Staff Q&A/Karlene Burrell-McRae

Photo credit: Mark Stehle

In Swahili, a language popular in east Africa, Makuu means “home” or “headquarters.”

Staying true to its namesake, Makuu, Penn's Black Cultural Center, provides a headquarters for students of African or Caribbean descent—a place they can call home.

Karlene Burrell-McRae, Makuu’s founding and current director, says one of the organization’s many functions is to “create a space for students to be able to come and be who they are.” The center, founded in 2000, advises nearly 30 student organizations who work to promote black life and black culture.

At 3601 Locust Walk, Makuu shares the Arts, Research and Culture House with the Pan-Asian American Community House and La Casa Latina, the Center for Hispanic Excellence.

Burrell-McRae, who has two master’s degrees from Penn and is working towards her doctorate, says people often accuse the ethnic heritage centers of pampering students.

But that is simply not the case, she says.

“I think we don’t get the respect that we deserve,” she says. “I really think we help create a healthy student so that they can produce well academically.”

Makuu recently invited the Current into its home to discuss the organization and black life at Penn.

Q. What sorts of support does Makuu offer to Penn’s black students?
Makuu allows students to think of Penn in a very small way. It’s a huge institution so we try to offer them ways to be able to access resources a little bit easier. We advise the student groups to be able to work collaboratively with each other, to be able to extend themselves outside of the black community. ... Then there are students who are interested in learning more about what it means to be black on campus, what are the black experiences, as complicated as they are, out there in the world. We sometimes put on programming that all kinds of students from the community can come and participate in those kinds of discussions and engagements.

Q. Is there a common piece of advice you give to new students?
I try to remind them that no matter how they got here, they deserve to be here and they need to be proud of that. I also try to remind them that asking for help is a strength, not a weakness. Penn is such a competitive place and so often students don’t want to share when they are struggling. It’s not until it’s too late that they recognize that so many other people have gone through what they’re going through. And ask for help early, don’t wait until you’re almost flunking out because I think people think much greater of you and I think it represents you thinking a lot of yourself when you’re willing to ask for help early.

Q. Out of nearly 10,000 undergraduates, Penn has around 700 black students. Do you think the University is doing enough to reach out to black students?
I don’t think they’re doing a bad job but what I’d like to see them do more of—and I think they’re starting to do this a lot better—is start working with different organizations to create pipeline programs. So much of the research says that if a kid isn’t on a path to college by seventh to ninth grade, something dramatic has to change for them to get to that point. And so the responsibility of schools that are as famous and wealthy as Penn is to really help with the pipeline programs.

Q. Do you think Penn can still be a challenging place for minority students?
There are many, many allies at a place like Penn but I think we can’t be delusional and think that there are not people who have very negative stereotypes of people of varying hues. People would like to think that because we have a black President, that’s not the case, but it still is. And a lot of our students suffer from that. People have lower expectations of them. There are still students who think their roommates treat them differently because they’re black. As wonderful and resource-rich as Penn is, you still have a lot of those nuanced issues going on that are deeply affecting our students.

Q. Black Enterprise Magazine recently reported that Penn has a higher black student matriculation rate (89 percent) than Spelman, Howard and Hampton. Obviously Penn has less black students but why do you think there’s such a high matriculation rate?
There are lots of people here who care about their success. There are lots of wonderful faculty members here. I think the University Life Division at Penn is amazing and from the time I started until now, there’s a lot more collaborative efforts to try to ensure that less students fall through the cracks. Not just black students, but black students clearly benefit from that. I also think there’s a lot more conscientious folks that are not black that are working at Penn that genuinely care about the success of our students. And of course there’s Makuu.

Q. You were formally a group leader for Operation Understanding, an organization that seeks to improve Black-Jewish relations. What do you think can be done to improve this relationship?
The biggest challenge is just people being able to continue communication and being able to hear different points of view. There are many similarities of the two groups, which is what fascinated me about participating in something like that. I think two groups that have been so oppressed in history can have a lot to learn from each other.

Q. You are presently completing your doctorate in the Policy, Management and Evaluation division at GSE. What are your personal goals for the future?
I’m graduating in May. I’ll be the first in my family with a doctorate so I’m really excited about that for me and my parents and to be a role model for my kids.
I’d like to be a Dean of students or a President someplace but my primary responsibilities are to be a wife and mom, so we’ll see where that takes me.

Originally published March 5, 2009