates directly into who is taking up which spaces.”
Speaking to the lack of Black dancers at UCSB, Zearett said this is both a disparity in representation and in training.
“A lot of Black people, just in general, have dance experience or dance training or are just good dancers … but that qualification doesn’t really seem to translate,” they said. “I feel like there’s a very qualified group of people that are not dancing.”
McCullough applied for the fellowship with the encouragement of OBSD Director Elroy Pinks, whom she met prior to attending UCSB and said has become a mentor and supporter of hers.
“He recommended that I apply for it, especially because I want to get more into social activism and bettering the community around me,” McCullough said. “I can’t put into words how amazing of a person he is. He’s so supportive and just wants to see the people around him win.”
She is producing an audio visual podcast highlighting the work of Black and Indigenous women of color in S.T.E.M. at UCSB and within the surrounding community for her project.
Throughout her childhood, McCullough said she saw a lack of media representation of women of color in S.T.E.M. and experienced being overlooked and marginalized in academic spaces by her white counterparts.
“Growing up I didn’t really know it was possible for me to become a scientist just because there was a lack of representation,” she said. “Not just being women but being women of color, and specifically Black women because that’s an identity that I align myself with, it’s really hard to be heard and be able to put yourself out there in a world that’s constantly shunning you.”
McCullough sought to create positive visibility for women and non-binary people of color and offer a space for their voices to be heard with her podcast.
“Because of the prejudices here on campus, especially being a PWI, a lot of times we’re not really given the chance to even share our thoughts, so [I want to] just make a mark and make sure that we’re being seen and heard,” she said.
McCullough plans to interview her podcast guests about the work and research in S.T.E.M. and how their identity has impacted their professional experiences.
She added that another positive of her fellowship has been her engagement with OBSD, finding connection with her vision fellow cohort, making use of the physical office space as a resource and place of comfort and receiving the support of Priestley and the rest of staff.
“I didn’t start going into the physical office space until the start of this academic year because I didn’t really know it was there, and I wish more people knew about it,” McCullough said. “It’s a great resource. There’s so many amazing people in there that just want to help the people around them.”
“Even in the [African diasporic Cultural Resource Center] in the Student Resource building, that space which is meant for Black students, especially in the African diaspora, isn’t really respected as much because anybody just walks in there and disrupts the flow and the mood,” she continued. “I don’t want to gatekeep the OBSD because I genuinely think it’s a wonderful place, but I like that it’s for the very few Black people that are here.”
Priestley spoke to the personal importance of the fellowship program’s support of Black joy, excellence and creativity.
“A lot of times, Black students don’t have the opportunity to take a step back and do something that they really want to focus on and are passionate about,” she said. “I think it’s really important to foster those things in people and make sure that they feel supported in those passions because it is my belief that you can’t go wrong if you’re following your passions and your dreams.”
“Sometimes, people’s dream is to get a four-year college degree, sometimes, you want to do something greater, something with more impact, something involved in the community, and this fellowship has really become a space for that for Black students on campus.”
Overall, Priestley emphasized how the fellowship aligns with OBSD’s mission to support the holistic development of Black students.
“OBSD is really founded on a core principle of supporting Black students holistically … that is what we’re here for,” she said. “And the Vision Fellowship fits into that by giving students that creative outlet that they might not receive otherwise, while also receiving financial support and mentorship.”
A version of this article appeared on p. 1 of the Feb. 23, 2023, print edition of the Daily Nexus.