Finding Home in a Foreign Land

By Nichole Owens ’94, Charles McKenzie, September 3, 2021
Reflections on the African-Latino Society.

TODAY, THEY ARE CALLED “students of color,” and their individual perspectives and cultural memories might be very different from one another. But still, they have for more than 50 years found comfort and inspiration in each other, bound together and even supported by whatever common threads ran through the fabric of their respective experiences. When their support network somehow fell short, they found hope and encouragement where they could. Sometimes, it even came to them like a care package from another time or place. 

In 1996, young Ithaca College administrator Dr. Jill Holmes- Robinson ’89 was conversing in the African-Latino Society room with someone who did not know her or her particular frustrations, but still, she recalled how this stranger “got it.” 

“She said, ‘Don’t cry. Just know you are here for a reason,’ and she gave me this big grandmother hug,” Holmes-Robinson remembered. 

The other woman was Maya Angelou, a towering figure in literature and civil rights, who three years later would deliver these words of inspiration at IC’s graduation: “Each of us has the possibility of being a composer, to compose the climate in which one lives,” Angelou said at the Commencement ceremony. “To indeed compose the neighborhood, to compose the melody of life, to compose the richness of it. To decide, ‘I will have a climate in which all men and women must be treated equal. I will compose that.’” 

For generations, IC’s students of color have composed their stories here, which in a very real way meant writing a new history for Ithaca College, one that included more students of color and their perspectives. If there was one place where that history took shape, it was likely the African-Latino Society (ALS), which provided students with the sense of home they found elusive at IC, where the food, culture, and curriculum did not reflect their identities. What they sought at IC they had to build—and many continue to build it today through ALS. 

“​​That was ‘our house’. If the ALS room could talk, just like an old oak tree, it would have so much to tell.”

Dr. Jill Holmes-Robinson ’89


The students’ backgrounds were diverse. Many were Black and Latinx—and the first in their families to attend college—while others came from wealthy, college-educated families. Some grew up in neighborhoods and schools where they were in the majority. Others had been among a handful of students of color in their predominantly white schools and communities. Once here at IC, they learned from one another’s perspectives and they fought together, and sometimes they even fought each other, as their visions collided. Some were seeking to overturn the entire system at once, while others sought to push for change incrementally, from within. 

“People would come to the ALS room when they were feeling the most distant from their families and from what they knew, just to get back to a sense of belonging, a place and space where you could reclaim yourself and be unilaterally accepted.” 

Traci Hughes ’85.

No matter where they came from or where they wanted to go, all of these tributaries came together in the ALS room. ALS was originally called the Afro Latin Society by its founders, including the late Louis Baldwin ‘70. Chartered in 1969, it’s the second-oldest campus organization, behind the Student Governance Council. The dean of students, John Brown, gave ALS its iconic space in West Tower, but students quickly made it their own— part sanctuary and part war room. Ever since, they have gone there to study and to play, to seek comfort and to organize, to relax and to be inspired, to sooth and to stir. They see it now as less of a room than a monument, a place where the hallowed, mural-covered walls still echo their cries, whether they were filled with rage because of where they’d been, joy because of how far they’d come, or resolve for where they wanted to go. 

“That was ‘our house,’” said Holmes-Robinson. “Just like an old oak tree, if the ALS room could talk, it would have so much to tell. It would talk about the hue and beauty of students who sat there, the discussions had, the family atmosphere.” 


“People would come to the ALS room when they were feeling the most distant from their families and from what they knew, just to get back to a sense of belonging, a place and space where you could reclaim yourself and be unilaterally accepted,” said Traci Hughes ’85

“The biggest culture shock for many first-generation students of color from metropolitan areas was Ithaca itself. It definitely wasn’t a big city, 24/7 kind of vibe, so... we found so much community in a group that was very much us,” added Hughes. 

Ultimately though, it didn’t matter where the students came from. 

“It mattered that you had a shared experience of being a student of color at a predominantly white institution and needing a place to feel like yourself without explanation, without apology, without retribution,” she said. “You could always find it in ALS and specifically in the ALS room.” 

A first-generation college student from Jamaica, West Indies, Carlos Perkins ’99 saw it as “a place of respite…where we went and collectively built energies and determination to be able to deal with what was outside. It was a place where we cried together, and we argued. It felt like our space.” 

