MS NEWS: Leaving a legacy

Elijah Lewis, CMU junior embodies his aspirations and purpose to serve the Black community

Headshot of Elijah Lewis at the MLK Peace Service after receiving the PNC Bank High Achievers Award.
ఈ కథనాన్ని తెలుగులో చదవడానికి క్లిక్ చేయండి

Aspiring to be a sci-fi and mind-bending thriller film director, Elijah Lewis is a highly involved Central Michigan University student who has defined his purpose as serving the needs of the Black community.

Coming from Ypsilanti, Lewis was used to being surrounded by his family, friends and neighbors that looked like him. However, when he received a scholarship from CMU and decided to attend the Mount Pleasant university in 2021, he didn’t realize how big of a step away from home he took. 

Headshot of Elijah Lewis, CMU junior.

According to CMU’s 2021 fall semester enrollment, there were 15,465 undergraduate and graduate students. CMU also accounted for 3,299 enrolled Black, Indigenous and other people of color (BIPOC) in a separate category from online and in-person undergraduate and graduate students.

In the First Time in Any College (FTIAC) report, there were 426 BIPOC students in the fall of 2021. Therefore, aside from Lewis, there were 425 BIPOC students experiencing CMU for the first time.

Lewis lived in Merrill his freshman year and was the only person of color on his residential floor. When he got involved in the IMPACT program and in classes for his major in broadcast and cinematic arts, he found himself encountering the same culture shock. 

“I didn't feel community (in Merrill),” Lewis said. “I wouldn’t say I didn't feel safe, but I didn't feel welcome, if that makes sense. … White roommates were a big jump for me … That was the hardest thing my freshman year and kind of the reason I really reached out to a lot of organizations trying to find that community just because I didn't have that in my dorm.”

As a Black student on a predominantly white campus, Lewis and many other BIPOC students have found that they have to make the extra effort to find a community. 

Lewis said this was a big conundrum for him his freshman year — the fact that he could go the entire day without seeing another Black person, whereas his roommates could go to the next room and see someone who shares a lot of the same experiences.  

“It definitely felt very isolating,” Lewis said. 

After taking this in, Lewis had decided to push himself out of his comfort zone and attend as many events on campus as his schedule allowed. He also relocated to the Towers dorms, where he met many MAC scholars, although he is not a recipient himself, and started to feel like he had found his place. 

Although Lewis continued to try and avoid the isolation through expanding his comfort zone, many BIPOC students do not and have not found themselves putting in the same energy for community. 

“I've seen it firsthand,” Lewis said. “I mean, a lot of the people I came here with freshman year I knew of, and I would hang out with them. but they didn't really have that same community. … (They) just went to class (and) came back to the dorm.”

Lewis said he realized that everyone has different values and come from separate backgrounds, but it is discouraging to see the success they potentially could have had if they had taken the extra leap. Many of those students Lewis noticed are no longer attending CMU.

According to CMU’s BIPOC student enrollment numbers, in 2022, just a year after Lewis moved to campus, there were 2,949 students and in 2023, the university accounted for 2,681 BIPOC students. 

Additionally, although each of the Black student organizations on campus serves a purpose and has been a safe haven for many, numerous organizations have been taking hits with lower student engagement or shutting down altogether. 

Lewis said the decline is very discouraging, considering the value the organizations and student positions have

“But you can only control what you can control,” Lewis said. “And the organizations that we do have left, I'm gonna give my 110% to those organizations and attend those events — make sure I'm supporting as much as I can. So, it's a little discouraging but doesn't stop the work that is continuing to be done for the minority population.”

Holding the “Resilient” sign, Elijah Lewis poses with mentors and their families as a mentor coordinator.

Finding community

Being friends with many MAC scholars led Lewis to the Multicultural Academic Student Services (MASS) office, where he was able to meet new mentors on campus and make some meaningful connections. 

As Lewis was embarking on a new relationship with the campus by getting involved in numerous organizations, serving e-board positions and meeting new people that looked like him, Lewis started to make CMU his second home. 

Embarking on a new relationship with campus by getting involved in numerous organizations, serving e-board positions and meeting new people who looked like him meant Lewis started making CMU his second home. 

Without these extra efforts he made to seek a community, Lewis said he would have left CMU his freshman year. 

He is currently a junior and holds the position as peer advisor for the MASS office. He also serves several other roles, such as treasurer and founder of the Creativez organization, a board member for Black Males Rock, a program director for Men About Change and a mentor coordinator for the IMPACT program. 

Previously, Lewis also served as vice president for the National Association of Black Journalists chapter at CMU and was secretary for the Black Student Union. 

Each of these roles, he said, has allowed him to develop personally and professionally in seeing how the professional world works. He has enjoyed learning different skills and tasks and witnessing the teamwork he has been a part of. 

“I will say for me, each involvement that I have, and I'm still involved in is for a reason,” Lewis said. “Everything that I do is not just for fun, and it's hard for me to dial back on my involvement. It's because of that reason, everything that I do, has a purpose.”

Lewis’ purpose is to serve his community. 

Elijah Lewis, an active member of the 2024 MLK week planning committee poses with keynote speaker Donzaleigh Abernathy.

“I'm gonna help somebody out just because they may need it and I know I'm gonna need it,” Lewis said. “So just passing that plate around, hoping that plate comes back to me. Just serving those next to me.”

