Afro-American studies chair departs UMass after two years of teaching and inspiring students

“It’s hard to find a mentor who wants you to be your best you, not a reflection of them”

Collegian+File+Photo

Collegian File Photo

To her students, Stephanie Shonekan, Ph.D.,  was known as an inspiring leader, trustworthy mentor and knowledgeable professor. After serving as the chair of the University of Massachusetts Afro-American studies department for the past two years, Shonekan will be stepping down.

Shonekan announced her departure through an email to graduate students in early June. No official statement has yet been issued by the University aside from a short Facebook post by the Afro-American studies department account.

“The leadership she had on the campus — organizing events, getting guest speakers.

She was only in her second year and she was already starting to build this big base of people and allies and scholars around her that was really, really impressive, and I was really excited to see where that was going,” said Ian Miller, an education major who was advised by Shonekan in the Bachelor’s Degree with Individual Concentration program.

Shonekan is a frequently published scholar, authoring multiple books in ethnomusicology in addition to many journal and magazine articles. She also holds a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology and folklore from Indiana University.

An email campaign asking the University to accommodate Shonekan’s needs to retain her was started by Maya Cunningham, a Ph.D. student in the Afro-American studies department.

“I prepared a series of letters to each person in leadership,” said Cunningham. “Our original intention was to ask them to do whatever they needed to do to retain Dr. Shonekan.”

A Facebook post was also made by Miller in the popular group “Overheard at UMass” claiming that “The university essentially made [Shonekan] choose between her family and her work.” The post has received over 370 likes and reactions.

Cunningham expressed frustration at the University’s recent emails and statements in support of the nationwide anti-racism movements.

“Justice must start at home,” Cunningham said. “Black Lives Matter can’t just be flowery and wonderful sentimental words, it has to be put into action right here on the campus. If the University is making such proclamations, well, did Dr. Shonekan’s Black life matter?”

Despite student efforts, Shonekan’s decision may be final. Miller said he planned to create a petition to help retain Shonekan. However, when he emailed her about his idea, Shonekan said there wasn’t any need.

“That’s part of the reason why I didn’t participate in the email campaign — it felt like a kind of a lost cause,” said Miller.

Shonekan’s expertise as an ethnomusicologist, students said, helped make the Afro-American studies department more whole. Within the department, students can choose to take a history and politics or a literature and culture track. According to Cunningham, Shonekan’s departure will leave only literary scholars in the faculty.

“I have yet to see someone really the way she is invested in African culture, art, pop culture, all of that. She completed our department with that alone,” said Mtali Banda, a Ph.D. student in Afro-American studies.

Many students who were mentored by Shonekan also voiced the positive impact she had on their studies and lives at UMass.

“She sees everyone as an individual genius,” said Banda. “It’s hard to find a mentor who wants you to be your best you, not a reflection of them.”

Miller recalls that Shonekan would carve out about an hour once a week in her schedule to meet with him and discuss his academic needs.

“She seemed to have a really amazing capacity for doing that for everybody, which I was really impressed by. Everybody she would make time for. It just seemed like she was doing the impossible, but she just kept doing it,” he said.

“She was very helpful. Every time we met, if there were any other resources that I needed, if there were friends that she had that she could reach out to that would help me with my project,” said Amisi Nazaire-Hicks, who graduated from UMass this year.

Banda also spoke about Shonekan’s influence and advising for his dissertation.

“When I presented what I wanted my dissertation to do, not only did she support it, but actually, what was in the back of my head — what I wanted to do and was too scared to even say — she went in the back of my head and said, ‘No, we’re going to do that. That vision that you have, we’re going to do that and we’re going to fight for it and we’re going to make sure it happens,’” said Banda.

Students also commented on the importance of having a Black mentor and professor who taught about racism in America. At UMass, Black students make up only 5 percent of the undergraduate population.

“To find a mentor and a Black woman, someone who looked like me and someone I could look up to was really important to me,” said Nazaire-Hicks.

Radiance Flowers, a graduate student in Afro-American studies who worked as a teaching assistant in Shonekan’s Race and the American Story class, said that the class “broke the barriers of racism in America, explaining the emergence of white supremacy and how it’s implemented in American culture.”

The class was brought to UMass by Shonekan and works in partnership with the University of Arizona and the University of Missouri. The class explores the roots of racism in the United States, and all students who take the course are able to attend a national symposium. With Shonekan’s departure, the class will not be offered.

“The impact has not only been a blessing but also, not just professionally but personally, I think Dr. Shonekan’s impact has helped me not only find my voice but become unafraid and courageous,” said Flowers.

In the classroom, students remember Shonekan as having a unique and warm presence that made learning engaging.

“She is so welcoming, and always smiling and really invested in her students rather than just being there to give information. I think the overall atmosphere of the class was inviting and thought provoking,” said Nazaire-Hicks.

“You want to go to class with her, you look forward to sitting in class with her. That’s rare, and you know she wants to be there. You know she’s not thinking about the paper she has to write, she’s not thinking about going to a conference, she’s not thinking about the book she’s writing — she comes for the students. And she’s a students-first professor. And that’s rare,” added Banda.

All of the students interviewed said that Shonekan’s departure would be a significant loss to the University and to the department.

Cunningham explained how had she came to UMass to specifically study with Shonekan because of her expertise in ethnomusicology.

“Losing my advisor, losing the one person in the department who has the research and expertise that I need to prepare for a dissertation and career has been a serious blow and it hurts. It

hurts emotionally, I feel I’ve been harmed. So I’m trying to make this salvageable,” she said.

UMass has not yet announced their search for a new chair. However, students say that replacing Shonekan will be a challenge, and that the new chair will have big shoes to fill.

“If we’re going to replace her, we’re really have to think about all the ways she impacted this program,” said Banda.

“I just want the next chair to still be assertive, alive, warm, approachable and personable. Kind of like Dr. Shonekan but still be who they are,” added Flowers.