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At USC Dorm, a Broader Definition of Black

March 26, 2000|SANDY BANKS

Ericka Thomas knew from the moment she heard about USC's Somerville Place that it was the dormitory for her.

One of only a few black students in honors classes at her Little Rock, Ark., high school, Ericka graduated as valedictorian last June . . . but only after her parents threatened to sue school officials over allegations that grade tampering had pushed two white students ahead of her.

She'd prepared for college by spending every summer at enrichment programs on local university campuses. But she had grown tired of the rude stares, ignorant questions, racist remarks from white students who considered her unworthy of the accolades she'd earned.

"I had felt the sting of racism, and I thought I might not survive" college, she says. "I didn't know if I could stand to room with a white person."

Justin Dae was not so sure he wanted to spend his freshman year at USC living in Somerville. "I just couldn't imagine what an all-black dorm would be like."

The son of a Peruvian mother and a black father, Justin will tell you that he considers himself black. But the schools he's attended, the neighborhoods he's lived in . . .they have been virtually all white for most of his life. Was he ready to go from that world to the environs of Somerville . . . all black, all the time?

Natasha Pendergast was intrigued but wondered how she'd fit in . . . and knew she'd have to battle her mother for permission to live in an all-black dorm.

Her father was Puerto Rican and black; he was not a part of her life, and that is all she knows of him. Her mother, who raised her, is white. Natasha had never been considered black, wasn't even sure what "black culture" meant. Still, there was a longing she felt, a need to connect to a part of herself she's been separated from all her life.

"This is not something my mom understands," she says. "It's not something I really understood, until I started living here."

To them--and the two dozen other students who call Somerville home--life in USC's "black dorm" has been a homecoming of sorts . . . and taught them lessons they never imagined they'd learn inside USC's ivy-covered walls.

It is a place that both shrinks and magnifies their differences . . . makes them aware of how much they share and how little of each other's lives they know.

At first glance, it seems counter-intuitive. You come to college to broaden your horizons, then hole up in a dorm with 30 other students who are just like you.

It is both simpler and more complicated than that.

So-called "theme housing" has been a fixture at many colleges for years, peaking in popularity during the '70s and '80s when ethnic identity was a rallying point on campuses nationwide.

Six-year-old Somerville, a single floor in USC's Fluor Tower, is one of several "special interest housing" arrangements offered at USC. There are dorm floors set aside for business majors, cinema students, women studying science and engineering. There is a Latino floor, an international floor, Shalom House, Muslim housing.

'Some People Want to Call This Segregation'

"Some people want to call this segregation, to say it's racist for blacks to have a [dorm] floor of their own," says Nikiah Williams, a USC junior who serves as an advisor to Somerville students. "But do you know how many floors there are at this school with not a single black student? Does anyone call that segregation?"

Named after the first black dentist to graduate from USC, the floor provides housing for freshmen in two suites--16 girls live in the eight double rooms that surround one lounge, and 15 boys live in the eight rooms at the other end of the hall.

The dorm is not restricted to black students--many residents are of mixed race, and at least one white student has called Somerville home--but it focuses on the celebration and promotion of African American culture.

"It's really grown beyond its stereotype, into a place that provides a full range of support services for black students . . . everything from workshops on how to get along with a roommate to sessions on study skills," says Corliss P. Bennett, director of USC's Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs.

Still, some families have reservations.

"You have parents saying, 'I don't want my child being isolated,' " Bennett said. "But we've got students who were one of only three or four black kids in their entire high schools. You can't get more isolated than that."

In fact, Somerville has proven to be an antidote to the isolation that comes from being one of only a handful of blacks--195 among this year's 2,840 freshmen at USC--on a large, impersonal college campus.

"These kids can spend all day being the only black student in a chemistry class or English class . . . the one that stands out," Bennett said. "Here, at least, they can come home and talk about that experience with other people who understand."

Some parents worry that their children will lose touch with mainstream culture, will disappear into a haze of rap music and baggy jeans.

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