He said being in these positions has allowed him to see just how much work the organizations do for the community and how much value they hold for himself and students that come from the same background. 

“We're not all the same just because we may have the same skin color (or) come from the same city,” Lewis said. “We have different interests, different values, going into different majors, so we have to have those different rooms, different spaces, even for those individuals as small as this community may be.”

“I wouldn't trade it (his experience of getting involved) for the world,” he said. “That's why I continue to seek out more organizations to be involved in, whether it's an eboard position or just a member, they all have a purpose.”

It also helps to have a mentor. When Lewis was a freshman and was looking for events and organizations to attend and participate in, he said he had talked to some upperclassmen for advice and looked to them as mentors in that process. 

Another mentor he has connected with and has remained Lewis’ friend and brother — someone he knows he can always call on for support is James Span Jr. the executive director of Student Inclusion and Diversity. Lewis said they met during his freshman year in the IMPACT program. 

“At all of the events that I see him, he’s always a welcoming face,” Lewis said. “And even freshman year when I was going through some some hard times, he was always there and able to give me insight. And if he wasn't, he was able to connect me with the right resources. So, I would say he's probably the one that helps to remind me that I'm never alone.”

A moment that has impacted Lewis from Span’s mentorship was when Lewis had been nominated for Emerging Leader Award his freshman year in the Black Males Rock award show. In the company of his friend that had also been nominated and Lewis’ mother in the audience, he was feeling proud. 

That momentum only grew when Span had approached Lewis and his mother to introduce himself. 

“(He) pointed at me and told my mom ‘This (is) one of the good ones right here,’” Lewis said. “… To have somebody I really look up to say that about me, meant a lot.”

Perceptions and outlooks

As for the BIPOC community in general, Lewis said they still have a long way to go in terms of unity and what that means by having one purpose, one mind and one goal. He said that the community can be divided at times, but even in that division they put on events and programs that still serve their needs and make them feel seen. 

Being involved in the IMPACT program, Lewis has fallen in love with the work he does; upperclassmen cater to incoming students and make sure campus is a home for them. 

“I think that program speaks volumes to what this community could be, that one purpose one mind one goal because everyone a part of that program, we all work together collectively,” Lewis said. “… So, no matter our differences, no matter what beef we may have, or the arguments, we put all those aside, just to welcome these incoming students and that's my favorite time of the year.”

Nevertheless, in the same breath Lewis said there is still a long way to go. To the university higher ups specifically, Lewis said support is always welcome and is needed. Already the MASS office and programs does not get a lot of funding, which really hurts the multicultural community, Lewis said. 

“Whether that's money or not, just showing your face or showing support for these programs, showing support for these events, these organizations being made — helping isn't just funding,” Lewis said. “Helping could just be putting your hand in the pot, you know what I mean? Just serving the community. So, I think we can definitely serve one another a lot more than we have been.”

Additionally, Lewis found that by having an inclusion assistant that is BIPOC or at least educated on multicultural opportunities on campus can go a long way for someone’s freshman year experience. When he was a freshman, he said his inclusion assistant played a big part in how he saw the Black community on campus. 

“She always took that extra step,” Lewis said. “She came to my dorm room (and) introduced herself. If I was at the dining hall (and) we saw each other, we would eat together.” 

Lewis said these students serving those roles are who connect incoming students to the right resources, campus involvements and organizations. By having someone that is welcoming and who makes a continued effort to foster a relationship makes students feel they have someone that will listen to what they have to say, and they are more receptive to them as well, he said.

Lessons and legacy

A lesson that has resonated with Lewis while living on a predominantly white campus is that BIPOC students are not alone. 

Elijah Lewis, among other recipients, receive the PNC Bank High Achievers Award at this years' MLK Peace Service.

“Just remembering that whatever your struggle is, or whatever your success is, you're not alone in it, and there's somebody next to you,” he said. “You can always find somebody that has probably struggled with the same thing or has probably not struggled but succeeded overtaking the same thing.”

When you are open to sharing your experiences and concerns, it allows other people to give their insight, Lewis said. Whatever dorm, class or organization, you are never alone — seek out students in e-board positions in organizations or advisors for insight, he continued. 

“I think that's probably my biggest lesson,” Lewis said. “Just learning that for myself and remembering that there's always a resource, always a connection you can make that can help you overcome this obstacle.”

Looking back on who he was in middle school and high school, Lewis said if he were able to tell his younger self where he is at now, he wouldn’t have believed it. 

As the junior moves forward in his academic career and takes on new leadership roles and experiences, he looks forward to his dream of becoming a film director. 

When he does so, he wants to continue to embody and learn how to cater to people from various walks of life — making everyone on set feel welcome, heard and respected. Lewis said he will continue to reinstall his purpose of serving the Black community with the values he grew up with as a child and showcase that in his films as well.  

“Respect, integrity, honesty, truth, courage … just showcasing those things through various forms will definitely be something that I will strive to achieve in my film and in the films that I aspire to do and whatever I aspired to do,” he said.

Aside from the previously mentioned sci-fi and mind-boggling thrillers, Lewis said he also wants to explore social justice films. 

Nevertheless, any film he makes, he said will always have a meaning. 

“So, no film will just be out to be out,” Lewis said. “It'll always have a meaning or purpose behind it, whether that's subliminal or right in your face. I'm gonna make sure that my legacy is left.”