AMES, Iowa – Malik Burton didn’t set out to become a leader at Iowa State University.
But four years later, he’s become a change agent, helping lead the university through diversity and inclusion efforts and opening dialogues with and within communities of color on campus.
“I’m just happy to be in college because I’m not supposed to be here,” said Burton, a graduating senior in speech communication.
Burton grew up in a lower-income, single-parent home in Kansas City. While his mother always emphasized the importance of education, as high school graduation approached, Burton wasn’t sure how he would make that leap to higher education.
“My guidance counselor helped me apply and waived the application fees,” he said. “For my family, that was huge. When you don’t even know what you’re going to eat, how do you find $100 for application fees?”
He applied to eight colleges – and got offers from all of them. Iowa State provided the financial assistance he needed to make higher education a reality.
A passion for growth, change
Burton found a perfect fit in speech communication, using the skills he learned in class as he became more involved in student organizations.
Starting college, Burton made friends but had some difficulty finding communities for black students. Then he went to Destination Iowa State – a program to welcome new students – and discovered the Black Student Alliance. He was elected vice president of BSA his sophomore year, and president as a junior.
“My passion was to see this community grow and develop, so members wouldn’t have to experience some of what I’ve experienced,” Burton said. “Why not do something to change it?”
He got to work. With Burton at the helm, BSA grew from 30 to more than 100 members. The organization received the 2017 Big XII Conference on Black Student Government’s Most Improved Council award. Burton co-chaired the Big XII Council on Black Student Government’s political action committee, registering students to vote and educating them on their rights.
In a charged political climate the past few years, Burton said he saw a shift at Iowa State.
“Racism became a huge topic because students finally said, ‘No, we’re not doing this,’” he said.
“Some people believe if you scream and yell enough, people will change – but that’s not true. It’s about building relationships with people. I got to know campus administration, and that’s helped a lot. People’s first response is going to be emotional, so how do we craft a response that doesn’t burn bridges and helps solve problems?”
‘It’s OK to be unapologetically black’
Iowa State has created new positions focused on diversity and inclusion. A new campus climate survey was conducted, and people across campus are having more open and frank conversations about the issues students of color face, from systemic racism to daily microaggressions.
While the work isn’t finished, Burton says communities of color are starting to feel more connected at Iowa State, while still having spaces they can call their own.
“I want students to know that it’s OK to be unapologetically black, Latinx, a woman, LGBTQIA,” Burton said. “There was this community response of, ‘We’re tired of being tired.’ So let’s rally to get this done and create change.”
This fall, Burton will head to Colorado State University to begin his master’s degree in student affairs.
“My aim is to spread social justice within higher education,” he said.
His accomplishments so far foreshadow greatness still to come, even with the short amount of time that student leaders have to meet their goals.
“You get what you make of your experience,” he said. “This isn’t the most ideal place for a person of color, but I think we’ve seen advancement in building communities. Black Student Alliance and various other communities of color have grown. I feel the campus community of color feels more connected now than when I was a freshman.
“I didn’t know how to be a leader when I came to Iowa State, so I learned a whole lot through trial and error. But I kept thinking, ‘I can do this. I can stand up and speak for myself.’ Freshman Malik would never have done this. This is the reason I was supposed to be at Iowa State.”