In the spring of 2019, Destinee Dickson was asked to answer one of the most difficult questions of her college career.
“At first I didn't know what to say, it kind of shocked me,” Dickson said. “I've always waited for that moment. I was waiting, anticipating.”
The political science and women’s and gender studies senior has served several semesters as a campus tour guide and a diversity enrichment programs intern for the Office of Recruitment and Admissions. As a guide, Dickson is responsible for leading potential students on tours of OU’s landmarks and amenities, introducing them to the benefits and opportunities available for OU students. She said she deeply loves OU as an institution.
Since January 2019, Dickson has also been an outspoken critic of the university’s response to racist incidents on campus. She is a member of both the Black Student Association and the Black Emergency Response Team, and she was involved in organizing the march to protest last spring’s blackface incidents as well as the most recent press conference following the incident on Sept. 22.
Dickson said this dual-faceted relationship with the university complicated the answer she gave to the family of a student considering OU last spring, amid the several racist incidents that had occurred on campus.
“A family came up to me and said, ‘Why should I let my daughter be here as an African American woman?’” Dickson said. “I just looked at them and said, ‘At this moment, I don’t know if I still want to be here at OU.’”
Before that spring, Dickson said it had been difficult to imagine herself attending any other school.
When searching for college options as a high school student, OU was Dickson’s top choice from day one, said Joya Hudson, Dickson’s mother.
“She loves OU — that’s where her heart is at,” Hudson said. “She never one time looked at going someplace else, or even talked about or considered going someplace else. She wants to be able to speak on behalf of the university and let people put their minds at ease about coming to the university.”
Kayla Storrs, assistant director of diversity enrichment programs for OU’s Office of Recruitment and Admissions, said she saw Dickson’s drive to improve OU when she first met her during Dickson’s sophomore year.
“I could tell that she had a genuine desire to make OU a better place,” Storrs said. “She wanted to figure out how she could work to better create an OU that she would be comfortable with and that she would be proud of marketing to other people.”
Dickson’s love for OU was why, when the first blackface incident occurred in January 2019 followed by several more racist events in the following months, she was conflicted and angry. Dickson said she was considering possibly leaving what was once her dream school during a phone call with her mother.
“I called her and I said, ‘Mom, I don't know if I want to be here anymore,’” Dickson said. “‘I want to leave. I want to transfer. I want to go somewhere far away.’ I was crying to her, and she just gave me the honest truth.”
Hudson said, that night, she reiterated some of the first advice she gave to her daughter when Dickson first started looking at universities.
“I always told her that when she went to college, she was going to face the real world,” Hudson said. “She was going to see things, to see racism, and she needed to be prepared for that ... and she was going to realize that she was black.”
During Dickson’s childhood and high school years, Hudson said, her race was not something Dickson was extremely affected by. Despite attending a majority-white high school in Deer Creek, Oklahoma, Hudson said the students there were friendly, and Dickson did not encounter the racism she would have to fight in college.
After that phone call, Dickson said, Hudson urged her to use her emotional response to continue to make OU a better place for its students.
“(My mom said) 'Don't let this upset you or tear you from your goals and dreams of what you hope to do,'” Dickson said. “'Let this put fuel to your fire to continue to do the work that you need to do.'”
A few hours after Hudson gave her that advice, Dickson said she was asked to help organize the Black Student Association’s march to Evans Hall. Dickson said the raw emotion and outpouring of support from the OU community she saw at the march was “like being in a movie,” and the reason she chose to come to OU in the first place was clear again.
“I’ve stayed because of the resources and the people,” Dickson said. “(The march) proved to me that there might be people who don’t want me on this campus because I’m black, or people who don’t like me because I’m black, but there’s more people who want me here and want me to thrive in this institution.”
The kindness she received after the incidents helped her remember the sense of community she originally loved about OU, Dickson said. Her coworkers offered to take her shifts at Headington College while she was dealing with the emotional fallout, and several professors checked in regularly to ensure she was coping well.
Hudson said the support Dickson received from her community after the incidents and Dickson’s desire to improve OU for future students have been a blessing and a curse. While her passion to better the university drove Dickson to “be a voice for those who don’t know how to be a voice,” it also introduced her to the racism Hudson warned she would face for most of her life.
Dickson said she knows OU is far from perfect, and university policy has to make progress in order to bring about real change. Just days after speaking to The Daily, Dickson spoke at a Black Emergency Response Team press conference after another blackface incident involving an OU student on Sept. 22.
Despite efforts from the Office of Diversity and Inclusion to have a transparent selection process for its next vice president, and interim OU President Joseph Harroz’s early involvement with the Black Student Association, Dickson said the work will take years to complete.
Throughout her remaining time at OU, Dickson said she plans to continue advocating for improvement in the administration and university community while also encouraging freshmen to consider the school she loves.
Although she could not truthfully answer the family she spoke with last spring, Dickson said she now fully understands why she chose OU, and why others should do the same.
“I know OU is a place that I've been able to grow,” Dickson said. “Not everything will be perfect ... but it’s the people that keep us here, the people that want me here and appreciate me is the reason why I’ve stayed. I might have issues with the university, might still be one of its biggest critics, but at the same time I love this institution.”