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A Degree That Prepared Him for the World

November 18, 2015

Portrait: DeSean Smalley

Portrait: DeSean Smalley
Photo by Jack Swift, CLAgency student

“I always knew there was a problem of oppression and white supremacy that plagued black communities, but it was through my undergraduate experience as an African American & African studies major that I was able to really think about and shape long term solutions.”

DeSean Smedley is one of the many great thinkers and activists who found their sense of self through the skills and experiences gained from majoring in African American & African studies (AA&AS). A native of Oakland, California, Smedley came to the University of Minnesota with a plethora of life experiences that shaped the way he understood the reality of black life in America. He decided to major in AA&AS because he was able to validate his experiences through the wealth of black intellectual thought introduced to him by his coursework and close relationships with professors.

This validation fueled his relentless commitment to use what he was learning in class and apply it to his work with the community. DeSean served as the cultural awareness chair for the Black Student Union and organized events during Black History Month that aimed to call students to action and make changes in their communities. He also worked closely with AA&AS professor Keith Mayes to initiate and sustain black history courses in Minneapolis Public Schools.

DeSean taught the black history class at Harrison Education Center in North Minneapolis last year, and that experience led him to becoming a full time dean of students, assistant basketball coach, and teacher of the Black Male Achievement course at Harrison immediately after he graduated from the University.

“No other degree could have prepared me for working at Harrison,” says DeSean. Harrison High School is an alternative school for 14 to 18-year-old students whose life experiences cause them to have different emotional, behavioral, and academic needs than the “average” teenager. Because these students have been historically disenfranchised by the educational system (being labeled as “special needs” and even criminalized), DeSean makes a conscious effort to “open the students' minds up to how their life struggles connect to the larger history of the African diaspora.” He uses the knowledge gained from AA&AS to teach students that they come from a long history of demanding struggle and valiant resistance, and it is their job to keep the fight alive.

In DeSean’s opinion, his AA&AS degree is the epitome of what the College of Liberal Arts (CLA) aims to achieve. True to its liberal arts model, AA&AS taught DeSean critical knowledge about economics, literature, history, education, and so much more. “My education equipped me with the ability to think on a higher level of social dynamics, not just academia. CLA provides students the skills needed to succeed in the diverse, intersectional society that we live in today.”

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.