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Monday, September 25, 2023

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Zelia "Zee" Harrison Zelia "Zee" Harrison

Zee Harrison’s Thirst for Knowledge

An Africana Studies course helped propel this student to an education that encompasses the world.
By Aaron Burgin

“It makes me think about how important education is and how it influences one's beliefs and understanding of other people and cultures.”

Universities have traditionally been bastions of thought, dialogue, self-discovery and the search for knowledge. But over the years, according to surveys, students have come to view college more as a springboard to a financially stable future.

Not Zelia Harrison.

Harrison, a sophomore film and graphic design major from Ashland, Ore., said the quest for knowledge and self-identity — and a healthy questioning of said knowledge — have driven her college experience at San Diego State University.

And it was an Africana Studies course during her freshman year that sparked the flame.

“I've always been interested in history and mythology growing up, but I think my passion for knowledge has really increased since freshman year when I took AFRAS-120 and 200 with Dr. Bonnie Reddick,” said Harrison, affectionately known as “Zee.”

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“I was really able to explore my African-American heritage and culture in an Afrocentric environment which is something I never had before, coming from a predominantly white school and town. I learned so much empowering and validating information about myself and the Black community that was lacking in my K-12 education.”

Since that course, Harrison said she was inspired to take anthropology, Africana Studies and Latin American studies courses, and was amazed by the interconnection.

This quest for knowledge “has inspired me to take a variety of classes that I hope will help expand my worldly knowledge,” Harrison said. “I just want to stay woke on current, historical, and international issues because I've found that they are all extremely relevant and overlap. It makes me think about how important education is and how it influences one's beliefs and understanding of other people and cultures.

“I would encourage other students to expand their classes, and I would hope that by doing so it might help our country and hopefully the world become less divided,” Harrison said.

Harrison’s mindset used to be commonplace among college students. The American Freshman Survey, conducted annually by the University of California, Los Angeles since 1966, has documented changing trends among incoming freshmen.

Today, fewer than half of college students view college as a place to develop a meaningful philosophy on life compared with the peak of 86% in 1967, when students were immersed in such key societal upheavals as the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam War protests and Women’s Liberation.

Reddick, director of the SDSU Black Resource Center, said Harrison’s introspective view of college and her thirst for knowledge are inspiring to see in her freshman writing classes.

“We read four of (Dr. Martin Luther) King’s seminal pieces. She was intrigued. She was never afraid to ask questions, even if that meant letting the information marinate for a few days, and then visit me in my office,” Reddick said. “I could see the wheels churning in our discussions. I could see her eyes light up when she came to conclusions on her own. Students like Zee are what makes teaching so fun.”

Reddick said educators share some of the responsibility for college students’ shift in view of what college is over the years.

“Teachers, like any other profession, must continue to find creative and innovative ways to keep students engaged,” Reddick said. “The ‘stand and deliver’ method is antiquated and does not invite the students to be a partner in their learning experience.”

Harrison said she has learned to question the information she receives in classes, sometimes challenging her professors' conclusions.

“I think it's important because professors are the authority in the college dynamic,” Harrison said. “It's easy to forget that even professors have certain biases and different levels of education and specialties compared to one another.”

An example, Harrison said, was when she learned about an 18th century anti-slavery brooch designed by Josiah Wedgwood that reads “Am I not a man and a brother?”  

“In my art history class, our professor told us how this coin was important in the anti-slavery fight, while my Afras history professor added that while it was a significant anti-slavery image, it also portrays the Black man as needing the white man to free him,” she said. “I brought this difference up to my art history professor who was open to the comment and had not ever considered that narrative.”

Reddick echoed Harrison’s sentiments.

“Zee is majoring in Television, Film and Music. To be successful in that field, she has to be a masterful storyteller,” Reddick continued. “Storytellers are griots. They should be the greatest repository of information. They must be willing to read multiple sources, interrogate the text, and come to independent conclusions. Zee has demonstrated those skills in my writing classes.”

An aspiring documentarian, Harrison said she plans to add Africana Studies as her minor to continue to deepen her understanding of issues affecting the African Diaspora, a focus of her filmmaking.

“I am currently working on a documentary about Black life at SDSU and one about my Jamaican heritage/history, but one reason I'm adding the minor is because more of these stories need to be told and seen,” Harrison said. “I have been so inspired with my art and film by previous classes that I want to see what new inspiration I might discover through my current classes. I think some of the most interesting documentaries are the ones that explore ideas and places that aren't well known.”