Will Hehemann | School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences
When Haley Grice, originally from Alberta, Canada, began her studies at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB), she was not aware of its designation as a historically black university (HBCU). At the time, she was simply excited to start her studies at what she found to be the most promising university to pursue a collegiate career in volleyball. After graduating in May 2020 with a degree in industrial management and applied engineering, Grice has recently reflected on how attending a historically black land-grant institution changed her life.
In June 2020, she published a Facebook post in response to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, as well as other tragic encounters involving African Americans and the police. She mentioned some of the ways her perceptions of race changed as a result of attending UAPB. In her post, Grice wrote:
“Not that my opinion matters or will change anyone else’s opinion, I’ve just had a heavy heart. For the past four years, I’ve attended an HBCU … When I arrived, I was totally unprepared for how much I would have to learn. I would have to learn that there are people afraid of me or uncomfortable around me because of my skin color. I would have to learn that not everybody has the same opportunities that I do … Attending an HBCU changed my life. I was bullied nearly every day of my life until I got to UAPB. But they accepted me. They taught me unity. They taught me that your differences make you beautiful and unique. They taught me to have confidence and to express myself … Some of my best friends, teammates, coaches, classmates, teachers, janitors, administrators, neighbors and the kindest strangers I’ve met are black, and I can’t imagine the devastation of losing one of their precious lives because of the color of their skin. It breaks my heart that they have to put their lives in the hands of a broken system just to have their voices heard. So, my dear friends, please be safe, be loud, and know that I love you, I support you, I stand with you, and I pray for you.”
In the post, Grice mentioned the heartbreak she felt when classmates and teammates at UAPB reacted to the killings of unarmed black people and would say, “That could have been me.” She heard others express that they should not have to fear for their lives on their own property.
She added, “Don’t tell me you think rioting and protesting are unnecessary. Peaceful demonstrations have been happening for years and men still can’t breathe. Don’t tell me, ‘All lives matter,’ because I already know all lives matter and have purpose – as should the justice system. I believe Jesus is the only one that can change the hearts of the racists and mend the hearts of the oppressed.”
Grice’s journey to UAPB began after she attended a volleyball scouting camp in a small town in Saskatchewan, Canada during her senior year of high school. She received scholarship offers from 14 institutions including Rutgers University, William and Mary, Gonzaga University and the University of Montana. Though she had her sights set on a program near Seattle, Washington, Grice was contacted by Dustin Sahlmann, the head coach of the UAPB volleyball program at the time. After experiencing difficulties with other programs, she took the good offer she received as a sign that God had a plan for her in Arkansas.
“When I finally decided to attend UAPB, I didn’t do a ton of research because I was already very excited,” she said. “I read UAPB’s vision, which solidified my decision to come. When I arrived, I absolutely loved the UAPB campus. I was instantly drawn to the beautiful red brick of the buildings, the tall, beautiful trees and the history of the school.”
At the start of her freshman year, Grice noticed classmates wearing shirts that touted their HBCU pride. She quickly realized the satisfaction they took in choosing to study at an HBCU, UAPB in particular.
“I could always ask my classmates honest questions and receive educational answers,” she said. “I learned that attending an HBCU was often the first time many of my black classmates and friends had ever experienced being the majority population at a school. And for many, UAPB was the first place they ever had a black teacher. UAPB was a place they could feel comfortable and accepted for who they were and express themselves with little to no judgement.”
Grice said she was struck by the unity of the student body and the general acceptance of others on the part of students and faculty/staff. She also experienced a culture shock and learning curve related to race.
During biology class in her sophomore year, Grice was assigned to work on a group project with a black classmate who complemented her on how nice she was but admitted to being nervous and hesitant during their first interactions. A little confused, Grice assumed her classmate thought she might look grumpy or impatient. The classmate denied Grice’s assumptions and explained her initial misgivings were because Grice was white.
“In that moment I was completely confused – I had never been in a situation where my skin color made people uncomfortable or nervous,” she said. “We ended up having a super honest conversation about race where I learned more about racism than I ever had in a class. My classmate said, ‘I can’t tell just by looking at a white person if they’re racist.’”
