Lehigh coaches and players have come together to launch the Student Athletes of Color, a group for minority Lehigh athletes.
What started as a players’ group chat and an idea by some coaches has now grown into a full movement featuring interaction between players, coaches and administrators.
The new support group provides a chance for minority athletes to connect with both staff and students of color, according to their mission statement. The coalition also intends to diversify group members’ world views and strengthen understanding of their own culture as well as historical trends.
The initiative is inspired by recent events in the country and the lack of similar groups for student-athletes of color on campus.
“With the timing and with everything that’s going on and how the Black student body has been upset with how the university has been handling situations, I thought we might as well start something like this because the athletes are a specific cohort on campus,” said senior Divine Buckrham, a captain of the football team and a member of Student Senate. “When you specify it more to Black athletes, it’s even smaller, and I just felt we should all have a safe space to be around each other and talk and be able to relate with each other outside of our teams.”
Buckrham was inspired to form the group after holding conversations with coaches and finding that Patriot League counterparts like Georgetown and Holy Cross already have similar groups. He then created a GroupMe, inviting a few players he knew from each team, and allowed it to spread amongst student-athletes from there.
Buckrham then spoke with Erin Matyus, the assistant director of athletics leadership, who said she could help get the ball rolling on creating the group.
Coaches such as Xiomara Ortiz, an assistant coach for the volleyball team, and Khayla Atte, ‘05, an assistant coach for the track and field team, have also helped in the formation of Student Athletes of Color.
Ortiz recalls being a student-athlete herself and having mentors and advocates around her that helped her throughout her career. For student-athletes of color, she feels those resources are lacking and can be improved upon.
“What was really eye opening was more the representation we have here at Lehigh… Representation is a huge factor, so being able to contribute, for me, was something that I felt extremely compelled in doing,” Ortiz said. “I do a great part of that within my own team, but I felt that I can use that as an extension for Lehigh athletics. How can I be a resource? How can I be a helping hand (or a) mentor in other areas that I can be utilized in other sports programs that don’t have that representation?”
As a 2005 graduate and former Lehigh student-athlete herself, Atte said she understands what the current student-athletes of color are facing at the university. Although things have improved in some ways from when she was enrolled, she said Lehigh still has a long way to go.
“When I realized there really wasn’t a clear, intentional and specific group for the Black and brown athletes, it was an issue for me,” Atte said. “When I didn’t see a lot of Black and brown coaches it was an issue for me… I always felt when I decided to start coaching at Lehigh, I walked in and I said, ‘What is really going on with the diversity initiative?’ I feel like I should be connected to that. As a coach, I feel like it is a part of my responsibility to address the needs of the athlete in front of me.”
Although this is just the beginning for the group, different ideas have circulated regarding what they should be doing moving forward, from talks with professional alumni to discussions on different topics like mental health or financial literacy.
Ultimately, the idea is for the group to act as a bridge that connects student-athletes of color with each other and other students of color on campus, while also using the platform to connect with allies of other races around campus to build a more inclusive Lehigh community, Oritz and Atte said.
“I’m pretty excited about it, honestly,” Oritz said. “I think we have stirred up a lot of interest for (student-athletes) that are driven to be leaders in this. And looking at what their vision for what the group is: could be ways of education, engagement, and empowerment.”
Buckrham said he sees the potential for Student Athletes of Color to be incorporated into freshman orientation, similar to the way student-athlete huddle groups allow freshmen to come in and already be a part of their community on campus while still connecting with others.
While the COVID-19 pandemic can be a tough time to introduce a new group due to social distancing and restrictions on meetings, Buckrham is confident the group can persevere, citing a midsummer meeting as evidence.
“I, for one, was very excited that we were all able to finally get together and meet the coaches who helped put this together, too,” Buckrham said. “I wasn’t sure how it’d go with it being on Zoom. Of course it’d be better if we could have it in person, but if not, I think it’ll still be valuable.”