Print: Celebrating Black History Month: Q&A with BUS president Jaynell Nicholson

McKenzie Jean-Philippe

In honor of Black History Month, The Kent Stater will be featuring Q&As with black student leaders throughout the month of February.

This week we sat down with Jaynell Nicholson, a senior conservation biology major and president of Black United Students. Originally from Pittsburg, Nicholson spoke on everything from how she picked Kent State to BUS’ history of taking a stand on various issues in the black community. 

Editor’s note: The following is an edited conversation. To read the full interview, go to

KS: Why conservation biology?

JN: I am very passionate about the environment and the quality of the environment – obviously, we were here first. Just looking back over the history of humans, and the history of the general environment are, in fact, pretty significant. I’ve always enjoyed being outside, and once I started learning about the environment and conservation and recycling and climate change and endangered species, it was something that I became passionate about.

KS: What do you hope to do with that?

JN: Right now I’ve applied to grad school. I got accepted into one, which is awesome. I’m a wildlife biology trainee for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. So after I get my degree – my masters degree – I’ll be able to work as a wildlife biologist at a refuge for a while. My ultimate goal is to start a non-profit for black students in science because I didn’t really have a single person to look up to.

KS: Looking at that field, you don’t see a lot of people of color.

JN: Right, and even as a senior, I can count on one hand how many people of color have been in all of my classes … I’ve been to a few conferences in my field and conferences are regional, they’re national, and they’re supposed to be so many different people there, and they’re still like one or two, never more than like 10 (people of color.)

KS: Why do you think that is?

JN: I think that with people of color there’s been like this disconnect between us and the environment, and I think it has a lot to do with urban areas. There’s a larger population of people of color in urban areas, but urban areas, they don’t really have those natural systems. You don’t really get exposed to wildlife or – you get exposed to like a park and that’s a man-made thing … It’s usually a patch of land they just threw dirt in and trees in. Not really anything that can naturally happen. It’s not mountains and valleys and rivers and streams; usually things that are there for our convenience that we need or just the minimum standard. I think because we don’t get exposure, that is the origin of the disconnect.

KS: Why Kent State?

JN: Kent gave me the most money. I think a lot of people have that same story. I applied to three schools, and I got into all three. But when I got those financial aid packages, Kent made the most sense.

KS: How’d you get involved in BUS?

JN: I’ve had a very interesting relationship with BUS since my freshman year. I started off as a freshman, and I joined every student org … with BUS it was kind of like a “flirtationship.” So I’m like “oh-yeah” I’m gonna go to BUS. And then I’m like “no, maybe not.” As I got busier and cut down things, I started to only do things that made sense for my major. But what makes sense for my major isn’t everything that I’m passionate about. So (I was) always like “I’m gonna be active in BUS,” then like “nah,” then I’m like “yeah, I am.” And now I’m the president.

KS: BUS is known for making public statements in regards to black issues. The die-in, you’ve done a lot of things to show support for BLM. Why is it important to take a stand, especially in such a public way?

JN: I think it’s really important to take a stand so that people, not only understand your purpose on campus, … but also to get people to understand that it doesn’t just happen here. Once you leave Kent, you still go into the real world, even though this is a predominantly white institution (PWI) … I think taking a stance is not only empowering to students within the organization but empowering to those students who may not be involved, who may not really know everything that’s going on event wise.

If you don’t have first hand experience with something, you don’t really understand it. And with something like the die-in, I think that put a lot of perspective on some people. They don’t know this is how it happened … seeing the chalk outlines and actually taking a step back and thinking about what it means as a black student at a PWI with all of these incidences happening all around you.

KS: With Kent being a predominantly white institution, what kind of reactions do you see?

JN: In person, it’s mostly positive. But you know, everyone has a social media presence, and it’s not always positive. A good example that a lot of us use is Yik-Yak. People really feel the need to express how they really feel, especially discriminatory remarks on social media, more than in person. In person, it’s 50-50. You do get comments like “what are they doing that for?” “What are they mad at, now?” But, I mean, it’s motivation.

KS: To you, what is the importance of Black History Month? Some people say why is it necessary? Some people are like why is it just a month?

JN: I think every month should be Black History Month. But I think that the fact that Black History Month was first celebrated here is kind of an important thing. It is important to recognize certain holidays and certain days for specific things. So it’s almost like if you don’t celebrate black history every month, here’s this one month where we’re just gonna teach you all these wonderful things. But it’s also really important to not just forget about those when March starts. March is Women’s History Month. Just because it’s Women’s History Month doesn’t mean that you can’t incorporate black people into that month.

KS: Is there a particular black person that you look up to?

JN: There’s a professor at the University of Michigan. Her name is Nyeema Harris. She was the first black women that I met in my field of study in conservation ecology, environmental biology, that whole realm … I met her at a conference in 2015. It was the Ecological Society of America.

KS: As the president of BUS, how do you approach being a leader and representative for a portion of the black community at Kent?

JN: I think that’s something that there’s not one answer for … It’s more of a process. From my experience, I can speak to you as a black student, as a black student in science, as a black student from another state. But we all have these different types of identities. I also identify in the LGBTQ community – not that many people do. So how would I think about how every single person feels about anything? And I think that mostly just comes from actually talking to people.

At our board meeting yesterday, we actually came up with our new goals for the semester and the top one was communication. If BUS does something, how are we going to tell everybody what we’re doing, why we’re doing it and get their opinion on it?

I can’t call myself the speaker of black students if I don’t know what they want; if I don’t know who they are.

Building basic human connections with people can go a really long way.

KS: In the recent climate survey, out of 564 African American and Latino respondents, 68 percent were found to be significantly less likely to be “very comfortable” or “comfortable” with the overall climate at Kent State. While that only accounts for a small percentage of the community, does that surprise you?

JN: I think it does speak to almost everyone’s experience here. I’m not surprised. I know that I don’t always feel comfortable, but I know that I do belong here, and I did what I needed to do to be here, despite what anybody else may think.

I think that also just tells us that we have a lot of work to do as the Black United Students. I know that we can’t change everybody’s mind, but we can encourage and inspire our students to be themselves and understand that they do belong here and to know that they do have a family. They have people they can go to when they’re feeling down or insecure. Most of us don’t have a lot of people of color in our majors, and it can be really discouraging, but you gotta keep going.

McKenzie Jean-Philippe is the diversity editor, contact her at [email protected]