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African American Cultural Center
celebrating 30th anniversary
February 2, 1998

February is always a special month for Willena Price and her staff at the H. Fred Simons African American Cultural Center. That's when they provide programs and activities for the University and the public to commemorate Black History Month.

This year there's an extra cause for celebration, says Price, because Black History Month 1998 begins a year of activites marking the center's 30th anniversary.

In 1968 a group of black students, claiming there was no place on campus where they really felt they belonged, petitioned the provost for a center whose primary purpose would be to improve the general welfare of Afro-American students on campus, according to the June 1971 Connecticut Alumnus.

In the 30 years since its inception, the center has had its share of ups and downs. Since Price became director in 1993, however, the changes have been fast-paced and positive.

"There was an awful lot of work that needed to get done here," she says.

Price was attracted by the challenge. Throughout her career she had been involved in causes, from her first job in Atlanta, teaching in a poor black school, to a position in Syracuse, NY, where she worked in gifted education. "I always wanted to make a difference," she says.

When Price arrived in the fall of 1993, her first priority was to reestablish a sense of pride in the center among African American faculty, staff and students. She set out to make students aware of how important it is to exemplify ideals that reflect integrity, scholarship and excellence. One way to do that was to establish quality programs for students that reflected these ideals.

"We try to provide a rich cultural educational experience," she says.

A number of black luminaries have come to speak at the University in the past few years, including poet Maya Angelou; Olympic gold medalist Jackie Joyner Kersee; Mary Frances Berry, commissioner on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights; and Ellis Cose, author of The Rage of a Privileged Class.

"We look for speakers who can give students a slice of reality," Price says. "These people are also excellent role models for our students of color."

In addition to programs sponsored by the cultural center, a number of events are planned jointly with other campus organizations such as the Student Union Board of Governors, Jorgensen Auditorium, von der Mehden Recital Hall and the Women's Center, to name just a few.

As special assistant to Chancellor Mark Emmert, Price also acts as a liaison between the Senegalese embassy in Washington, D.C., the president of Senegal and the University, a role which allows her to share a knowledge of world affairs with students.

"We want to make sure the center is not only making a difference at the University, but in Connecticut and the rest of the United States and other parts of the world as well," Price says.

Ron Taylor, director of the Institute for African-American Studies, says the African American Cultural Center, and the other centers on campus, play an important role. "They provide a gathering place where by students from diverse backgrounds can assemble and share their concerns, to interact with each other and create a sense of community," he says.

The center's activities are designed to increase awareness and understanding and appreciation of African Americans and their culture across the University community.

"We have put on programs and activities where the majority of people who attended were not African American," Price says, recalling a financial aid workshop the center ran last year where the majority of students who attended were white.

"When students who are not African American come to participate in our programs they are treated like everyone else," she says. "They are made to feel welcome and at home. If we ever get to the point where we are catering to and dealing with African Americans only we are going to miss the boat. ... The mission of diversity is to understand and learn about each other's cultures."

The center is for everyone, says Eddie Singleton, an eighth semester special education major. "The center educates not only African Americans but others as well, about what is going on in the black community."

Many African American students who discover the center "come to realize the University values them and wants to provide them with a good quality of life," Price says.

She believes the University's efforts have inspired current students to spread the word to potential students to consider come coming to UConn.

From 1985 to 1996 the number of minority students on campus has grown from 7.5 percent to nearly 15 percent.

Emmert says that increased diversity, one of the goals of the strategic plan, "matters greatly because the University of Connecticut first and foremost is a university for the citizens of Connecticut. The state is diverse and we should have a level of diversity in the organization that reflects that. That means we need to have a student body, faculty and staff that reflect the diversity of the population." Price hopes the number of African American students enrolled at the University will continue to increase.

The center invites high school students to participate in its activities, and has also worked with the admissions office to host groups of students who come to campus.

Price says the center seeks to enhance all aspects of students lives, not just when they are admitted but all the way through graduation. "I know we are making a difference," she says. "Every year at Commencement time, I will see students that I knew were struggling and having all sorts of difficulties, receiving their diplomas. Many of them just needed someone to listen to them and encourage them and point them in the right direction. That's why we are here."