Inspired by her multicultural background, a 2008 grad set out to connect campus groups and redefine diversity.
Courtney Parker came to The University of Iowa because of the renowned Writers’ Workshop. But in her time here, she discovered other passions. Instead of penning poetry, the 2008 graduate found herself resurrecting the UI Black Student Union (BSU) and cultivating cross-cultural partnerships across campus.
“I really think that diversity issues have recently become an issue for minority students. Diversity is not just about race and skin color. It’s about ethnic background, it’s about religious differences, sexual orientation, gender differences,” she says. “People have to broaden their definition of diversity.”
Issues of race and religion are close to Parker’s heart and mind. This year she earned a bachelor’s degree in religious studies and English with an African American studies minor.
During her tenure with BSU, Parker has galvanized its executive board to collaborate with other campus organizations including the Hillel Jewish Center, the Latino Native American Cultural Center, the Asian American Coalition, and Greek Life.
The native of Old Saybrook, Conn., served on BSU’s executive board for three years. She started out as treasurer, was president her junior year, and held the title of recruitment chair her senior year. The organization only existed on paper when she first came on campus. Now its e-mail list boasts 200 subscribers.
Outgoing BSU executive board member Harrison Wheeler says Parker encouraged him to continue serving on the board, even when he had a hard time juggling all his commitments.
“I respect her persistence. Times have definitely been hard and I’ve wanted to give up. But she’s there, encouraging me to keep going,’” says the junior in graphic design. “That helps a lot.”
Parker has developed leadership skills at the UI, but her time here has also taught her how to be comfortable in her own skin. She grew up in a predominantly white, upper middle-class area in Connecticut, and had felt insecure about her mixed heritage. She sees herself first as an African American, but she also has English, Jewish, and Native American roots.
“It’s interesting that most people don’t look at me and recognize me as being African American,” she says. “But you can’t really spend much time with me without knowing that I’m black, without knowing that I’m Jewish.”
Her commitment to helping students transcends the UI. She was accepted by Teach for America and headed to North Carolina after graduation. The organization recruits recent graduates to teach for two years in rural and urban schools around the country.
“There are a lot of students who’re not being given the same quality of education that some other students may have, mainly because they were born into an area where they don’t have the resources to do that,” she says.
Teach For America also will provide some financial assistance for Parker to take classes towards a master’s degree in education. Eventually, however, she hopes to get a doctorate in theology or English, or maybe go to law school.
When Parker first came to Iowa, she thought she’d spend more time working on the poems and plays that won her awards in high school. Even though she hasn’t written as much as she’d like, she’s found that when she does put pen to paper, her writing is richer for all the experiences she has had.
“Coming to college has provided me with the tools to express my political views, my views on race or white privilege, with a little bit more command and authority than I had previously,” she says. “It definitely had a strong impact, not just on my academic experience but also on my personal experience.”
Story by Po Li Loo; Photo by Tom Jorgensen
June 9, 2008