The motto of the Black Student Union is “unity through education.”
For some, those three words are just that, but for John Blanding, president of BSU, this has become a way of life.
Blanding, a Birmingham native, originally came to Auburn to study international business, seeking a career in corporate law. However, his experiences at Auburn and with BSU have led to a new goal of higher education administration.
As is the case for many high school students, Blanding had a period of adjustment when coming to college.
Blanding attended Jefferson County International Baccalaureate, where he was able to personally know all of the 63 students he graduated with, which was not the case when he came to Auburn.
“When I got here, I was shocked to see 28,000 students on a campus,” Blanding said. “I can remember calling my mom saying, ‘Hey, I don’t know if I necessarily want to be here,’ just because I came here by myself. I didn’t know anybody, I just went to class, and then I went back home. My Auburn experience was not what it is now.”
After not initially having a place to go to feel comfortable with people he could relate to, Blanding was able to find a balance between comfort and branching out through BSU.
“BSU is really where I found my family, where I found my purpose here on campus, and from there, I was able to venture out into different organizations and meet new people,” Blanding said.
Today, Blanding believes it’s important to have friend groups and spaces where you feel comfortable, but it is also important to branch out and experience new things to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Blanding joined BSU on a whim during the second semester of freshman year. He started as publicity chair before becoming executive vice president. He then was elected president and has been serving for the past year.
Blanding said his involvement with BSU was a major factor in his recent decision to change career paths.
“I decided I was more passionate about advocating for groups and being able to promote inclusion and diversity on different campuses,” Blanding said. “I think it’s kind of cool because I’ll be able to be like BSU president as a career.”
He said growing up with both parents being educators, allocation of resources in areas like education inequality has been an issue that has always struck a nerve with him, which is where he wants to make his impact.
“I really want to uncover a way for us to remedy the
Taffye Benson Clayton, associate provost and vice president for the Office of Inclusion and Diversity, has become like a second mom for Blanding. She has been an example for Blanding of how education parlays into diversity and inclusion.
“We’re living in a globalized world,” Blanding said. “We’re in an age where people are different, and we have to learn to accept those differences in everyday life. In every aspect of our daily lives, we’re affected by diversity and inclusion.”
Blanding said one of the biggest lessons he’s learned is to not get mad about the way other people view the world. He said the key to any of these issues is education.
“Not everybody knows what a micro-aggression is,” Blanding said. “Not everybody knows that something they say may perpetuate racism. It’s all about the way we were raised and the backgrounds and the groups we’ve dealt with.”
Blanding does not think people should forget about color, but rather people should celebrate it, especially during Black History Month.
“I definitely think that race plays a large role in the way that we think and the way that the world operates,” Blanding said. “It’s going to be something that’s difficult to ignore. It’s like running through a maze. Instead of trying to get around it, use it as a platform for something greater.”
BSU’s theme for Black History Month is “Creating a Conversation in Color.”
Black History Month is one of Blanding’s favorite times of the year.
He sees the month as not only a way to observe the achievements of African-Americans but to also celebrate inclusion and diversity.
BSU hosted Opal Tometi, one of the founders of Black Lives Matter, as part of BSU’s many events during Black History Month. BSU is focusing the month on
Blanding said he wants people to realize BSU is not just for black students.
“Numbers are great,” Blanding said. “We would love to have increased retention for students of color, but at the end of the day, it’s about the quality of students that we have here. I think Auburn is taking great strides in that respect.”
Blanding said the biggest change he has seen in his time with BSU is the expansion of the organization. He said he was amazed at a meeting last year when more white students were at a meeting than black students.
“We consider BSU a safe space,” Blanding said. “So, any and everybody can come and tell their story. We may say we don’t agree with it, but we’re not going to invalidate your experience or your story.”
As a senior, Blanding is in the final months of his time as BSU president.
“I’m a crier,” Blanding said. “I cried when I transitioned [into office], I cried when our last vice president left, I cried when the old president left. So, I know I’m going to be a mess when I’m done.”
Finishing out his term as president is a bittersweet thought for Blanding.
He greatly appreciates the influence that BSU has made on his life and looks forward to trying to bring the BSU motto into his new career path.