The Freedom To Be

Blame it on the sense of freedom in the air. Or maybe it truly was the spirit of the Big XII Conference on Black Student Government taking over. But things got heavy over that February weekend in Kansas — particularly at the Gospel Extravaganza.

It was held in the Alumni Center at Kansas State University (KSU) in Manhattan, Kansas. The pews were packed. The music and dancing were electric. The air was moving, stirred up by the people singing and swaying in unison. 

And then it happened. 

As the choir up front started to pray over the crowd, a woman started talking loudly. It wasn’t English. It wasn’t anything anyone had heard before. She started speaking in tongues, her voice rising above the music in a moment of pure spiritual release. Those around her were moved to tears. They felt the intensity of the moment too, the power of the community coming together in celebration. 

Ava Courneyea, a senior from Drake University, was one of them. 

“I came to the conference to learn about other Black students, learn about leadership, and learn about myself,” she said. “The Gospel Extravaganza reminded me of the power of faith and how it can bring people together.” 

That last part — bringing people together, particularly Black people — is why the Big XII Conference on Black Student Government exists. Founded 46 years ago as a way to bring Black student leaders together, it’s since become a celebration of Black identity and a respite from the masks Black people often have to wear. In class. In public. In church. In all predominantly white spaces.

But the pandemic put a stop to that. The last two years were virtual conferences. Zoom just isn’t the same as the real deal. It’s why the return to in-person gatherings at KSU brought both a breath of fresh air and a sigh of relief. Black students poured onto the campus, eager to connect with peers who share their experiences and struggles. For many, it was a chance to let loose and embrace themselves fully without fear of judgment. (See the above Gospel Extravaganza.)

I came to this conference seeking knowledge, but what I found was freedom.

Sam Mcwell

The Big XII Conference has a rich history that dates back to 1978. Originally known as the Big Eight Conference, it was founded by a group of Black students from the University of Missouri. At the time, Black students faced various challenges on campus, including social isolation, discrimination and a lack of representation in leadership positions. These students recognized the need for a space where Black students from different universities could come together to share their experiences and find solutions to common problems. Thus, the Big Eight Conference was born, providing a platform for Black student leaders to make a difference on their respective campuses. 

“It made everything feel more valid to be in a space with other Black students and hearing from people who understand our experiences,” said Oluwatimi Jinadu, a sophomore at the University of Minnesota. 

Over time, the conference grew to include students from other regions and, like the Big Eight itself, became known as the Big XII Conference. The name change wasn’t just a matter of adding four schools for the sake of football — sports lovers can debate that — but it was also a symbol of the conference’s evolution and expansion. Despite the changes in name and size, the conference has remained true to its original purpose, providing Black students with the tools and community they need to thrive in predominantly white spaces.

“I came to this conference seeking knowledge, but what I found was freedom. Freedom to express me,” said Sam Mcwell, a Minnesota native who just started at the University of Kentucky. “Even though I felt a little isolated this semester, being here reminded me that the fight for freedom is ongoing, and together, we can make real progress.”

This year, the conference drew in over 1,000 students from 23 universities across the nation, all gathering at KSU. The attendees stayed in nearby hotels, congregated in the student union, and connected at various events throughout the campus. Everywhere you looked, Black faces shone. 

“It’s like going to an HBCU [Historically Black College and University] for the weekend,” said Drake University student Eldrick Dossavi. “It’s so cool to see so many of us in one place.” 

And that’s important. This type of community building is crucial for mental health and personal growth. It provides a sense of belonging and validation that can be difficult for Black students to find in other settings. Predominantly white institutions can often be a hostile and alienating environment for Black students. They’re often expected to assimilate into a culture that does not fully embrace their identity. Honestly, it can be tiring. 

Dr. Ebony O. McGee, an associate professor of diversity and STEM education at Vanderbilt University, has evidence to back that up. She has done research that shows that Black students often face unique challenges at predominantly white institutions, including feeling isolated and disconnected from their peers and struggling to find mentors who understand their experiences.

“Folks need to know that just because someone is high achieving, black or brown, and with a good GPA and good internships, it does not mean that they are safe or they are successful,” McGee said. “Success is not just about high GPAs; it’s about being affirmed within one’s environment.”

This year, Adaeze Njoku was attending her first Big XII Conference. She traveled all the way from the University of Michigan. For her, it was worth it. She giddily spoke about attending the keynote address by Tamika Mallory, a renowned scholar and activist in the Black community. She also attended the Gospel Extravaganza.  

“I had to hold back my tears when I heard someone speaking in tongues,” she said. “I never felt like that outside of my own church before. It was very different, a good different. Like, I’m safe here. I can exhale here. It was a powerful moment of connection and shared experience that I will never forget.”

That goes for a lot of us. 


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