Every year, students get ideas for building up the campus community, and they start new clubs. Some grow out of a personal hobby, like the Coterie Book Club. Sometimes students are seeking an artistic outlet, like the Completely Student Productions theatrical troupe or Vocal Synergy a cappella singing group. Other times, they want extracurricular outlets for their academic interests, like the Microbiology Club, the Society of Arts Administration Students, and the Film Society.
This year, one new club was launched out of some students’ pain and frustration. After an incident of racial insensitivity on campus, these students decided to start something positive — something that would increase minority students’ involvement in the Wagner community. They called it LEAD, and they organized it around mentoring: sophomores, juniors, and seniors who would take first-years under their wings.
About 15 students are involved this year — not many, but it only takes a few good people to start something special.
Gabryel Oloapu ’17 is not your typical American minority student. In fact, she’s not American; she comes from New Zealand. But her family, on both parents’ sides, are Samoan, from the independent South Pacific island nation where the culture revolves around family, church, and tradition.
Oloapu grew up attending almost all-white schools, and keenly felt her difference from her peers — not just in physical appearance, but in values as well. “Don’t act white,” her parents would tell her when she strayed.
Oloapu came to Wagner College so that she could gain international experience and play intercollegiate water polo. She doesn’t fit neatly into any given ethnic group at the College and has made friends with people of all backgrounds. But, she is aware that people see her as “colored.” She became involved in the Black Student Union, and when she was asked to be a LEAD mentor, she quickly volunteered.
At the group’s first meeting of the year, she noticed a guy sitting by himself. Oloapu introduced herself and found out his name was Shon Sealy, that he came from Staten Island, was commuting rather than living on campus, and was not on an athletic team. And he was shy. These are hurdles to overcome when any student is trying to fit into the campus community — and especially when the student is African American.
Oloapu has always been sensitive to others’ emotions and curious about “why people do things”; that’s why she’s a psychology major. She likes taking the time to listen. So, whenever she saw Sealy, she’d greet him and exchange a few words. She found out that he was in the same First-Year Learning Community she had taken the year before, and that he could use some help with his writing. That sparked a relationship of tutoring, trust, and friendship.
“He has become like my little brother,” she says. “He sends me 20 questions per day. He’ll blow up my phone.” They go to basketball games together, have lunch. And slowly Sealy has branched out. Oloapu was selected as a fall 2015 orientation coordinator, and Sealy applied and was accepted as a peer leader for next fall’s freshman class. He went on the Alternative Spring Break trip to Washington, DC, and he has gotten involved in the BSU. “I really see him being very successful on this campus,” Oloapu says. “He really has grown so much through this year.”