Monica Jones, a native of Zanesville, a town in the Ohio foothills of the Appalachian region, was named the director of the Black Cultural Center (BCC) at Berea College in July of 2012. Jones believes the center serves as a leader in facilitating the college’s mission of interracial education, through the understanding that God has made one blood of all peoples of the earth. “I provide a space that allows them (students) to have a place for study, a space to deal with cultural understandings of each other, and a space where they can just hang out with one another.” She adds, “However, I think that when they are in this space, they realize that I have expectations for them, that they will always be seen as scholars and that I am committed to their education.”
The approach Jones takes to the center is rooted in her own experience of community. While she and her family still have deep roots in Zanesville, she remembers feeling on the outside because the area is predominately Caucasian.
“Many times being the only brown face in the classrooms was just my reality,” Jones shared.
While Jones never let being the only person of color in social or academic settings define her, the experience of being the “other” continued throughout her academic life. After high school, she attended Ohio University (OU) where, as is the case with many colleges, there were still relatively few African American students.
Once she experienced college she began to become more content with her role as the “other.” She remarks, “Now it is okay for me to walk into a room and be the only person of color present. I am no longer consumed with being the ‘only’ because I’ve been doing it for so long and OU allowed me to be the ‘only’ but also to be able to excel academically.”
She taps in to these past experiences to help foster racial understanding especially in her role as director of the BCC. Her mission is for the center to be “The Gathering Place” and so it has been purposefully designed for conversation, lounging, studying, meeting, and hosting programs.
However, developing community is only one aspect of her work at Berea. Jones also pushes students of the BCC to see themselves as scholars. She states “A scholar is much different than a student because being a scholar requires sacrifice. A student has one mindset while a scholar is focused on speaking, researching, writing, and critical thinking.” She adds, “I don’t see students at Berea, I see scholars because if they can see themselves as scholars, then they can attain so much more on their educational journey.” She realizes that urging students to sacrifice is a necessary aspect of her job. She remarks, “At the end of the day if I am not holding them accountable for their academic endeavors then I am not doing what I need to be doing.”
Jones sees her role as advancing the mission of the college through communicating to students that they can be successful. She remarks, “I want my students to grow where they’re planted by taking advantage of opportunities and recognizing the value in the opportunities they are presented with.” She encourages her students to reach their potential and step outside of their comfort zone. Through this act of being vulnerable, students can build bridges with people whom they may not have approached otherwise.
The center is available to assist student success through advocacy, mentorship, academic and social development, and the facilitation of cultural understanding. Jones helps students discover their untapped potential. She remarks, “I know these young people have heard you can be anything that you want to be, and that’s a true statement; however, I remind them, you can be all that you can be with sacrifice and hard work.”
While academics have always been important to her, Jones also sees education as essentially connected to making sacrifices, something she learned at a young age when she spent time with her grandmother. She explained, “My grandmother was always about education. Each Saturday she would say, ‘Monica, go get a dictionary, look up 10 new words and put them in a sentence.’ Then the following Saturday she would say, ‘Get 10 new words, put them in sentence, but also tell me what the 10 words from last week were.’”
In addition to her grandma’s fostering of education, her own educational journey contributed to her role as a supporter of education. She received her bachelor’s degree in Zoology from Ohio University (OU) because she originally intended to become a medical doctor. She also obtained her master’s degree in Education at OU. Her experiences in college taught her that anything worth having is worth working for. She shares that while in college, “I got to invest in me, and so my education has truly been an opportunity for me to figure out what I was passionate about, and of course that’s education, [and] how I could make a difference.”
Jones path to a career in higher education began when she got a job as an AmeriCorps member in her hometown of Zanesville working with middle and high school students. Her work entailed providing one-on-one admissions counseling, conducting academic needs analysis, distributing financial aid workshops, and arranging campus visits for seniors. She did this job for about a year and then the institution that she was working for decided to create a job specifically for her.
“I became a voice as to why education was important, especially to a number of first generation students and a number of students of color. So for me it was a good fit and I stayed in education for the next 15 years.”
Her work at AmeriCorps, as the Minority and Adult Student Coordinator, and as the Director of Student Services allowed her “to see potential in students, so I have spent my entire professional career in higher education helping younger people see their own potential.”
The primary program in the BCC is the Students United to Create Cultural and Educationally Successful Situations Program (S.U.C.C.E.S.S.). The purpose of this program is to transition incoming students to Berea College. Program highlights include an assigned peer mentor, access to skill building sessions, and a first-year weekend retreat. In addition, Kula Kusoma is another program offered in the BCC. This is a lecture luncheon series in which Berea College alumni return and share insights and reflections on their college experience and how their education has impacted their personal and professional life.
T.R.U.T.H. (True Racial Understanding Through Honest) Talks is the newest program offered by the BCC through collaboration with Campus Life and the Carter G. Woodson Center. The purpose of these “talks” is to create a forum for faculty, staff, and students to engage in difficult dialogues and to realize that we have multiple identities. These “talks” create a comfortable environment for all to ask questions that will increase racial understanding. Also, this year the BCC has expanded their “Black Male Initiative” program. Jones remarks, “We’re working to provide programming for African American males and others to have an honest assessment of what’s going to be required of them to be successful at Berea College.”
In terms of future projects for the center, Jones wants to continue to provide programs that will allow students to learn more about their culture and how Black history is not limited to the month of February. She wants students to see how Black history is American history.
As an advocate of education she continues to pursue higher education. She is currently working on her doctoral degree in Higher Education Administration from Ohio University. Pursing this degree will continue to allow her to impact students and provide the support they need. Jones remarks, “They all see themselves as students; and my role is to have a student come in as a student and leave as a scholar four years later, knowing there’s a difference.”