A decade apart, Perkins and Hughes both served as the spokesperson of ALS. While other student groups are often headed by a “president,” ALS is led by a “spokesperson” because the organization wants to emphasize the collective power of the members’ voices rather than the power of the position or of a lone person. 

For many members, the support they found in ALS was a substitute family, a stand-in for their relatives back home. For others though, ALS was the closest thing they had to a family: home, holidays, and all. The room was the hub from which ALS ran cultural events during Hispanic Heritage Month, Black History Month, and Women’s History Month, and where it planned popular social gatherings. Basketball tournaments, fashion shows, and a minority Professionals Symposium brought alumni back to campus to give students advice and insight into various career paths. 

And any time speakers like Angelou came to campus, they would be welcomed to the ALS room. Figures like comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, poet Nikki Giovanni, tennis legend Arthur Ashe, and musical artists like Chuck D of Public Enemy and Sister Souljah came there to meet with students of color. 

“They would often ask us students in parental compassionate tones how we were ‘holding up’ at IC—knowing themselves as Black and brown activists and famous persons, but still living in white America, the similar difficulties of navigating as a minority in a predominant culture,” Holmes- Robinson said. “It’s a safe place for fellowship but also a student think-tank for social justice. It’s historically been charged with holding the institution accountable.” 


The ALS room was a launchpad for student activism and the helm for protests that called for justice, not just at the college but in the state, and even abroad. 

Under Hughes, ALS organized protests that supported Nelson Mandela and opposed IC investments in companies that supported South African apartheid. ALS has also pushed for more diverse faculty. At times, they made suggestions to the administration, and other times, they made demands, sometimes even in person, delivered across the president’s desk. They even called the president to their own turf, stipulating that one particular meeting had to be held in the ALS room. 

“Nobody gives you permission at 20-something years old to organize people or to lead people, and nobody tells you that you’ve still got to do your work, you’ve still got to get your finals in,” Hughes said. “This ability to lead others was a voice that I found at IC. And it was because of ALS and having that need to try to give the administration that perspective of, ‘We are here. We are not content to just be ignored. Can we meet? Can we talk?’ that was so important.” 

“​​The decision to lead the protest, the decision to become student body president, those decisions came out of that [ALS] room. There was so much beauty in that room, in those ideas, many of which have helped me become the leader I am today.”

Rashaand Sass ’97

As spokesperson in 1995–96, Rashaand Sass ’97 led a protest of Black and white students against the state’s proposed defunding of the New York State Higher Education Opportunity Program. Though the cuts were at the state level, IC’s then-president James J. Whalen bore the brunt of the outcry. 

“The administration wasn’t saying clearly what they were going to do to preserve the funding for a lot of students like myself. There was real concern...with so many students of color facing that uncertainty,” Sass remembered. “We had heard about the protests prior to us coming to IC in the ’70s and the ’80s, and for us, we felt like that was a way for us to just let everyone know what was important to us. Getting quoted in The Ithacan wasn’t enough. Having opportunities to talk to the Board of Trustees wasn’t enough.” 

So they raised the stakes, if not their voices. 

“Ultimately, our silent protest was the reason President Whalen sat down with us to hear how this issue was impacting the community of color and how the college’s position did not demonstrate Ithaca’s ‘commitment to excellence.’ The goal was to make this issue less about race and more about diversity being critical to the fabric of our school, and we were not going to entertain the idea of a future without a diverse student body.” 

Perkins also remembered asking the college to open the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity, and leading a protest when administrators refused to hear the proposal. 

“Ithaca taught me how to protest,” he said. “Social justice was planted into our blood. A group of us in the African-Latino Society, under my leadership, walked in and just sat in the middle of the room at a Board of Trustees meeting and demanded that they give attention to the center. When we went back in 2019 for our 20th class reunion, they were celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity.” 


Ultimately, Sass, who even lobbied in Albany for the HEOP, helped save it, and the next year Sass became president of IC’s Student Government Association (SGA). 

