A commitment to social justice guided many of Shondrea Thornton CC’15’s choices at the College, from her academic trajectory to where she lived on campus to the student organizations she joined.
An African-American studies major, Thornton received a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship (MMUF), awarded each spring to five sophomores from underrepresented minorities who demonstrate potential for doctoral study. Fellows receive support for research, meet weekly to discuss their work and learn about the graduate school application process. Citing race, gender and class among her research interests, Thornton says that through MMUF she “realized how important academia can be to activism,” adding, “We talked about scholar activism — how can your paper on feminism change how young girls view themselves?”
For her MMUF research, Thornton looked at black political culture as reflected in and influenced by the careers of entertainers Diana Ross, Whitney Houston and Beyoncé. “My paper is about resituating the popular culture created by black women as having integral importance to political culture and the way we think about identity, race, gender and sexuality,” Thornton says. Starting this fall, she intends to explore “contradictions between popular culture and political culture” more broadly at UCLA, where she will pursue a Ph.D. in gender studies.
Thornton began pondering that relationship following the December 2013 release of the album Beyoncé, which she discussed with her housemates at the Intercultural House, the residential component of the Intercultural Resource Center. The IRC, which occupies two brownstones on West 114th Street and also offers a library and meeting space for student groups, promotes dialogue about diversity and social justice. Residents receive training meant to foster understanding of societal oppression. “It’s an intentional space for exploring questions about identity and it is a brownstone, so you get that homey feel,” says Thornton, who lived in the IRC beginning with her sophomore year.
In 2014, Thornton, who hails from Durham, N.C., received a King’s Crown Leadership Excellence Award for Civic Responsibility in recognition of her involvement with several student groups, including Columbia University Students Against Mass Incarceration, and Black History Month. Thornton also participated in rallies and protests with the Columbia University Black Students’ Organization and, as the group’s senior chair this past year, helped plan Black Graduation, one of several multicultural ceremonies organized by the Office of Multicultural Affairs. As a senior, she co-chaired the Black Family Tree, a component of OMA’s Columbia Mentoring Initiative, which pairs first-years with upperclassmen mentors of their own ethnicity.
Though at times Thornton found herself at odds with the administration as a result of her activist work on campus, she is proud of all of her undergraduate pursuits, which she says were fueled by a desire to make the black community at Columbia stronger. “When you are doing the right thing for the right reasons, you will get the results you want,” says Thornton. “My life and my trajectory have been helped by being brave and taking a stand. I’m leaving happy.”
Nathalie Alonso CC’08, from Queens, is a freelance journalist and an editorial producer for LasMayores.com, Major League Baseball’s official Spanish language website. She writes “Student Spotlight” for CCT.
This article was originally published in Columbia College Today.