Associate Professor of Communication Phillip Powell is one of the few African American male professors to receive tenure at Valparaiso University. While Powell doesn’t have the exact number, he believes he is the ninth or tenth professor of his demographic with tenure at Valparaiso University. He came to his conclusion after observation, talking with colleagues and learning more about the history of the university.
Powell began his time as a Crusader in August of 1994. He was contacted by Valparaiso University to apply because the university was looking to expand its diversity on campus. Previously Powell was a facilitator to the television studio at Chicago State University.
When Powell started at Valpo, he was in for a life-changing experience. He went from working at a predominantly African American university to one where he was among the minority.
“It was very interesting to step away from a situation where you were in the majority and come to a situation now where you’re the minority and try to get engaged with that type of community,” Powell said.
Powell was fortunate enough to find himself at a university with welcoming students, faculty and staff. However, the welcoming environment didn’t make the racial issues any less noticeable.
“When you’re a minority at an institution, you know that you can count the number of minorities on your hand. [For example], when you go to the mass gatherings the institution holds… [you look] around the room, and you see maybe just one [or two people] that look like you… It was shocking to be in that environment and I had to adjust that,” Powell said.
Early on in his Valpo career, Powell connected with the then chair of the social work department Lou-Jeanne Walden. Walden served as a mentor to Powell and helped guide him through his years as a professor in the minority.
“She was the one that really walked me through my entire process while she was there at [Valpo], including for me applying for tenure,” Powell said. “She was very instrumental in my development as a faculty member.”
Powell is in Walden’s shoes and he’s hoping to make a similar impact on someone else.
“Now I’m sitting in that seat and I’m looking back saying to myself, ‘How can I mentor [newer] faculty members and try to do to them the same thing professor Walden did to me?’ It’s a challenge but it’s my honor to be in this place and do that,” Powell said.
During his time at Valpo, Powell has been involved with the Black Student Organization (BSO). He was one of the advisors up until 2015 and has fond memories his time with the group.
“That was one positive experience -- being engaged with the Black Student Organization as an advisor,” Powell said. “I felt that [the students] connected with [the other advisors and me] on several levels.”
Powell enjoyed working with BSO to prepare for Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Day. Each year there would be a new theme for the celebration and activities corresponding to the theme. Black History Month is another one of Powell’s favorite times of the year, as he helped establish new ways for African American students to speak their minds.
“We had these series of open forums. One of them was called Black Man Speak… And the reason we started with Black Men Speak is because we wanted an open forum with the students. We had a panel of black men who were students and we wanted to discuss what their experiences were at [Valpo],” Powell said.
Black Man Speak was such a big hit that it inspired African American females to do the same, creating their own forum called Black Women Speak. Later on the two merged to become African American Speak.
Powell is a 39-year member of the African American fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi. Valpo recently added a chapter of the fraternity last spring. While Powell is proud to be a member and that Valpo added a chapter, he was upset he wasn’t aware of the addition until later on. He was also upset the new members weren’t aware there was a staff member with a rich connection to the fraternity.
“If people would understand the history and what it feels like to be in a black fraternity or sorority you wouldn’t do that,” Powell said. “You would make sure that any members coming in or if a member was to transfer and come to your campus you would make sure that person knows who you are.”
Powell stressed that he’s very pleased that these young men were initiated into Kappa Alpha Psi and has begun to make a connection with the new members.
Powell is hopeful for what the future holds for professors in the minority at Valpo. He hopes to see the numbers grow in terms of these professors so students in the minority will have more people to connect with during their time on campus. Powell also hopes people will continue to speak out about their experiences in order for their story to be told.
“If I can’t talk to anyone about the history I know of in terms of minorities on [Valpo’s] campus since I’ve [started], then that history will be lost,” Powell said.