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Here to Stay: AACAE Hires Permanent Director

Bridging the cultural gap between the campus and community

Douglas Smith drove up to Humboldt State for the first time in 2013 as a transfer student with big eyes for a small school.

Smith was seeking same the small school feeling that he got while attending College of the Canyons, away from his home in Los Angeles. At first, Smith experienced anxiety about being one the few people of color in Arcata, but he found a way to adapt and thrive in time.

Today, he’s the director for the African American Center for Academic Excellence, and is four months into his new role. Smith holds his own college experiences as reference when approaching the job.

“My big benefit to coming to Humboldt State was that I had these opportunities for cultural exchange with different kinds of people,” Smith said.

Smith believes the center should be a place that highlights the black experience and culture, a space where students and community can freely speak and learn. Smith hopes the center will strengthen the campus community and bridge the gap between the campus and locals.

Smith emphasized intercultural exchange as an important part of learning. One way the center achieves this is through Talking Drum, a safe space that gives students the agency to converse over the issues that matter to them.

HSU sophomore Brooklyn Reed is the new facilitator for Talking Drum. She met Smith tabling in the quad and offered some of her ideas on how the center’s discussions could be run.

“I talked to him about how to facilitate it, about what I wanted it to look like, how I wanted to build community,” Reed said. “He was just very, super supportive. Just yes, like, ‘let’s do this!’”

Reed wants to run the discussions the way she learned back home in Los Angeles. She also wants the chief of police to attend some meetings so that the center can hold the police accountable if they disagree with their conduct.

Smith’s approach to working with Reed speaks to how he wants to take a step back when it comes to campus dialogue. For his first couple of months, Smith said he spent the majority of his time listening to student feedback.

“I’m trying to come in with this idea of like, ‘Okay, I have some ideas for things,’” Smith said. “But I really want to learn and listen to what students’ needs are, and identify those needs before I go in and start making decisions here and there.”

In Talking Drum, students have a safe space that gives them the agency to converse over the issues that matter to them. | Photo by Michael Weber

This approach allows the Dean of Students Office to be informed by what the center is doing, versus managing from the top down. Letting students take control of the dialogue means that they will be directly influencing the Dean of Students.

“I have been wanting every [discussion] to be student-led, student-driven, and have that peer to peer connection,” Smith said.

Smith promotes the free exchange of ideas because he believes dialogue and cultural exchange is important to becoming part of the community.

One of Smith’s most profound influences on the way he approaches intercultural exchange occurred in his senior semester spent abroad in Santiago, Chile. When he landed, Smith recognized the feeling of being alone and started to familiarize himself with the local area.

“My experience in Humboldt County and at HSU as the ‘other,’ and learning how to move from a perpetual state of survival mindset to adapting and thriving prepared me in so many ways for my time abroad,” Smith said.

Smith’s directive for the center is a culmination of his experiences learning about other people.

“Having that cultural exchange and different kinds of people allowed me to have more diverse viewpoints,” Smith said. “I’m an extrovert. Inside, I might feel anxiety about me, but I’ve always kind of pushed myself to engage with people.”

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