Women of Color initiative rallies for the underrepresented

WOC serves as networking and mentorship for young women of color

“Representation matters” is a statement often heard in the public and amongst universities communities, and the Women of Color (WOC) is an initiative on Coastal Carolina University’s campus where that statement serves at the core of its mission.

“It provides that safe space for many women of color and it provides professional development and growth, and it was founded by Mrs. Pat Singleton Young,” senior psychology major Jaliyah Oats, one of WOC’s board members, said. “That safe space so that each of us can go to, to vent about our issues, but also having that space so that we can develop, help one another to get better so that we can go out into these other organizations or these other clubs and kind of take on leadership positions.”

Photo provided by: Tiffany Hollis

Women of Color, under Intercultural and Inclusion Student Services, started a few years after Vice President for Executive Initiatives and Chief of Staff Travis Overton founded African American Initiative for Men (AAIM).

“Specifically, Travis Overton saw a need on this campus for our African American men and then years after we saw a need for our Women of Color on this campus,” Assistant Director of Intercultural and Inclusion Student Services Markyta Sirett said. “It originated primarily for an African American women space however since I have stepped into the role in taking it over, we saw how our demographics have changed over the years. We’re not just serving African American women, we also have a lot of Hispanic and Latinx women coming in and a very few Native American and Middle Eastern. Their percentages aren’t super high however they still need a place on campus as well.”

Women of Color has roughly 80 members, a five-member leadership board known as G.E.M.S., and two advisers, Tiffany Hollis, Ph.D., and Sirett. They meet every other Wednesday at 6 p.m. in the Lib Jackson Student Union A-201. Members of WOC volunteer in the Coastal community and host a series of events to raise awareness of keen issues affecting women.

“We partnered with the IISS office for the MLK Day of Service,” Oats explained. “So we do have some volunteer activities. We are also right now in the midst of planning our Spring 2023 Summit, which is a leadership summit hosted by the Intercultural and Inclusion Student Services office to develop professionally young women and young men of color so that they can go out into these spaces and really dominate a space that was initially not meant for them.”

That summit is on Feb. 17 and 18. The group also hosts field trips to learn about the history of their surrounding cities. Currently, the group is planning trips to Charleston and Georgetown to learn about its rich history surrounding slavery and people of color.

“My freshman year when I was kind of forced into that space and that classroom where nobody looked like me, it was kind of startling to me and unsettling, so having that space where I saw young women prosper, just be able to feel comfortable on this campus, that really made me want to stay,” Oats stressed.

Photo provided by: Tiffany Hollis

That sentiment was one of the main reasons sophomore biology major Jayden Smith joined Women of Color. Smith said joining a group where upperclassmen who looked like her succeed academically was inspiring to see.

“A gem previously, she was a biology major. She was going into the medical field, and it was a sense of awe seeing her,” Smith explained. “She was a senior, and when she graduated, I was like ‘okay it’s possible to see a black woman graduate in biology.’ It was just that sense of I do belong here and there isn’t a reason why I can’t do the things these women are doing.”

The work of Women of Color is not going unnoticed. The group was awarded 2020-2021 Student Organization of the Year at CCU’s Student Involvement and Leadership Awards and a recipient of the Bell Toward Award for WOC: Saving our Sisters Mental Health Program.

According to College Factual, Black students make up 18.1% of the student population. At a university with roughly 10,000 students, being a minority at a predominantly white institution can have its pressures for the underrepresented. Oats said she has overcome these struggles throughout her career at Coastal.

“If you would have asked me this question freshman year, I would have said flat out no,” Oats said regarding if she felt seen and heard at CCU. “But I think joining Women of Color (WOC), it kind of promoted me to want to be here but also to advocate for myself. When I feel like I’m not being poured into, I understand that I now have the authority to speak to them and I need to go out of my way to receive what I need to receive. WOC has uplifted me and given me certain skills to sort of go out and do what I need to do, find my voice, find my footing and find the ground that I need to be on.”

Smith said optimism and nonconformity is the key to surviving the uncertainty of enrolling at a predominantly white university.

“I would tell people who feel that they are not seen, to not be discouraged,” Smith said. “Keep being yourself because if you’re not yourself, you’re being untrue and that just brings harm. Don’t conform.”

To join the Women of Color initiative, students can follow them on Instagram @ccu_woc or by visiting the Coastal Connections website and searching for the organization. Coastal Connections is the main way for students to be a part of their weekly emails regarding their meetings, volunteer opportunities and activities.