When John Rawlins III set out last fall to create an achievement program for Cal State San Marcos’ Black Student Center, of which he’s the director, he knew just where to turn for inspiration.
It might not roll off the tongue, but that word has served as Rawlins’ guiding light for most of his adult life. It’s a term from the East African language of Kiswahili and one of the seven principles of Kwanzaa. Literally, it translates to “familyhood.” To Rawlins, it means the process of working together as an extended family to build and maintain a cohesive community.
He was first exposed to the word in college; it was the name of the residence hall where he lived at Cornell University. It grew to be part of his DNA during his second year when he became a resident adviser, a role he held for the rest of his time at Cornell.
“In that residence hall, it was about how we use the best of who we are to support one another and to foster this community,” Rawlins said. “That’s something that has always stuck with me, and it’s a lot of what I put into my work as I think about building community.”
The spirit of Ujamaa has infused Rawlins’ work during his 15 years as a student affairs professional, and he has made it a core piece of his philosophy at CSUSM since being hired to direct the Black Student Center in July 2019. Later this month, the center will celebrate its five-year anniversary, and Rawlins will have been in charge for more than half of its existence.
The dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic less than a year into his tenure delayed some of the initiatives he planned to institute through the BSC, but he has strived to make up for lost time. He and his staff started the Brotherhood Alliance for male Black students and the Circle of Sisters for female Black students. Fast on their heels came the Association of Black Athletes, the Black Psychology Student Association and the Melanated Art Collective, the last of which is an organization focused on art and creativity in the Black experience.
“We keep growing, and it’s exciting to see,” Rawlins said. “We’ve always had a strong Black Student Union, but these groups are giving students the opportunity to say, ‘I want more out of my education that is attached to my identity.’ And even though these are things that I’ve developed, they’re really student-driven initiatives. We’ve put them in the hands of the students to be leaders.”
Rawlins has proven to be just the BSC director that Dr. Gail Cole-Avent seeker when the associate vice president of Student Life hired him from his position as director for leadership development and training at Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, the first intercollegiate Greek fraternity established for African American men. But in a sign of his capability, his duties have only expanded in the 2½ years since.
For almost a year, he served as interim director of the Gender Equity Center, and in September 2020, President Ellen Neufeldt appointed him special assistant to the chief diversity officer (now Dr. Aswad Allen), tasking him with engaging students in CSUSM’s efforts around diversity and inclusion. He’s also vice president of the Black Faculty and Staff Association.
“Since his arrival, his impact has far surpassed my vision and expectations,” Cole-Avent said. “Within his time here, he has not only elevated the collegiate experience for Black students, but he also has demonstrated his commitment to the larger population.
“His work is vital and will continue to create pathways for our students that include understanding the multiple ways that they can take full advantage of their CSUSM experience, whether it is within the classroom, through leadership roles, and engagement in the community (internal and external). ), and ultimately as alumni who will mentor the next generation.”
This content was originally published here.