Isaac Serwanga ’13, founder of the Profound Ivy mentorship program
I want to use this opportunity to offer my perspective as an alumnus. Though I was asked to prepare a speech, I instead wrote an action plan, something that I believe would be of greater value than my own personal rhetoric. The plan isn’t complicated, but I believe it can be an effective tool as we desperately look for ways to heal our campus and build our community.
As a young black male and varsity athlete here at Princeton, I often found myself believing that Princeton could do more for me and those who fit the same mold. The transition into the Orange Bubble wasn’t the smoothest for me, and I found that the black males who were teammates of mine felt the same way. From the football locker room to the track-and-field locker room to the basketball locker room, I found myself hearing the same complaints from the black male student-athlete population. I called it an “I wish” list: “I wish Princeton had this! I wish Princeton told me that!” I would go back to my room in Spelman Hall and complain to roommates, and when they stopped listening I complained to myself. It wasn’t until my senior year when the light bulb went on, and I realized that I could be an agent of change.
I realized that for three years, I had been looking to everyone but myself to help make the community in which I belonged more suitable for me. There’s a great lesson to learn from this that applies to our current situation: We must realize that the onus does not fall on any one individual, but on each and every one of us equally. I hope today that we do not see these issues as any particular group’s, but rather as issues that face us as the Princeton community.
In my senior year, I came up with the idea of Profound Ivy, which would become Princeton University’s first mentorship program for black male student-athletes. It was established to provide these students with the resources, skills, and guidance necessary to achieve success both as current student-athletes and as future working professionals.
I worked side by side with our administration to develop the program, and the Profound Ivy group met for the first time in January, during my first year on the athletics-department staff. The ultimate goal was to enhance the Princeton experience for these young men, and in doing so strengthen the entire Princeton community. We cannot help move along the community if we do not first enhance ourselves.
Using a three-pillar approach to strengthen academic efficiency, career planning, and leadership development, Profound Ivy provides the necessary support and also demands the necessary commitment for the athletes to achieve profound success.
The following formula is one that I strictly followed as I asked myself the question, “How do I go about making a change?” I hope it can serve as a guideline that can be directly applied to our current situation and ultimately help us progress to achieve the results we wish to see.
First, constructive criticism. This is how any person or organization improves. Never resting on its laurels, an institution such as Princeton University should feel privileged to retain brave students, faculty, and staff who are willing to praise all that is right and concurrently state what is missing from or wrong with the status quo. Individuals and groups should feel comfortable bringing these issues to the forefront and having their voices heard openly and respectfully.
Next, positive engagement: While these criticisms may often create emotionally charged environments, I believe it is essential for students, in this case, to keep the engagement positive. This is not meant to pacify; rather, it is meant to keep the intent of the conversation clear. The intent of positive engagement is to do the groundwork to lead us to a clear result. Negative engagements undoubtedly will lead to defensive discussions, and the intended result often will get lost in the discussion. This leads us to our next and final pillar, mindful action.
At every step, it is essential for all involved to use empathy and take mindful action. The key here is “mindful”; that is to say, “If I take this action, how does it affect all those involved? How does this action enhance the entire community? If someone will be negatively impacted, who will it be — and why?” It is important to strongly consider asking these questions as we seek to create change to enhance our entire Princeton community.
Serwanga gave his remarks from notes; this has been re-created.