Presentation on African-American history
at U.Va. gets students thinking, talking
Photo by Andrew Shurtleff
| An audio-visual presentation, created by Justin Steele (left)
and Ermias Abebe about the history of race relations at
U.Va., has served as a catalyst for healthy discussion
By Brandon Marshall Miller
The sankofa, a mythological African bird, faces backward but flies forward.
In much the same way, U.Va. students Justin Steele and Ermias Abebe have
explored their cultural heritage while gaining the tools needed for their
Abebe, 20, who was born in Khartoum, Sudan, and Steele, also 21, and a
native of Seattle, both entered the University as undergraduates in
the School of
Engineering and Applied Science. Steele majored in chemical engineering
with a biotechnology
and biochemical engineering concentration, while Abebe majored in engineering
science with a minor in biomedical engineering.
Both have been active in a broad range of programs, including the Office
of African-American Affairs’ Peer Advisor Program and the Engineering School’s BRIDGE
Program, which helps first-year engineering students make the transition from
high school to college.
While interning with the Seattle branch of the National Association for
the Advancement of Colored People in the summer of 2001, Steele began
history. When he returned to U.Va. that fall, he and Abebe took the
initiative to research and compile an audio-visual presentation called “Connecting
Communities: African-American History at U.Va.” The presentation — which
Steele and Abebe have given to numerous audiences around Grounds — details
the history of race relations at the University, beginning with the housing arrangements
made by 18th and 19th century students for their slaves and including a 21st
century incident in which students dressed in blackface to attend a fraternity
“I saw that
these things were continuing to happen because all we would do is react without
having knowledge of the history behind it,” Abebe said.
|The mythical African sankofa bird serves as a metaphor for looking to
the past to find the way forward.
Americans in their audiences were affected by the audio-visual presentation.
One attracted a large number of Inter-Fraternity
of the audience members were there to fulfill the Fraternal Organization Agreement
requirement, but very few left after the required time, and they asked a lot
of questions, many questions that rarely come out,” Steele
The success of their presentation has been one of many achievements
for both students. Abebe’s involvement with the National Society of Black Engineers
provided a prototype and inspiration for what the University’s premedical
society could be — a network of advice and support for black students on
the medical-school track.
got here, there were only a few active members and meetings only a couple
times a semester,” said Abebe, who now is also active in the regional office
of the Student National Medical Association.
He revitalized the Daniel Hale Williams Pre-Medical Society.
And now, with membership that has more than doubled, the
them to attend medical conferences, sponsoring community
service projects, and providing tutoring for med-school course prerequisites
Ermias has done an excellent job of turning DHW into a viable, active organization,” said
Carolyn Vallas, director of the Engineering School’s Office of Minority
Abebe plans to enroll in a post-baccalaureate program to
prepare for medical school after he graduates from U.Va.
Sylvia Terry, associate dean and director of the Peer Advisor
Program, first noticed Steele at an orientation ceremony
four years ago.
he was hard to miss.
of his height as symbolic of what he has had to offer at the University,” she
said. “He has been heads above in height, stature
Steele’s academic success has been recognized by his induction into Tau
Beta Pi, the Engineering Honor Society, and his presence in the Rodman Scholars’ Program.
He just completed a term as a member of the national
executive board and academic excellence chairman for
the 15,000-member, student-run National Society of
His commitment to improving race relations on Grounds
has shaped many of his activities here.
In addition to his work on the “Connecting Communities” presentation
with Abebe, Steele has served as a moderator for Sustained Dialogue, a student
initiative to promote biweekly discussions among students on race relations.
(See related story, page 4.) Last year, he was one of four students appointed
by U.Va. President John T. Casteen III to serve on the University’s
Commission on Diversity and Equity. He also was one
of six students invited to speak to
the Class of 2007 about diversity in the program “Different
Voices, Common Threads.”
won accolades from an array of organizations, including the Raven Society,
the Omicron Delta Kappa Leadership Society
and the Office of African-American Affairs. He is the 2004 recipient
of the M.
Award and the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award,
granted each year
to one U.Va. faculty member and two fourth-year students
in recognition of excellence
of character and service to humanity.
Steele will travel to Los Angeles to start a job with Bain & Co., a global
business consulting firm.
Steele and Abebe
refer to the image of the sankofa bird in their presentation. Like that bird,
these men have
found their own individual ways to