October 01, 2014
By Victoria Kidd
As counterintuitive as it sounds, New York is reported to be one of the most racially segregated cities in the country. Just ask Nadia McCallum ’15, a Brooklyn native who sees the effects of this division every time she goes home. In fact, it’s been a driving factor in her professional pursuits.
In high school she was set on becoming a doctor. She saw neighbors going without medical care because the doctors who worked in nearby clinics and hospitals were often white outsiders, filling the void left by young African-Americans who left for a better life elsewhere. Many people have difficulty relating to a doctor who doesn’t look like them or come from a similar background, McCallum explains.
To combat the problem, McCallum was convinced she should become a doctor and return home to practice medicine. But as she transitioned to college, she realized her real passion lies in teaching. “The first time I presented a lesson I was like, ‘Wow, I love this,’” McCallum says.
She also realized that, like doctors, Brooklyn needs good teachers who can relate to their students’ lived experiences. So, in her sophomore year, McCallum changed her major to early childhood education and began preparing for graduate-level study in special education. Quality special education programs are often lacking in inner-city schools, she says. “There are students [in these schools] who don’t understand what seem like simple concepts … but just because someone can’t figure something out the same way 80 percent of the class does, doesn’t mean they can’t learn another way.
“I don’t like to see anyone feel like less of a person, and hopefully I can change that.”
Ironically, for a daughter of Jamaican immigrants living in New York, McCallum found her calling as an educator in the most unlikely of places-a small liberal arts and science college in rural central Pennsylvania. Although some family members and friends were apprehensive about her college choice, McCallum says she never really gave any thought to being a black student on a predominantly white campus. “Race was never at the forefront of my mind,” she says.
Nor did it seem to be an issue for her parents. When they visited campus, McCallum was struck by the “family feel,” and her parents quickly said, “Yep, this is the school.”
“They loved it,” McCallum recalls. “It seemed like the perfect environment for learning, and everyone was so friendly. We felt that everyone would be there for my best interest.”
And,” she adds, “my parents were very overprotective, especially my dad. So for him to feel that way really meant something.”
Nonetheless, it was unnerving to arrive on campus her first year and find resentment among some of her peers in the Black Student Union. “They told us that everything isn’t all dandy and flowery,” she recalls.
McCallum thinks those negative views have largely disappeared, though how or why remains a mystery. “It could be because there’s more openness to ask questions,” she says. “SU has done a great job of opening conversations about race.”
She also thinks the university is doing a good job of deepening students’ understanding of different cultures. Like every other student who has enrolled at Susquehanna since 2009, McCallum fulfilled the cross-cultural requirement through Global Opportunities (GO)-a study-away experience and subsequent reflection course embedded in the university’s Central Curriculum.
McCallum selected one of the more obscure GO programs only to find unexpected inspiration in her decision. During her “GO North” trip to a Mushkegowuk Cree village in Fort Albany, Ontario, she discovered similarities between Native American and Jamaican cultures. It reminded her of summer visits with her grandparents who still live in Jamaica, and her grandmother’s eternal words, “Just try”-words she’s eager to put to work in Brooklyn classrooms after graduation next May.