“The decision to lead the protest, the decision to become student body president, those decisions came out of that [ALS] room. There was so much beauty in that room, in those ideas, many of which have helped me become the leader I am today,” said Sass, who is now the principal of KIPP DC KEY Academy in Washington, D.C. 

The experience was a training ground and a place where leaders honed or even found their voices. Some took their leadership skills abroad. After rising to vice president of human resources for Colgate-Palmolive’s Africa Middle East Division, Hughes led human resources for their Latin America Division and then Europe Division. She now lives in Switzerland. 

Others returned to Ithaca. Holmes-Robinson finished graduate school and returned to IC to become the program counselor for HEOP, helping students navigate being students of color at a predominantly white institution, and eventually became the ALS advisor. She went on to become director of educational opportunity programs at IC before moving on to the University of Virginia, where she earned her doctorate and worked in the financial aid office. She later became director of the Women’s Center at Georgetown University. 

Carlos Perkins also returned to IC. He became the director of IC’s Office of Multicultural Affairs, which preceded the current Center for IDEAS (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Social Change). Today, he is the senior pastor of Bethel Cathedral AME Church, the oldest African American congregation in Indianapolis. 


All of the ALS leaders from the past are still part of the ALS story, either through their legacy or through their continued involvement. To assist current students of color, alumni formed the African-Latino Society Alumni Advisory Board. Holmes-Robinson says she hopes ALS continues to offer the signature voice of Black/African American and Latinx students and alumni as they help compose the story of the changing college. 

When ALS celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2019, much had changed at IC. The college’s ninth president, Shirley M. Collado, was the first person of color to serve as president of IC, and the first Dominican woman to serve as president of a four-year college in the U.S. Within the student body, the population of students of color surpassed 20 percent for the first time ever. 

Yet so many challenges from the past remain: despite the increased numbers in their ranks, students of color still express feelings of not being fully seen—on campus, in the number of staff and faculty, and in the curriculum. Like its past, the future of ALS is already written on the walls of their beloved room, members say. Its mural (see the next page) includes the title of an anthem almost as old as the organization, “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.” The lyrics still bring a smile to Holmes-Robinson. 

A Room with a View: Inspiring Generations

By Nichole Owens ‘94 

On South Hill, on the first floor of the West Tower, tucked into a little corner is a room, a room you might pass unaware if you didn’t know to look for it. But inside this room are hallowed walls, walls that have heard and borne witness to the hopes, dreams, secrets, frustrations, and plans of generations of IC alumni of color. 

And it’s not just what has happened inside these walls over the years, but also what is on the walls that matters. Painted in black, against a pea-green background, and spanning the circumference of the entire wall is a journey-on-acrylic of people from the African Diaspora—from the Egyptian pyramids on the African continent through the Middle Passage, to the Civil War and Reconstruction, to the Civil Rights Movement— celebrations of our collective success in sports, in academia, in the arts, in surviving. 

This mural, this ALS mural, was the brainchild of Nicholas Moore ’80, a recreation major. Moore was a rising senior working as a peer counselor when he got the idea for the mural in the summer of 1979. 

“I went to downtown Ithaca and got some paint and told my friend, who was also a peer counselor, ‘I’m gonna paint the wall.’ I bought some acrylic paint, which I knew would last a long time,” said Moore. “I wanted to be sure we had the African American, Caribbean, and Latino experience captured. I spent every night and every morning painting the mural.” 

It took him four months to do it. 

“Ithaca at that time had about 5,000 students, and out of those, 150 to 160 were Black and brown folks. We had a very close-knit community. On weekends, we’d have our families come up and the food that people served—rice and peas, codfish—I wanted to capture that,” said Moore. 

“Before the mural existed, the ALS room was there. The ALS room was, and still is, for everybody I know, a safe place from anxiety,” Moore said. “When I first went to IC, there were a lot of the same protests [about social justice issues] that we have today—IC divesting from South Africa, free Nelson Mandela, the war on drugs, Reagan, Bush. The ALS room represented that place where we could be safe. People could come here and be at peace with people who looked like them, talked like them. 

“As long as that building stands, I hope that there will be a way to memorialize what’s on that wall,” said Moore. “The legacy of ALS and the mural can be preserved together—all the lives of everybody who ever walked through that door. The wall is more alive today than when I painted it 40 years ago.”