Dagmawi Mamo transferred to JMU from Northern Virginia Community College in 2019, excited to pursue a major in biology. However, he said he realized that reality wasn’t the same as what was depicted on university brochures.
“As soon as I started going to my classes, there was a very glaring disparity when it came to the numbers of students of color compared to white students,” Mamo said. “I almost felt like I got misled by false advertising.”
It was during a meeting with biology professor Rocky Parker, Mamo said, that he first brought up this issue. Parker then connected him with department head Casonya Johnson, who suggested creating an organization for biology students of color. After discussing the club with Johnson and another student, Mamo said they decided to put things in motion.
Mamo said he waited outside of his biology classes to ask students of color if they’d be interested in joining the organization. As the club began to gain members in the spring, Mamo said he wanted it to be officially recognized, but they missed the deadline by a couple weeks. So he and other founding members met virtually nearly every week over the summer to build a solid foundation for the fall semester.
Now a fully recognized and running organization, Biology Students of Color has about 40 members following its interest meeting last week. Mamo, senior and president of the club, said faculty and other clubs for students of color have helped spread the word about BIOSOC, which has helped build membership. He said the enthusiasm and number of responses to the organization’s interest forms were encouraging and exciting to see.
“That kind of showed to us that this wasn’t just a random thought that came to us,” Mamo said. “It was a need that other students were looking for.”
Mamo said BIOSOC’s mission is to support students of color in the biology department by providing them with resources to “better gear them for success.” He said the first half of club meetings will be a workshop where members are provided with research and internship opportunities. This half may also have career exploration activities or guest speaker presentations. Founding member and co-chair of events Alexis Alexander said she’s excited to come up with activities and help create an inclusive space for people of color in biology.
“From personal experience, we have seen that there’s not much representation of people of color in the STEM field,” Alexander said. “We want to make sure that people of color at JMU understand that we’re here for them.”
The second half of meetings, Mamo said, will focus on bonding with one another and having discussions about what was presented in the first half. He said this will help build a stronger community for biology students of color.
In addition to preparing for the fall semester, the founding members of BIOSOC crafted a statement in response to the murder of George Floyd and other Black individuals who were victims of police brutality over the summer. They sent this letter to the university, and Mamo said this created recognition for their club by JMU administration and faculty before BIOSOC was considered official. Johnson said this transformed the organization’s mission to include anti-racism, which she said is important in establishing a community for students of color.
“Giving those students the support they need includes anti-racism, anti-violence, and inclusive learning and an inclusive environment all the way around,” Johnson said. “Something beyond words — something that’s actually substantive that they can feel they’re going for.”
Though many of the founding members are seniors, Johnson said they’re thoughtful of the needs of future freshman classes and that they want to create an organization that’ll help students all four years. Alexander said she hopes BIOSOC will continue to grow both at JMU and elsewhere. What they accomplish, she said, may help their mission become more widespread.
“Hopefully we’ll inspire other colleges to do the same thing that we’re doing,” Alexander said.
BIOSOC plans to meet on the first and third Wednesdays of every month over Zoom. Its first meeting was held on Oct. 7.
“It’s an incredible honor and something that brings me so much joy,” Mamo said. “This, to me, feels like making my mark at JMU.”