Student center

Director of the black student center guided by the principle of Ujamaa

When John Rawlins III set out last fall to create a success program for the Black Student Center at Cal State San Marcos, of which he is director, he knew exactly where to turn for inspiration.


It may not be out of tongue, but that word has served as Rawlins’ guide for most of his adult life. It is a term from the East African language of Kiswahili and one of the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa. Literally, it translates to “family”. For Rawlins, it means the process of working together as an extended family to build and maintain a cohesive community.

He was first exposed to the word in college; it was the name of the residence where he lived at Cornell University. It grew to be part of his DNA during his sophomore year when he became a Resident Advisor, a role he held for the rest of his time at Cornell.

“In this residency, it was about how we use the best of who we are to support each other and foster this community,” Rawlins said. “It’s something that has always stuck with me, and it’s a big part of what I put into my work when I think about building community.”

The spirit of Ujamaa has permeated Rawlins’ work during his 15 years as a student affairs professional, and he has made it a central part of his philosophy at CSUSM since being hired to lead the Black Student Center in July. 2019. Later this month, the center will celebrate its fifth anniversary, and Rawlins will have been in charge for more than half of its existence.

The dawn of the COVID-19 pandemic less than a year into his term has set back some of the initiatives he planned to institute through the BSC, but he has struggled to catch up. lost. He and his team created the Brotherhood Alliance for black male students and the Circle of Sisters for black female students. Quickly on their heels came the Association of Black Athletes, the Association of Black Psychology Students, and the Melanated Art Collective, the last of which is an organization focused on art and creativity in the black experience.

“We continue to grow, and it’s exciting to see,” Rawlins said. “We’ve always had a strong black student body, but these groups give students an opportunity to say, ‘I want more of my education that is tied to my identity. And even though these are things that I developed, they are really student-led initiatives. We put them in the hands of students to become leaders.

Rawlins turned out to be the BSC director Dr. Gail Cole-Avent was looking for when the associate vice president of student life hired him from his position as director of leadership development and training at Alpha Phi Alpha Brotherhood, the first intercollegiate Greek fraternity established for African American men. But as a sign of his abilities, his duties have only expanded over the next 2 and a half years.

For nearly a year he served as Acting Director of the Gender Equity Center, and in September 2020 President Ellen Neufeldt appointed him Special Assistant to the Director of Diversity (now Dr. Aswad Allen), tasking him with involve students in the CSUSM’s efforts around diversity and inclusion. He is also Vice President of the Black Faculty and Staff Association.

“Since his arrival, his impact has far exceeded my vision and my expectations,” said Cole-Avent. “During his time here, he not only enhanced the college experience for Black students, but he also demonstrated his commitment to the broader population.

“His work is essential and will continue to create pathways for our students that include understanding the multiple ways they can fully benefit from their CSUSM experience, whether in the classroom, through leadership roles, engagement in community (internal and external), and ultimately as alumni who will mentor the next generation.

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