by Jana Eisenberg
Assistant Prof. Noelle St. Vil has been at UBSSW for seven years; her research focuses on Black male-female relationships, and she is a dedicated educator. And, starting in the spring of 2021, she accepted an additional, newly created role within the school: faculty support liaison for racially underrepresented students.
When approached about the role, she jumped at the opportunity. “I’m passionate about supporting students and doing anything to help them survive, thrive and graduate,” said St. Vil. “It was already informally a major part of what I do here, so I was glad to have the opportunity to formalize it.” The position is listed as a node within the school’s recently established Racial Justice Network.
She started by emailing all the racially underrepresented students to let them know she was available in this new role; in addition to offering support via one-on-one meetings and drop-in group discussions, she wanted to allow students to define what the role could look like.
“Many just want to talk about being a student of color in a predominantly white environment and program,” she said. “Some say that they can feel isolated, awkward, and unsure how to navigate increased conversations about race, where they are frequently the only person of color in the classroom or at their field placement. I’ve also ended up mediating a lot of restorative justice conversations, which I didn’t necessarily expect—between students, with professors, and in classes, where a student or students feel harmed.”
Ashia Martin, an MSW student, said that a nerve was struck for her upon noticing the underrepresentation of Black women in the program; she attended one of the drop-in sessions recently and found it “refreshing.” “As a facilitator, Dr. St. Vil made us feel comfortable. There was no agenda,” said Martin. “She was really interested in what we had to say, not checking off boxes. I appreciate that this forum exists; it allowed me to be expressive in a way that I wouldn’t normally be. And it was pretty cool to be able to speak with others who might be from a different culture than I am but have similar views.”
After seeking the emotional support that St. Vil can provide, students voice gratitude for the validation of their experiences. “For racially underrepresented students, it important to have faculty of color," St. Vil said. “The need for this role has always been there. And students are glad that racial issues are being discussed more, but it can burn them out to sit through all these ‘aha’ moments others are having about things they’ve lived and experienced their whole lives. It can be a burden to people of color, especially without an outlet.”
St. Vil, who attended Howard University, a historically Black college, says she wants to provide similar support to those she was given while a graduate student. “I know the impact that having mentors invested in your outcomes and well-being can have. I am invested in all students here, though for underrepresented students, it’s especially important to provide a safe space as they try to navigate,” she said.