Small-town fosters big changes: ASU student trustee represents and motivates others

(04-12-2013)

It's important to Meagan Smith to help educate her fellow students about civil rights and the contributions of leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. But she didn't expect to learn something new about herself during Adams State's recent MLK Week activities, which she coordinates as president of Adams State's Black Student Union.

It was hard for her to watch The Interrupters, a film about a successful grassroots effort to reduce violence in Smith's hometown of Chicago, she said. "I grew up close to the areas depicted in the film," but said she was somewhat insulated from gang activity, because "old school" neighbors on her street watched out for the kids and discouraged negative influences. "It was not until that moment that I realized where I had come from and how far I had come."

Smith will graduate this spring with a degree in business administration/advertising and a minor in mass communications. She is the vice president of external affairs for AS&F and serves as the Student Trustee on the ASU Board of Trustees. In addition, she is a student ambassador with the Admissions Office and works part-time in ASU's Office of Equal Opportunity.

Small-town simplicity

She's frequently asked how she ended up at Adams State. "I was so stressed with the day-to-day city life. I wanted something different, to learn out of my realm."

Having lived in inner-city Chicago and a more diverse suburban environment, she realized a rural community would give her that new challenge. One point of pride is that since moving to the San Luis Valley, she has begun camping and hiking. "And I was always against it - I was not outdoorsy." The cold doesn't faze her, either. "The winters here are gorgeous, compared to the city."

The single mother of a six-year-old boy, Smith particularly appreciates Alamosa's small-town convenience. In Chicago, her day started at 5 a.m., with multiple bus/train trips to deliver her son to daycare, then to reach her workplace. "I am much less stressed. I can't believe I went to school and potty trained at the same time," she laughed. Having previously completed three years in an interior design program, she said her son was the "number one reason" she returned to college.

"It's important for me to give him a better life," she said. "This is a very big deal for my family." Her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother all attended college, but got married and raised their families without graduating.

She added, "Adams State is a mecca of non-traditional students. That's the coolest thing." About one-quarter of ASU undergraduates are over age 25; Smith is 28.

Embracing differences

Adapting to small town life was easier than she expected, but Smith had become accustomed to never quite fitting in. As a child, her "articulate and intellectual" family background made her feel out of place in her urban school. After Smith earned a perfect score on a standardized state test in fourth grade, her mother moved the family to the suburbs so she would have greater academic challenge.

"I couldn't believe it when I saw other kids reading for fun," Smith recalled. "And the school had a fish tank - that was really a big deal for me."

Her new school was very diverse ethnically - with black, white, Puerto Rican, and international students - but not economically. "Most of my friends were very well off, so that was an adjustment. Acceptance was an issue again; I was not so popular," Smith said.

Yet she was determined to be herself, and that meant befriending others, regardless of differences. She received her junior high's Human Relations Award. An old friend reminded her of that trait last summer at their ten-year high school reunion. "She said to me, 'You're a mom, and you do as many things as you do . . . It was the same thing in high school, you were friends with the nerds, the popular kids, all the kids.' That's the way I learn - I don't want to stick to the same old."

That's the approach she took at Adams State, revitalizing the Black Student Union, because she needed a group she could relate to. "I knew that was the only way I was going to get through the semester." Now, she has "gained friends I hope to have forever. We don't always agree, but we have good camaraderie. We're brothers and sisters."

About eight percent of ASU's undergraduate student body is African-American, an increase from just over five percent three years ago.

Coordinator of Student Activities Aaron Miltenberger said, "With Meagan's leadership, the Black Student Union has not just been reanimated, it's been a source for outstanding new leaders." BSU members have taken initiative with such groups as GAB (Grizzly Activity Board), AS&F, New Student Orientation, American Sign Language Club, and the Stezzy Skaters. "She takes time to work with younger student leaders, and as a non-traditional student, she really has the wisdom and experience that helps younger folks listen to what she has to say and follow her example," he added.

BSU now has around a dozen solid participants and 150 Facebook followers. "We try to get involved with other clubs, to provide mutual assistance and promote our diverse ideals," Smith noted. This year BSU collaborated on MLK Week events with CASA (Cultural Awareness Student Achievement; see page 11) and Prizm (support for GLBT issues.)

"It was our most successful week yet," with a Trivia Contest, guest speakers, and The Interrupters documentary. The group served meals at La Puente, Alamosa's homeless shelter, and gave presentations about MLK at Alamosa Elementary School. "The Trivia Game was huge. It's a fun way to learn. There were things even members of my group did not know," she said, adding BSU members come from a range of cultural backgrounds.

During February, Black History Month, BSU had a bake sale, "Name that Tune" contest, and the ever-popular Soul Food Lunch, featuring collard greens, dirty rice, and fried chicken.

Another special event was the premier performance of the one-man show, Ghost in the House. Smith said it was great pleasure to meet actor Ernie Hudson. "Even if I was in school in Chicago, I don't think I'd have the experience of meeting someone like him." Like Hudson, she has also been inspired by Jack Jackson's achievements and fidelity to his own beliefs.

Last spring, BSU visited Washington, D.C., which Smith said was "a bonding experience for us. We got to know each other a lot better." An unexpected highlight was meeting a contingent of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the oldest African American fraternity, while visiting the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.

Although her position as Student Trustee is non-voting, the role has become larger than she anticipated. "I didn't expect to have to deal with the political aspect of being a trustee, but I'm totally comfortable with it. You have to take a chance to say things." Smith represented the student perspective before the Colorado legislature when Adams State was seeking university status, as well as at the Joint Budget Committee in discussions of higher education funding. "I'm here for the students, whatever issues they are concerned with," she added.

Miltenberger can attest to her commitment. "She's caring and connected to students and really takes time to listen to their concerns. She then gives voice to those concerns where appropriate, whether that be in meetings of the student government, or even the trustees."

Having attended and visited other colleges, Smith said Adams State is unique in the personal experiences students have with professors and peers. "You can go up to almost any faculty or staff members and ask for help."

She feels strongly that "Adams State is a place where you can develop self-awareness, work on yourself as a being."

By Julie Waechter