Education, Opportunity Means Everything to BSRC's Ashley Barton

Education, Opportunity Means Everything to BSRC's Ashley Barton

Being from Los Angeles, namely the South Central L.A. area, seems like a natural place to start a conversation with Ashley Barton. To set the record straight, that is.

A native of Jefferson Park in South Los Angeles, the latter being an area glamorized in Hollywood films, music and culture for its portrayal of gang activity, violence and more, Barton smiles when she’s asked about its effect on her life.

“That’s the part of the misunderstood reality of what it’s like to grow up in an urban neighborhood. You watch movies like Boyz in the Hood and I’m like, ‘where is this happening? I grew up in the ‘hood,’ but I was never exposed to the lifestyle that’s typically portrayed. Growing up in South Central L.A. is not what you think it was. I was not a poor little black girl who made it out of the concrete jungle, crawled out and flourished. … I lived in a neighborhood full of houses and there was a library and park a block from my house. But the portrayal of black people in the media will tell you a story of danger, violence and negativity, and that’s not everyone’s story.”

Barton, the only child of parents from Guatemala, was raised with a great value for education very early on. It’s a privilege Barton, who has served as the director of Black Student Resource Commons at the University of San Diego the last five years, cherishes, but it also lit her passion for change.

“As an only child, my mom was greatly invested in me,” Barton recalls. “She was able to give me all of the educational toys and videos and was really attentive to my schooling. We picked really good schools on purpose, so when that happens, you have more opportunity for a quality education.”

Attending King Drew Magnet High School of Medicine and Science, which was located across from the King Drew Hospital where her mother had taken a job six months before Barton started, marked a first for her.

“King Drew was a very black school, two blocks from Compton. It exposed me to a lot of black people at one time,” she says. “My elementary and middle school experiences had been with a lot of Latino students, a few black students, but I was the only black student in my classes most of the time.”

Following those experiences, Barton’s world took another turn when she went to UCLA for the first of two degrees she earned there — a bachelor’s in sociology in 2006 and then a master’s in student affairs in 2008.

“I get to UCLA and there are a lot of white students and Asians. I thought to myself, I know so many black kids who could have come here, would have been perfect for this school, but why aren’t they here? I think that’s what really, initially, charged my activism for black students to have the opportunity for higher education. What’s going on? What’s going on within the system that they can’t come here?”

Questioning it led her to action.

“It sparked this action for working with black communities, being an ally, not one of the mechanisms in which we could make changes for black students and the black community. My parents were not born in the United States so I always kind of felt like an outsider, as far as me being the right type of black. But college really helped me see there was no type of black, that no one could define blackness for me. Just because my parents were not born in the U.S. didn’t mean I wasn’t black enough for black people.”

Her college experience shaped her self-identity and it made her realize that this was something she would want to do for a career. “I wish more black students had the opportunity to figure themselves out the same as I had the chance to do.”

Barton’s graduate degree at UCLA and a 2013 doctoral degree, an EdD at USC in higher education administration, focused on the black student experience. She admits there was initial doubt. “I wondered if I’d be marketable if I did a dissertation on the lack of black students when it already wasn’t a large student population. I wanted a job, but that was the population I wanted to work with and I felt it would be a great opportunity to learn.”

It was. She was inspired by Shaun Harper’s work about successful black students and it was the first time she said she’d read something about black students from an anti-deficit perspective. ‘It was about black students being successful. I didn’t want to look at why do black students fail to make it in college. I wanted to look at why they were successful and apply myself to that work.”

Her work was solid and in the job market it paid off about a month after she graduated from USC. She applied for the opening to become the inaugural director of USD’s Black Students Resource Center (now known as the Black Students Resource Commons).

Her first day, Dec. 2, 2013, was a day she said she felt optimism and uncertainty at the same time. Being a new entity on campus — situated on the ground level of the Hahn University Center — a grand opening meet and greet took place. But it was a change that took time for all students to acclimate themselves. The Black Student Union was accustomed to being the organization to serve USD's black community. It was new ground for Barton, too, in terms of marketing the space and what it would be for students.

In essence, though, that might have been the best thing for Barton. She could build a foundation, create a USD tradition by bringing black students into the space, offer them support that sparked her questions while she was in college and to deliver on it.

Shortly after she started, Barton was introduced in a web Q&A article. Asked what was the space’s greatest need, she replied: “The greatest need I see the BSRC fulfilling is providing a place that individuals in the black student community can call home. Here, we provide many of the traditional services students can find on campus, but we focus on the needs and interest of black students and give them a personal touch that allows them to connect, to be more interested, and to be engaged in their college experience.”

She was also asked what the USD campus community can do to assist the BSRC toward acheiving its mission. “The campus community can support the BSRC by consciously programming and planning events to include the needs of black students. At times, some black students feel a lack of inclusiveness because of the limited cultural relevancy in campus-wide events. Creating opportunities for students to feel more a part of the campus can only enhance the work of the BSRC.”

Five years later, Barton’s work continues. This past summer, the BSRC moved from its inaugural location to the fourth floor of the Student Life Pavilion. A physical change is an adjustment, but Barton says the mission of the BSRC — retention of black students and community building — remain the same.

“The biggest success the BSRC has made is that we’ve been able to support black student retention at USD, not just by existing, but by having specific programming, events and services that enhance the black student experience,” Barton says. “When I hear students say they would have left if it wasn’t for the BSRC, then we are adding another component to creating a more inclusive, supportive space for our black students.”

Perhaps the greatest visual is coming in May 2019 at the annual recognition ceremony for all graduating black undergraduate, graduate, doctoral and law students. The location of this year’s event is expected to move from the 288-seat Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice Theatre to the 600-seat Shiley Theatre. Sure, this decision will accommodate more friends and family members who want to celebrate this joyous event, but also it shows the importance of receiving a college education at a place where black students truly do belong.

— Ryan T. Blystone

Ashley Barton, director of the Black Student Resource Commons for five years, strives to increase educational opportunities for black students to excel at the University of San Diego.Ashley Barton, director of the Black Student Resource Commons for five years, strives to increase educational opportunities for black students to excel at the University of San Diego.

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