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Not a Cultural Deficit: Why Student Participation Has Dropped So Heavily at TU

Aside from the massive academic benefits and sense of history, culture is one of the main draws for most students when coming to the illustrious Tuskegee University: The chants, keying people, homecoming, and a plethora of other traditions that make Tuskegee what it is. But this school year, there seems to be an astounding lack of participation and appreciation for culture and tradition, especially from the underclassmen. Whether it be not knowing the chants, not coming to Student Government Association (SGA) events, not filling the shed, not dressing for Fried Chicken Wednesday, or just a general sense of unenthusiasm, there is a portion of upperclassmen and active underclassmen that long for the days of old Skegee. But are the underclassmen the real issue? Or, are the extenuating circumstances of a pandemic and a growing irritation with the administration to be blamed? From interviews with SGA officials and students, it seems the answer is somewhere in the middle.

In a series of interviews with SGA President Lauryn Johnson, Sophomore Class President Grace Jackson, Miss Freshman Taylor Black, and prominent student Josh Jackson a general idea of the issue emerges. 

From Sophomore President Grace Jackson a general idea of the underclassmen’s perspective can be seen. Jackson links the lack of participation and excitement to a general displeasure with both the university administration and the current state of the pandemic. Jackson emphasizes that the lack of participation has nothing to do with the SGA but instead due to certain “treatment[s] from administration and faculty… .” She says in conversations with the freshman and sophomore class she has learned that a large portion of these classes are finding it difficult to support a school they feel “ isn’t doing everything in their power to get [them] where they need to be” and thus “it’s hard to want to support and do extra… .” She goes on to note examples such as the “Tuskegee Runaround” (which is the evasive approach some university departments take when asked to assist with an issues or to take responsibility), Advisors not playing an active role with students with class scheduling and credit requirements, money handling issues such as the state of the financial aid department and money laundering, and a litany of other issues that students are frustrated with. While these issues are real, upperclassmen seem to have a different perspective on how to deal with them.

Well known senior Josh Jackson, has made a name for himself as a class clown that targets freshmen in particular over social media, and as a Tuskegee native with a family that is ingrained into the history of Tuskegee University. Jackson notes that all students go through the negative Tuskegee experience, even recalling his mother’s experience at the university to illustrate how much worse issues such as the “Tuskegee runaround” used to be. He believes that these negative Tuskegee experiences have been around forever but as students you can’t let that deter you from having a good time and participating in the experience; he says “the line to Kresge used to run all the way from that building to where Austins is now.”

 In terms of the pandemic plaguing the entire world right now becoming an obstacle towards participation, plus frustration with the university, it becomes clear why individuals are not taking it upon themselves to participate in university events. Every student interviewed points to the lack of participation connected to the measures the university is taking to prevent the spread of the virus. Both Jacksons cite the recent home football game against Edward Waters as a case of the University’s disorganized attempts to control the spread of the virus at the expense of student participation. 

During this game the University made the choice to implement a rule requiring a negative COVID test in order to permit entry into the event. They attempted to implement this rule at the home opener but decided to push back the rule to the second home game. But due to the short notice of the rule, closing the university testing center, and ill-prepared gate attendants, most students just made the decision not to go — which led to a pitiful shed turnout for the first football win of the semester. Students took to social media to make emotional claims such as, “Skegee Culture is dead,” “What happened to whether sunny or grey?” or “Skegee is not the same.” These were emotional reactions that didn’t take into account the extenuating circumstances that led to the lack of attendance at the game. 

Another prevalent misconception is that it is only the underclassmen that are not participating in events. SGA President Lauryn Johnson states that all classes are experiencing a heavy drop in participation. President Johnson states, “I still only see the same faces at every SGA event.” President Johnson believes the lack of participation is not a freshman or a sophomore issue, but a Tuskegee issue in general. While she agrees with Jackson’s point about being frustrated with the administration, she also associates lack of participation in events and respect for tradition with the pandemic as well. She says it has become increasingly difficult to prepare and conduct events around the COVID control rules that the administration has understandably put in place. Rules and restrictions such as capacity limits and COVID testing make it extremely hard for these events to run smoothly and at the same vigor as they did before the pandemic. 

Miss Freshman Taylor Black’s points show how new Tuskegee students felt when they first arrived at school. She also explains what her class is currently experiencing. She reminds us that this year’s freshmen have had an experience unlike any other, mostly due to the pandemic. When asked about the lack of interest in activities from her class, she points back to the class’ introduction to the rest of the school on Twitter, a video of them doing the Tuskegee line dances. Many of them did not know the dances and the rest of the school let them hear it. Black attributes this to many of the freshmen not going to the non-required New Student Orientation (NSO) events, likely having to do with COVID-19 restrictions. Black then explains that, coupled with normal freshman hesitancy, this caused many of them to “fall back” in an effort not to be disruptive. However, according to Black, this has not left any bad blood between TU25 and the rest of the classes.

Taylor Black and others (of all classifications) point out the sibling-like relationships that they have with one another. Understanding that these behaviors align with the standards of these types of relationships allows room for students, especially freshmen, to feel more at ease with their reality. When asked what more the upperclassmen could do to assist, she insists they had done a “good job,” adding, “if the upperclassmen felt they came harder than us, then they are justified in holding the underclassmen to the same standard.” Black’s comment indicates that the culture of Tuskegee and the Tuskegee Experience is one of the most valued aspects of school life and that Tuskegee students are supportive of behaviors that serve to sustain it.

When asked what students can do to combat this issue, Grace Jackson invites all students to participate in her “Redefining Tuskegee Experience” Task Force that works to listen to the voice of students in order to take up their potential grievances with the administration. Asked if SGA had anything in the works to promote more participation, President Johnson asks students to “stay tuned.” At the end of the day, the fact that lack of participation has become such a starkly emphasized issue on campus points to the strength of the Tuskegee community; and it very well may become the reason the community will be even stronger once this pandemic is over.