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"Decide that God is good and that nothing happens that is not first sifted through his love."—Class of '52 

Students

Building Confidence 

When Jena Cooksey left Kenosha, Wisconsin, for Calvin College she stepped east into what felt to her like another country.

Wrestling with her identity was not a new challenge for Cooksey. As the daughter of well- educated parents, she often seemed "white" in her speech to the people of her pastor-father's Pentecostal church and to the other African-Americans in her predominantly white high school, where she was captain of the otherwise all-white cheerleading and pom-pom squads. "When I came to Calvin I thought I could handle it, but I literally broke down," she says.

It was little things: "I couldn't even do my hair without someone asking, ‘What are you doing? What's that?'"

It was bigger things: "In classes they would talk about Pentecostalism as some foreign language over there, and I wanted to say, ‘Hey, that's what's holding me together.'"

Like many of the 33 other African-Americans on campus in the fall of 1998, Jena found refuge in the office of Michael Travis, former director of multicultural student development.    Under Travis' direction the group produced "The Colored Museum," a theater piece about the many identities of people of color in America.

For Cooksey that play was a turning point. She became a quiet, but steady activist, serving on the Multicultural Student Advisory Board, which held an anti-racism week on campus in February. "I wanted to say, ‘I'm here too. If you want people of color here, you can't ignore their presence.'"

Like a bookend, another play highlighting racial awareness brought Cooksey's Calvin career to a close. She played the lead female role in "The Piano Lesson," Calvin's first production featuring an all-black cast – an experience, she says, that brought blacks and whites in the Calvin Theater Company together like family.

"What made Calvin great for me was that it was tough. I had to make connections with people of all colors and expand myself. At Calvin I've had to see the world in a whole new way."

And thanks to Jena Cooksey, many in the Calvin community have had to see the world in a whole new way, too.

 

Jena Cooksey
Jena Cooksey
Theology class of Prof. Foppe Ten Hoor in the Theological School, 1910.
Theology class of Prof. Foppe Ten Hoor in the Theological School, 1910.
 
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