Dana Stevenson Lang MBA ’77 is a proud Cal alumna, but her pride doesn’t stem from experiences like going to football games and studying at coffee shops around the UC Berkeley campus. In fact, just a few years ago, Dana’s memory of Cal was far less rosy than it is now.
Dana grew up in East Palo Alto, but didn’t attend Cal (or Stanford) for her bachelor’s degree. As a first-generation college student, she thought she could most effectively “break down barriers,” as she puts it, by going to an East Coast Ivy League school and working hard. Dana studied economics at Wellesley, a small, women’s college where she found her instructors and peers largely helpful and encouraging.
After finishing her bachelor’s degree, Dana applied to business school. She was accepted both at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and Berkeley Haas, and ultimately chose to return home to the Bay Area to attend Haas. At Cal, however, Dana’s experience was not at all what she expected. It wasn’t the workload, or the intensity of the space, but the environment and the people.
“Cal’s student body was huge compared to Wellesley. It was a very overwhelming space,” Dana begins. “It was also the ’70s. We were coming out of the Civil Rights Era, and people could say and do things they wouldn’t say or do today.
“At Cal, when I had questions,” she continues, “I often felt that instructors questioned me and my abilities. Whether it was because I was a woman, or because I was Black, I can’t be sure, but I had no support or sense of self-esteem from Cal.
“People would say to me, ‘Your people don’t do well here. You may not make it to graduation.’”
Dana wasn’t alone in feeling excluded on the Berkeley campus. Fellow African American students—like the man who would eventually become her husband—had similarly negative experiences at Cal and stories of how people said to them, “Your people don’t belong here.”
In Dana’s second year, she managed to connect with other students, forming study groups and partnerships which helped with her academic workload. But up through graduation, she didn’t feel welcomed at Cal.
“I felt good about getting the degree that I did, but I didn’t feel good about the attitudes I met while I was there,” she recalls. “Then I went to work, and I was surrounded by so many people who uplifted me and encouraged me.” The differences between Cal’s academic setting and Dana’s new workspace were like night and day.
For years, Dana kept her distance from Cal. Then, two years ago, she received an invitation to be a part of selections for a scholarship offered to African American students at Berkeley. The African American Initiative Scholarship is funded by the San Francisco Foundation and administered by the Cal Alumni Association. The scholarship supports UC Berkeley’s campus-wide initiative to increase recruitment and enrollment, improve campus climate, and create a welcoming environment at Berkeley for African American students.
Alumni, including Dana, were invited to interview scholarship applicants. Dana says she participated in the selection process despite her own memories of Cal. “I had such a negative experience trying to get through [Berkeley], I wanted to make sure no one had my experience again,” she explains.
Dana is a recent retiree who continues to work as a business consultant and remains active in her community by serving on the boards of nonprofit organizations and a charter school, but formerly enjoyed a long career in the public transportation industry. Over time, Dana became involved in the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials (COMTO), an organization that advocates for inclusion and opportunity in transportation. Through COMTO, she participated in mentorship and internship programs for college students, as well as scholarship programs serving students pursuing careers in transportation. Channeling this energy toward the African American Initiative Scholarship at Berkeley wasn’t too far a step away.
“As an alum, it is refreshing and healing—liberating, actually—to see a new day, a new message to African American students, and to all of us.”
After interviewing students, Dana’s perspective began to shift dramatically. “As an alum, it is refreshing and healing—liberating, actually—to see a new day, a new message to African American students, and to all of us,” Dana shares. “When I told one of the students that assisted in the interviews how much I appreciated her presence, she responded with, ‘Yes, but I am standing on your shoulders.’”
It was a statement that made Dana cry. “I will keep that message in my heart.”
Dana connects this moment with a memory she has of a reception hosted by the Cal Alumni Association and the Black Alumni Chapter for African American alumni and students in 2016. There, she remembers UC President Janet Napolitano saying to the students, “You will do very well here. You belong here. We are so proud that you chose Cal.”
“That was the first warm and fuzzy moment I felt for Cal,” Dana recalls.
As Dana listened to prospective and current students share their stories of Cal, she heard them recount experiences that were different from her own. She believes that a Berkeley education, with the support of programs like the African American Initiative, can instill students with confidence that they can be their best. Dana also believes that Berkeley can encourage students with spaces of people who look like and support them.
“It makes a huge difference to students,” Dana says. “The African American Initiative program really understands how to address a need that is critical in the lives of these students, and it’s thrilling to help provide this safety net to students, to support and encourage the students who are working so hard to support and encourage others themselves.”
This fall, twelve incoming students will join twenty-six continuing recipients of the African American Initiative Scholarship for the 2019–2020 academic year. Recipients of the scholarship are granted $8,000 annually for up to five years of undergraduate study, or a maximum of $40,000. For students, the African American Initiative Scholarship is intended to demonstrate UC Berkeley’s commitment to their success at Cal.
At Berkeley, work continues to be done on behalf of African American students, and Dana believes that the university is moving in the right direction with this initiative. “We don’t appreciate how critical it is to feel good about yourself,” Dana shares. “If you don’t feel good about yourself, you’re not going to have the confidence to do your best work. It may seem like a small thing to have fun in community with a certain group, but it can be the difference between someone feeling that they are destined to fail or feeling good and doing their best work.”
by Courtney Cheng ’16
Posted on July 1, 2019 - 7:00am