From that day on, Grice worked on changing her mindset and behavior. She realized she needed to set herself apart from the racist culture her friends and classmates were used to and to be kind, loving and accepting and to be a good listener. Whereas in the past, she might have rushed to class and given others the impression she was in a bad mood, Grice made a point to smile at the strangers she passed.
During another candid conversation with a close friend, Grice said she did not understand racism. She explained that she did not “see” color in terms of race – that skin color should not be a deterrent of friendship.
“My friend gently replied, ‘But I want you to see my color,’” Grice said. “I was confused until he said something like, ‘My skin color shouldn’t change our friendship status, but I want you to see my color and feel the same pride I do. My ancestors had to fight for freedom and my rights, and I want you to see what I’ve been through and be proud of what I’ve accomplished despite the challenges and struggles.’”
Following that honest conversation, Grice started to change her outlook, acknowledging people’s differences while being proud of them for their accomplishments at the same time. She felt the need to open her heart to all people – regardless of skin color, age, sexuality or physical characteristics – and make the effort to understand and support them.
Grice said her education at UAPB made her realize it was time to take a personal stand against a culture of pervasive racism. She said UAPB allowed her the perfect space to grow, educate herself and ask questions pertaining to race that she initially felt were awkward or uncomfortable.
“As a person, you have the choice to allow racism to exist around you or counter it with love,” she said. “Love should never be limited to one gender, one race, one age, one ethnicity or one culture. As God’s people, we are called to love our neighbors always. Not when we feel like it, not when it benefits us, not only when things look bleak, not just when things are going well – but always.”
During her education, Grice also learned about the historical and systemic injustices that African Americans face.
“So many of my friends have told me their horror stories of missed opportunities simply because they were black, and it breaks my heart every time,” she said. “I don’t have many needs or wants, but I’ve never been limited by biased systematic rules that make it harder for me to get what I want or need.”
Grice said is it important for those who are not aware of historical injustices and oppression to work to inform themselves. There is no excuse for being uninformed in this day and age, when information is readily accessible via the internet.
“If you want to inform yourself on the historical injustices faced by any person on color, talk to someone who has lived it,” she said. “Read historical documents via the internet or at your local library. Ask the awkward questions with an open mind that is ready to learn – not react.”
Grice credits her education at UAPB with giving her the opportunity to express herself without fear of ridicule or rejection for the first time, teaching her how to learn on her own, developing the habit of asking for help when necessary and instilling a thoughtful problem-solving process.
During her studies, Grice faced some challenges including homesickness. In retrospect, she sees these challenges as part of what made her the woman she is today. She says she would not change anything about her experience at UAPB.
“The way I see it, God used UAPB as a greenhouse for me,” she said. “I was able to grow and educate myself in a safe space. I was able to experience heartache, hardships and loss in a growing environment. I was able to make decisions on my own without changing my entire direction in life. Although I did encounter negative, experience-altering situations too, they prepared me for the elements I’ll face in the real world. I love my HBCU and I’m thankful for the personal growth, education and overall experience.”
Oma Fukui, project program specialist and designated school official for the UAPB Office of International Programs and Studies (OIPS), said Grice’s impassioned Facebook post put a lump in her throat and made her think of her homeland, the island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. She said she grew up in a culturally-diverse environment that encouraged equality and solidarity between people of different ethnic backgrounds. She said she passed Haley’s story on to others because it speaks to the difference OIPS makes at UAPB by promoting diversity within the student body.
“I live by a few lines from my country’s anthem: ‘Side by side we stand, here every creed and race finds an equal place, and may God bless our nation,’” Fukui said. “Everyone deserves to be encouraged and have a chance to live their visions. Prejudice, racism and discrimination are not why we were put on earth to live. With all the protesting going on in the U.S. at the moment, I hope and pray that it will end soon with the favorable change we all desire achieved.”
The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff offers all its Extension and Research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.