Celebrating Black History Month With Cameron Simmons
The University of Denver is committed to living our values of diversity and inclusion. We recognize that our community and institutional success is dependent on how well we engage and embrace the rich diversity of our faculty, staff, administrators, students and alumni. With that shared value in mind, throughout this academic year, we plan to publish a series of articles to celebrate cultural and ethnic heritage months. In partnership with Human Resources & Inclusive Community and the Staff of Color Association (SOCA), we will feature a staff or faculty member and a student in recognition of each heritage month, along with an event to honor one another and learn about our unique differences.
Enrolling at the University of Denver was not Cameron Simmons’ first choice. In fact, the Colorado Springs native had deposited at another school. But after his grandmother convinced him to visit campus, Simmons (BA ’16, MS ’17) was sold.
At DU, he had opportunity — to be a leader, study abroad and change the school for the better.
Although attending DU as a student of color was challenging, Simmons stuck with it, determined to leave the University better than he found it. He joined the Pioneer Leadership Program, Excelling Leaders Institute and the Black Student Alliance, and though he occasionally felt like giving up, he kept working to use his platform to make DU a more equitable, enjoyable place. For the last eight years, as a coordinator of the Black Male Initiative Summit, he has empowered young men to find their own identities.
Simmons has found his own place on campus, as assistant director of undergraduate admission, selling prospective students on the same opportunities he sought as a teenager.
In recognition of Black History Month, Simmons told the DU Newsroom about his experience on-campus and how he thinks the University can become more inclusive. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What was your experience like at DU as a student of color? Has it changed now that you’re an employee?
My experience as a student of color was not the best at DU, from my first week until I graduated from my master’s program. Luckily, I had a supportive friend group, mentors and a fraternity that was a citywide chapter, which allowed me to get off campus and meet people from four different universities. Being a student of color at DU was a tax due to many factors. The first was not having any representation in the classroom. Not only was I usually the only person of color in many of my classes, I was singled out as the expert on all black-related issues. I was made to feel like the spokesperson for the entire black community, which, as a first-year student, was extremely daunting. Another tax was not having a physical space dedicated to cultural expression. Nevertheless, my friends and I made a space at a booth in [the] Nagel dining [area] that we congregated at daily to catch up, study and just enjoy each other’s company. I know we probably made others feel uncomfortable with the level of ruckus we caused, but it was a space we claimed and built community.
As a professional, I feel as though the experience has been similar, but I now have a responsibility to the University, so I have to mask or contort my DU experience to find the positive aspects. I know that I would not be the person I am today without the trials, tribulations and triumphs I had at DU, but there are moments that truly made me feel unwelcome, scared and unintelligent. I think that as a professional I push forward in order to support students, especially those who look like me, by giving them a space to come, truly express themselves, and share the heartaches and successes they have experienced at DU.
The reason I have stuck around is because, throughout my experience as a student, I had strong, black staff to confide in, who encouraged me to keep going — individuals like Tracey [Adams Peters, former executive director of the Cultural Center]; Anthea [Johnson Rooen, director of equity in STEM], Natley [Farris, associate director of advancement events]; [former director of the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion], Dr. [Frank] Tuitt; and [director of diversity recruiting] Dr. [Debra] Mixon Mitchell.
Working in the Office of Admission, you are one of the first faces prospective students and their parents associate with DU. How have you tried to make the University a more welcoming place?
My approach when working with prospective students is to be authentic and share the struggles, along with the growth and learning that has propelled me to the place I am today. I share with students that there are things that could change at DU and that their presence and engagement on campus could radically transform the space, and they could leave a lasting legacy. Finally, I share with them the life skills that they gain from navigating a space like DU and how those skills will be directly transferrable to any field or industry they enter. These skills include code switching, addressing microaggression and working through “imposter syndrome.” These types of skills ultimately prepare students to take on the realities of our current society.
Additionally, I believe that staff and faculty have to be well supported and have a space of camaraderie and healing in order to best serve students. With this notion, I founded the Black@DU staff and faculty affinity group. The mission of Black@DU is to provide an atmosphere of cultural and social networking among black staff and faculty. Black@DU exists to enhance communication and champion diversity, inclusion, opportunity and social justice — while challenging racism within the University. My hope is that by empowering staff and faculty, we will take that same energy and invest it back into our students.
Where did you get your passion for education?
As a first-generation college student, my journey to higher education was not always easy to navigate; it led to many missed opportunities. Nevertheless, I had a determined grandmother and community who instilled in me a passion for learning. I was able to pursue higher education due to my privilege of having their involvement, but I always reflect on those individuals — including my brother and cousins — who did not necessarily have those driving forces and were lost in the cracks of our education system. The history of our education system and its current state interest me and fuel my passion.
Who in your life has inspired you?
One consistent person who has always been there as my role model, critic and cheerleader is my grandma. This woman took me in as a baby, so that my mom could finish high school, and has raised me to be the young man I am today. Without her inspiration and expectations, I would most likely be on another path. My grandma is a business owner who has built her clientele solely on the merit of her work and the care she provides to each person she engages with. From my grandma, I have learned to be outgoing, hardworking and courteous. She never let me settle for mediocrity but pushed me to be exceptional. I love and respect all of the lessons I learned and continue to learn from my grandma and hope that one day in the future I will be able to take great care of her as she took great care of me.
In an effort to make DU an inclusive and welcoming place, what would you like to see changed or improved?
A significant change that DU could make is to implement mandatory cultural competency training for all students and staff. It is very interesting to me that we have first-year students for an entire week before classes start, and they only do a two-hour training related to cultural competency. If inclusive excellence and diversity are going to be mantras of the University, we have to do a better job infusing those ideologies into every facet of the campus. Until we begin to make students, staff and faculty face the realities of white supremacy, oppression and the historical trauma the University has caused on specific cultural groups, we will never be able to elevate to a level of true inclusiveness.