Two students work together on a whiteboard

Credit: Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Communications

UC San Diego students at the February 2020 BRC Change-A-Thon, hosted by the Black Resource Center in The Basement.

When Alicia Yancey started her first year at UC San Diego, she sought out spaces where Black students like her could thrive. For community, she grew close to the Black Resource Center and served two years as president of the Black Student Union. For academics, she took as many classes on the Black experience as possible, and ultimately received a minor in African American Studies.

And while she graduated in 2020, it’s this year — just as campus has approved the university’s very first major in Black Diaspora and African American Studies — that Yancey said she is truly proud.

“This is more than just a major; it could be one of the first places on campus where Black students feel seen. It’s wide and it’s expansive, and it’s an example of a path forward,” said the alum, who majored in political science. “My heart is really full of joy.”

Thandeka Chapman
Department of Education Studies professor Thandeka Chapman, director of the African American Studies Program.
Credit: Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Communications

With thanks to dedicated students like Yancey, along with faculty, staff and alumni from across campus, the new bachelor of arts degree will not only enhance the academic offerings at UC San Diego, but will foster collaborative study for students and faculty regarding the current experiences and histories of people of African descent.

Accepting new majors beginning in fall quarter 2022, the African American Studies Program within the Institute of Arts and Humanities will administer the new degree, while continuing to offer the established minor.

“One of the overarching goals of the new degree is to help students understand the critical spaces Black people hold in society: culturally, politically, economically and socially,” said program director Thandeka Chapman. “It will also provide theoretical and conceptual tools for students to learn about the complexities of race and racism, capitalism, colonization and imperialism.”

Interdisciplinary by design

A professor in the Department of Education Studies, Chapman said Black diaspora and African American studies are, by design, interdisciplinary. The minor was established in Thurgood Marshall College in 2005, graduated its first cohort in 2007, and became a program within the Division of Arts and Humanities in 2014. Graduates with the minor represent 23 different disciplines, from biology to visual arts, and Chapman said the socio-historical understanding learned in the program is essential for careers in public policy, law, STEM and social justice.

“There are but a few fields of study where researchers have not investigated connections between people of African descent and social, political, artistic, economic, health outcomes, experiences and legacies of impact and influence,” she said. “Studies focused on the diverse and complicated histories of people under the umbrella of African descendants are integrated within almost every academic discipline.”

February 2020 BRC Change-A-Thon
At the February 2020 BRC Change-A-Thon, students joined a creative problem solving incubator with a focus on the Black experience.
Credit: Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Communications

Students will have the option to major in one of three concentrations: the first focusing on the Africa and Black Diaspora, the second on African American Studies, and the third will be interdisciplinary, allowing students to design a focus across selected topics or issues through multiple departments.

With African American Studies, the Institute of Arts and Humanities administers 15 degree-awarding cultural programs, including Chicanx and Latinx Studies, Japanese Studies and the newly launched Asian American and Pacific Islander Studies. The institute is located in the Division of Arts and Humanities, and director Nancy Kwak said interdisciplinary study helps students think critically about larger questions of identity, place-making and social justice.

“As with each of our programs, we invite all students to consider majoring or minoring in Black Diaspora and African American Studies,” said Kwak, associate professor in the Department of History. “It's clear, now more than ever, how much we need this kind of research and learning. Students will be better equipped to make a difference in the world we inhabit.”

Chapman was quick to thank all involved, and said staff will be busy preparing to welcome majors in the program by establishing three new lower-division and seven upper-division courses, developing a course-of-study outline, and expanding the faculty members who will be affiliated with the program. Proposed courses range from Racism and Global Imperialism to Legacies of Research on Disenfranchised Communities.

The 52-unit curriculum also calls for establishing specific Service Learning classes, as well as a capstone course and scholarly work or research practicum. Core African American Studies Program faculty members who served on the curriculum committee included Chapman, Zeinabu Davis of Communication, Makeba Jones of Education Studies, Hanna Garth of Anthropology and Jessica Graham of History.

Expanding campus efforts

Graham is also director of the Black Studies Project in the Division of Social Sciences, which in October 2020 received a commitment of $2.5 million from the university to strengthen and expand its scope. She explained how similar degree programs emerged in the late 1960s related to the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. The resurgence of Black Lives Matter, she said, has even more people poised to understand anti-Blackness and systemic racism through higher education.

“Top scholars in the field will be drawn to our campus, our students will not only be able to study and research innovative topics, but they also will have access to a larger and more diverse pool of mentors and advisors,” she said of the impact of the new degree. Students will work with faculty researchers affiliated with the Black Studies Project for both the practicum and service-learning components.

“I hope the major will help our campus to recognize the relevance and importance of this research to our collective academic mission, even in the STEM fields, and that it will strengthen the sense of community and belonging among Black studies scholars and Black students, faculty and staff,” Graham said.

Black Legacy Mural featuring historical figures standing behind young children
The "Black Legacy Mural" by San Diego artist Andrea Rushing was unveiled at the UC San Diego Price Center on Feb. 11, 2015.
Credit: Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego Communications

The establishment of the major and the financial commitment to the Black Studies Project are two steps in larger efforts by the campus toward diversity and social justice in academic offerings, and help advance the university’s Black Academic Excellence Initiative. Additionally, the University of California Office of the President awarded the university two Advancing Faculty Diversity grants totaling $700,000, which will in part lead to 13 new faculty hires who focus their research on racial and ethical disparities in STEM.

The faculty diversity grants, funding for Black Studies Project and the Black Academic Excellence Initiative are coordinated efforts led by the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion and Vice Chancellor Becky Petitt, and Chapman said they were key to establishing the new major.

“Currently, the African American Studies Program doesn’t have many classes that are connected to STEM, and hiring faculty in those areas will give students in the sciences the chance to see themselves. A lot of students come to UC San Diego for an education in STEM, but we don’t have a concrete way to speak to them as African American and Black students, in their field. Now, we do,” Chapman said.

The Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion also oversees the seven campus resource centers, and Black Resource Center director Porsia Curry said adding the major validates the importance of the academic focus that Black and non-Black students will learn, as well as the ground breaking research that will potentially be produced.

“Ida B. Wells said ‘The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them,’” Curry said. “Our campus has always sought to create solutions to the world’s problems — and wrongs — through scholarship and research. As we aim to address anti-Black racism and all other related forms of oppression as a campus, this major becomes an integral tool for our success in this work.”