Paul Robeson Center holds leadership conference for 1st generation Rutgers students


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Photo by DANTE DE LA PAVA |

The Paul Robeson Leadership Institute (PRLI) is a program that helps first-generation students at Rutgers to assume leadership positions. The institute was established last year with the goal of empowering historically marginalized demographics.


Paul Robeson, from the Class of 1919, is one of Rutgers’ most distinguished alumni. In his honor, the Paul Robeson Leadership Institute (PRLI) and the Paul Robeson Cultural Center (PRCC) were founded at Rutgers University to honor his fight to achieve equality for marginalized groups in the country and all around the world.

The PRLI is a program Rutgers introduced last year that molds first-year, first-generation college students into leaders in their community. Its mission is to empower this demographic who have been historically underrepresented on college campuses.

The initiative is an intensive three-week summer program consisting of a residential experience in which participants spend three weeks on campus and immerse themselves in leadership training, peer mentorship and workshops on personal development that shapes them into active campus leaders in the fall.

“They’re doing phenomenal things,” said Jason Moore, director of the PRLI.

He said that 50 percent of these students, called Robeson Scholars, made the dean’s list last spring. In addition, 68 percent scored above a 3.0 GPA and the 62 scholars from the program have totaled an average of over 1,200 community service hours to the New Brunswick area. 

“We really entrust our students to build their own story about the value in the program and the value in service,” he said.

The PRCC works alongside the institute to empower underrepresented identities on campus. It is recognized as the first black cultural center on a college campus in the United States, according to its website.

“We strive to create opportunity and exposure in leadership development and academic excellence for primarily our black student community, but for all students of color and any students that have intersecting identities or marginalized identities,” said David Jones, director of PRCC. 

The center provides initiatives for students of color to engage in leadership and relationship building opportunities so students can have a rich experience outside of the classrooms at Rutgers, he said.

Jones said the center hosts 18 black-identified cultural student organizations on campus. These organizations hold weekly member meetings at the center in addition to events throughout the school year.

The center itself runs programs all year round. “The Black Student Social,” a back to school kickoff event, was their latest initiative to welcome students back to campus and connect students of color over food and music.

“This center provides a home away from home, primarily for our black student community, but certainly we leave our doors open for anyone that wants to engage in the cultural programming around the black student experience within the center,” Jones said.

Students who walk through the doors of the center come from many different backgrounds, said Chinelo Ossai, a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student. 

“It’s very diverse. It accepts different religions and ethnicities. It’s the perfect place where people can come together and recognize that their differences make them unique,” she said.

Priscilla Arthur, a School of Arts and Sciences senior and a building manager of PRCC, explained what the center means to her, specifically as a student of color.

“We had this program, ‘Black Healing Spaces,’ where after the shootings that went on, we come in, and everybody would say how they’re feeling ... Rutgers kind of underlies some things that are going on in the country, so just being here, I feel like, I’m with my people. We understand each other more. We understand the struggles that we’re going through,” she said.

Jones said the PRCC is especially important to our community, given the student body’s racial demographic. 

“The black student population at Rutgers is between 7 to 8 percent. It’s a very low number compared to the other racial demographics that exist on campus. (PRCC) serves as a nice community for people to feel like they belong and they have that sense of connection on a campus where they’re overwhelmingly marginalized,” Jones said.

One of the PRCC's annual events includes a week in the spring solely dedicated to the man who sparked the inspiration for the center itself — Robeson. In April, the center hosts “I am Paul Robeson Week," in conjunction with the alumnus' birthday week, to remember and honor his life and work.

Robeson endured much discrimination here because of the color of his skin, from his football teammates to the general student body, Jones said. 

“He dedicated his life to fighting peacefully for racial equality for black folks during a time of social and civil unrest in our country in the 1900s," Jones said. "He is one of our most distinguished alumni and anything we do here at the cultural center is to live out his name and legacy and that’s why this place is very important. It’s very sacred.” 


Erica D'Costa

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