Though Lehigh has seen a slow rise in diversity and inclusion in the last eight years, efforts to create a more inclusive environment started far before, with the help of students themselves.
Sterling Ashby, ’92, who died in November 2017, was part of this movement.
Ashby studied industrial systems engineering at Lehigh from 1988-1992 and was one of the founders of the Umoja house.
Henry Odi, the deputy vice president for equity and community and associate provost for academic diversity, knew Ashby well because Odi’s wife directed the university choir when Ashby was a member.
Odi said Ashby wasn’t the best singer in the group, but he had a spirit of trying and wanted to be a part of the choir community.
“He was committed to being involved on campus and to being a good student,” Odi said.
Throughout his time at Lehigh, Ashby was a member of the Black Students Union, the Gryphon Society, the National Society of Black Engineers, the Philosophy Club and the men’s intramural soccer team, in addition to the university choir.
Odi said Ashby’s involvement on campus inspired him to develop an idea to improve diversity at Lehigh. In 1989, a group of students, including Ashby, created a proposal for the Umoja House to be a resource and community for students of color. Umoja is the Swahili word for unity.
“It was a great lesson for Lehigh to see students who were leaders and wanted to create change,” Odi said. “Ashby was one of them.”
Odi said Ashby and the other students who worked alongside him hoped the university was taking a concerted effort and interest to create a campus that was more welcoming and inclusive.
Initially, the Umoja House was located where Warren Square is today, with only 11 students living in the house. Now, it is located on the Hill and houses almost 30 residents.
Odi said Umoja is more diverse today than it ever has been, with the representation of a wide array of identities.
Jamal Connelly, ’19, who has lived in the house since his freshman year and served as a Gryphon there last semester, said he was drawn to Umoja’s diversity and the sense of community it had to offer.
“When I moved into the Umoja House, I felt like I was a part of something bigger than myself and that I had a family,” Connelly said.
Princess Scott, ’20, also lives in the Umoja House and said she is proud of how far Lehigh has come in terms of diversity.
“(The) class of 2020 was more diverse than 2019, and 2021 is more diverse than 2020,” she said. “It’s great to see that Lehigh is taking strides to make it an inclusive and diverse place.”
Odi said Lehigh has made great changes in the way of diversity and inclusion. However, the work is not done and will continue.
Odi said Ashby always loved Lehigh and continued to support the university after graduation. He became involved with the Black and Latino Alumni Network for Community and Equity, the Career Advisory Network and Alumni Admissions Outreach. He was also a class committee member and the Alumni Association board director from 2004-2008.
Connelly said he was saddened to hear the news of Ashby’s passing.
“I just hope his legacy doesn’t die,” Connelly said. “I want everyone to know the impact he had at Lehigh and all of the great things he has brought us.”
Before his passing, Ashby’s high school, Milton Hershey School, featured him in a video for its Martin Luther King Day assembly. In it, he shared his experience of his brain cancer diagnosis and how he persevered.
Odi attended Ashby’s funeral service and estimated there were around 600 people there. He said every seat was filled and there was not one dry eye in the room.
“He’s one of Lehigh’s unsung heroes,” Odi said.