North Central College students experience life-changing course on civil rights movement

Apr 29, 2015

North Central College students and alumni often say opportunities to study away from campus are among their most memorable moments of college. Twenty-two students who spent a week this spring touring historic sites in the civil rights movement say the Sankofa Experience Verandah course inspired life-changing passion for social justice causes.

“Sankofa means you must go back to our past to move forward,” says Uzuri Williams, a junior psychology major from Champaign. “Before this trip I was angry—I wanted to make a difference, but I didn’t know how.”

The diverse group of 22 students was accompanied by three faculty and staff members on a tour of sites throughout Alabama and Tennessee. They walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma where “Bloody Sunday” happened 50 years ago. They visited the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

They toured the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham where four young African-American girls died in a 1963 bombing by white supremacists. They joined thousands of people in a march to the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery to honor the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery March.

Several students from the Sankofa Experience said the course taught them how to channel their emotions into action.

“By recognizing what happened in the past we can apply it to the present and change the future,” says senior Abigail Van Hook, a global studies major from Lincoln, Ill. “There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done … The battle isn’t for victory, it’s for justice.”

Sankofa participants like Erin Bellie, a sophomore elementary education major from Downers Grove, said the course motivated her to learn more about the civil rights movement.

“I didn’t expect it would be such an inspirational, life-changing event,” Bellie said. “Growing up in the suburbs I felt like I was in a bubble. This trip was a way to break that bubble.”

Chelsea Lorenz, a junior music education and secondary education double-major from Aurora, said the emotional Sankofa experience generated relevant outcomes. Upon her return from the week-long course, she found in her mail a teacher’s guide to teaching social justice in music classrooms.

Several participants said they were moved by learning more about civil rights leaders who were actually college-aged students like themselves when they played in a role in the historic movement.

“I learned a lot of what it means to be a leader,” said Christina Hilton, a freshman undeclared major from Naperville. “Before the trip I thought my voice was too quiet and my opinions too weak to make a difference. I don’t know yet how I’ll put my passions into action.”

Participants like Rachel West, a junior music education major from Aurora, recalled meeting people who took part in nonviolent civil rights demonstrations during the 1960s and urged them to become active in social justice causes.

“Continuously we heard, ‘It’s your turn,'” she says.

Faculty and staff accompanying the students were William Barnett, associate professor of history and chair of the history department; Renique Kersh, assistant director of leadership programs and lecturer of leadership, ethics and values; and Dorothy Pleas, director of multicultural affairs.

North Central College’s Verandah Experiences are short-term courses designed to be intellectually and personally stimulating for both students and faculty. The Sankofa Experience was the first Verandah course to take place outside the Chicago area. Participants earned one credit by writing essays or creating photo or video documentaries of the experience. Students shared their reflections of the experience with short presentations that were open to the campus community.

“Hearing their reflections gives me much hope about the future, realizing how deeply and passionately they care about social justice issues,” Kersh said.