“Building powerful connections:” Black Student Success Centre marks one-year anniversary  

The doors of the Black Student Success Centre

The Black Student Success Centre, which is dedicated to supporting and championing the holistic success and overall well-being of Black/African descent students, is located in room M07 of the Peter George Centre for Living and Learning (PGCLL). (Photo by Georgia Kirkos/McMaster University) 

“When a student sets foot in here, I want them to feel like they have come home” — Faith Ogunkoya, Manager, Black Student Success at McMaster. 

One year ago, the Black Student Success Centre (BSSC) — the first physical space at McMaster dedicated to supporting and championing the success of Black students — opened its doors.

The centre, which provides a range of services from mental health supports, to mentorship and financial aid to support the academic, personal and professional needs of students, has accomplished much in a short amount of time, says Clare Warner, senior advisor for equity, inclusion and anti-racism, Student Affairs.

“The centre is doing groundbreaking work to increase access to higher education and developing culturally situated programming and services,” says Warner. “Alongside campus and community partners, we’ve hosted some very memorable events over the past year, focused on learning about and celebrating the many dimensions of Blackness.”

For Faith Ogunkoya, the inaugural manager of Black Student Success at McMaster, the past year is a source of pride.

“Working with the BSSC in its inaugural year has been a privilege — building powerful connections and laying its foundation as a student-centred and community-led space,” says Ogunkoya.

“I am incredibly proud of our achievements thus far.”

Let’s take a look back at the hard work that went into opening the centre, and all that’s been accomplished in year one: 

A row of floor-to-ceiling windows into a room that's mostly empty. On one of the windows there is a red and white sign reading, 'Danger due to construction!! Authorized personnel only.'
The BSSC is the university’s first physical space dedicated to supporting and championing Black students in every aspect of their lives. (Photo courtesy Faith Ogunkoya/Black Student Success Centre)

A need for a community gathering space for Black students was identified in the five-point action plan developed after the release of the university’s review of the Black student-athlete experience in October 2020.

The BSSC also builds on generations of advocacy work, including the work of leaders like Juliet Daniel and Bonny Ibhawoh — co-founders of the African Caribbean Faculty Association at McMaster (ACFAM) — who initiated a Black Excellence strategy and work in close partnership with the centre, says Warner.

“It’s important to acknowledge the activism of Black students, staff and faculty at McMaster which long predates the report. We’re always standing on people’s shoulders who were brave before we were brave.”

As construction in the space inside the Peter George Centre for Living and Learning got underway, students shared their dreams for what the centre could be.

“I have so much hope for this space,” said then third-year student Payton Shank. “Having this space will be like having that really cool teacher in high school – the one whose room you could hang out in, the one you could talk to.”

“It’s been something I’ve been thinking about for the past four years,” said then fourth-year student Aaron Parry. “Right now, we don’t have a safe space, whether that’s for expressing intense and sometimes sensitive subject matter, or just having the freedom to have a good time.”

Angelo Grant sitting on a brown and orange bench looking up at a wall of artwork
McMaster graduate Angelo Grant looks up at the wall of art and poetry hanging on the walls of the BSSC that he helped curate. (Photo by Georgia Kirkos/McMaster University)

After being appointed the inaugural Manager of Black Student Success in the summer of 2021, Ogunkoya, in conjunction with Warner, started exploring how student-led ideas could be implemented in the space.

“It’s important that we give students that sense of ownership because we’re building this space with them,” said Ogunkoya.

The duo called on McMaster grad and PITCH Magazine editor Angelo Grant (pictured above) to curate a collection of artwork from the community to bring the centre to life.

A black and gold symbol encased in a square with two fern leaves in front of it
The Black Student Success Centre’s logo

“I think it’ll be really valuable for Black students in this generation and future generations to have a dedicated space where they feel supported, where they can see artwork that represents them on a university campus,” said Grant.

Student voices are also reflected in the BSSC’s logo. Designed by McMaster alumni Aaron Parry, it represents the rich diversity of shared stories and points of connection.

Conveying themes of excellence, authenticity and empowerment, the logo serves as one of the ways the BSSC is working to help students see how their gifts can help create a brighter world.

A room with tables and chairs and colourful artwork on the walls
The BSSC, which is in the Peter George Centre for Living and Learning (PGCLL), opened its doors to students in February 2022. (Photo by Georgia Kirkos/McMaster University)

Following construction and the postponement of in-person activities due to the pandemic, the BSSC opened its doors to students in February 2022.

“When a student sets foot in here, I want them to feel like they have come home,” said Ogunkoya of the new space.

The newly-opened centre meant not only a safe space for students to meet, connect, study and work together, but also helped provide access to a suite of specialized programming designed to position them for success.

It’s a space dedicated to the holistic well-being, and development of students — but also somewhere where students hopefully see themselves reflected and represented, says Ogunkoya.

“We want you to know it belongs to you and you have every right to be here.”

A group of students wearing masks and huddled together, posing for a photo
Participants of the Black Student Mentorship Program gather for a first-year mixer event in March 2022

The centre has also provided a physical home for the Black Student Mentorship Program (BSMP) that was launched in 2020.

Designed as a four-tiered system, professors from within the African and Caribbean Faculty Association of McMaster (ACFAM) mentor graduate students, graduate students mentor upper-year undergraduate students, and upper-year undergraduate students mentor first-year undergraduate students.

“Beyond the obvious benefit of offering much needed mentoring to students, it fosters community building within the Black community on campus in ways never done before,” says Anthony Quarshie, the program’s graduate program coordinator from 2020-2022.

The centre has also been the site of social events like the first-year BSMP mixer event (pictured above).

A collage of three photos. One is of four people posing for a selfie. Another is two women standing in front of balloons and smiling at the camera. The other is two rows of students seated while wearing Kente stoles.
Community members celebrate at McMaster’s inaugural Black Graduation Celebration in June 2022. (Photos by Georgia Kirkos/McMaster University)

It was a ceremony filled with pomp, circumstance, tears, gowns — and live steelpan music that got approximately 300 graduates and their loved ones dancing.

McMaster’s inaugural Black graduation, held in June 2022, was spearheaded by the BSSC’s Ogunkoya and other advocates for Black-identifying students at McMaster.

The event was created to celebrate the resiliency, tenacity and strength of graduates.

“It’s really hard to put into words how grateful I am of the people who actually wanted to recognize the struggles that Black students have been through, and how much of an accomplishment it is just to be here at this point,” said graduate Ashley Assam.

Standing at the podium that historic day, Ogunkoya sent the graduates off with a final message.

“I hope you feel seen. And I hope you know you belong.”

Students snap along to a performance of spoken word poetry
Attendees of the Black History Month at McMaster kick-off event respond to a spoken word performance by poet Eddie Lartey. (Photo by Georgia Kirkos/McMaster University)

The BSSC has been a pivotal player in bringing events to McMaster that help community members learn about, and celebrate, Black culture. This school year alone, the BSSC has hosted or collaborated on over 60 events.

Most recently, the BSSC, in partnership with the Equity and Inclusion Office and other campus and community partners, hosted a day-long memorable kick-off event for Black History Month at McMaster.

A series of in-person and virtual events will continue throughout the month. Find a list of events here.

The BSSC can be found in room M07 in the Peter George Centre for Living and Learning (PGCLL). Follow them on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or contact them by email bss@mcmaster.ca.

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