Longing for—and Finding—a Black College Experience
Quenarii Lampkin ’20 had always dreamed of going to a Historically Black College.
“It’s big for me,” says the Hollywood High graduate, “to see people who look like me and are successful—to have those people in my life, supporting me, believing in me, pushing me.”
Sadly, her dreams unraveled after just one semester at Hampton University in Virginia, when scholarships and grants she’d counted on didn’t materialize. With the small inheritance from her grandmother gone and her savings zeroed out, she reluctantly returned to Los Angeles in 2017.
To her delight, after enrolling at SMC Quenarii found a way to have the HBCU experience after all—by getting involved with the Black Collegians Umoja Community.
She didn’t just sign up with the support program. She became a board member in the Black Collegians student club, then rose through the ranks from publicity director to secretary to vice president to two-term president.
On June 16, the 22-year-old psychology pre-major was recognized at SMC’s virtual commencement as one of eight graduates spotlighted in the official program.
“These students have overcome significant obstacles in their lives and their stories of tenacity serve as inspiration to everyone,” says Esau Tovar, dean of enrollment services, whose office oversees the Graduation Stories selection process. His department received 32 nominations from faculty and staff during the spring.
Black Collegians program leader Sherri Bradford, who nominated Quenarii for the honor, is awed by her strength and resilience.
“Given the challenges Quenarii faced, it’s just amazing to me how well she manages and stays organized,” says the longtime SMC counselor.
Rising Above Hardships
Getting to graduation has been an uphill battle for the South LA native. There were times she came close to quitting. One semester she failed all her
Quenarii gets no support from her family. She rents a room in a friend’s house and shoulders a full course load while holding down multiple jobs to make ends meet. Cash-flow can be a real problem. Even while working the counters at McDonald’s and Buffalo Wild Wings over the past three years, Quenarii was no stranger to food insecurity.
Through it all, Black Collegians was a safe harbor.
“I got the same nurturing that you would get from an HBCU through Black Collegians,” Quenarii says. “I don’t know where I would be academically or even in life without being a part of this program."
It’s no accident that Black Collegians feels like an HBCU in miniature.
“We’re trying to create an experience for students who have felt marginalized,” Sherri explains. “We give them access to counselors and professors who look like them—who have struggled and dealt with many of the same issues they’re going through. We’re also trying to create this space where we’re going to love on them, but we’re also going to be tough on them to help them persevere.”
“She Spoke Life into Me”
Her smile is warm and open, but Quenarii admits to being quiet and reserved by nature.
Not one to complain, confide or ask for help.
“But I felt comfortable opening up to Mrs. Bradford–I call her 'Grandmama Bradford',” she adds, her voice brimming with affection. “She’d check on me, find resources for me. Whatever I needed I just knew that she was in my corner. There were times I went in her office ready to drop out. Then she spoke life into me, telling me to continue, press through, finish school. She believed in me when I was at rock-bottom. She’ll hold a special place in my heart for the rest of my life.”
As Sherri helped Quenarii rise to life’s challenges, she didn’t expect her advisee to give back selflessly.
Semester after semester, she’d watched Quenarii face steep academic hurdles while taking financial blows, absorbing family conflict she still declines to discuss publicly, and making the necessary time-management tradeoffs imposed by her many jobs.
“So when she decided to run for Black Collegians club vice president, I was very happy, but I was shocked,” Sherri says.
Quenarii went on to serve two terms as president, tamping down her natural reserve to mediate the disagreements that inevitably surface when many stakeholders come together.
“Quenarii is not one to do a lot of talking or be in front of people,” Sherri says, “and that’s exactly what she had to do every week as president, while also empowering her officers. She’s grown so much and pushed beyond even what she expected of herself. I have watched her flourish and truly become a leader. It was amazing to see.”
Night and Day Labors
The past two months have pushed Quenarii’s resilience to the limit.
Laid off from a comfortable desk job at the Cayton Children’s Museum (a casualty of the pandemic lockdown), she now toils five nights a week on the graveyard shift at an Amazon warehouse in Pasadena. It’s grinding physical labor, stowing heavy boxes by zip code at a brisk pace.
“I’m on my feet all night, and if I slow down, I’m in trouble,” she says.
It’s an unhealthy workplace in other ways: 10 warehouse co-workers have come down with the coronavirus since March.
Luckily, Quenarii was able to keep her SMC student job as a receptionist for Black Collegians. But with Zoom classes to attend by day and finals closing in, her sleep schedule has consisted of “little naps” at random intervals in the morning and late afternoon.
Still somehow she has found time to organize Black Collegians events on Instagram Live and contribute to a virtual newsletter that keeps students connected. She regularly sends out positive messages to rally the spirits of club officers disappointed by the cancellation of their long anticipated 30th anniversary spring gala.
“I’m disappointed, too,” Quenarii admits, though she puts on a brave face. “I try to stay positive, but I’m finding myself a little sad. I didn’t realize how much I need human interaction with my peers, especially Black Collegians."
By now, no one—least of all Sherri—should be surprised at Quenarii’s bottomless reserve of resilience.
In the fall, this strong young woman will transfer to Cal State Dominguez Hills. Her long-term goal: to be a clinical psychologist.
As always, being part of a vibrant black community remains her highest priority.
When choosing a transfer school, Quenarii was sold on CSUDH after participating in
Toro Admit Day.
“I saw a lot of African American people in leadership positions. The president of Dominguez Hills is black. And they have a lot of support services and programs similar to Black Collegians. That showed me I can succeed at this campus,” she says.
* * *