Editor’s Note: To celebrate Black History Month, Kern Sol News is highlighting notable Black leaders in Kern County who are working to create positive change in their community.
From the path of a Biology major to a journalist and now an English Professor Paula Parks has told many stories while helping students learn to narrate theirs.
When Parks first started as a student at UC Irvine she planned to be a Veterinarian and had started to major in Biology – something she soon realized was not what she wanted. While being in college and realizing that you want to change majors can be stressful, Parks changed her major to undeclared after the first quarter. After much consideration, she decided to major in English.
“I kind of did it backward. It was like reading really cool stuff and writing was really fun and so I changed my major to English,” said Parks. “Then just thought, what am I going to do with a degree in English? I obviously have to do something more, I have to get a master’s in something.”
This led her to Columbia University’s Journalism program where she went to grad school. She’d always liked asking questions as a child and had a family that would answer her questions.
“I loved that and I loved telling people’s stories. I liked understanding them to the point of reorganizing it into a story and capturing who they were or the essence of an issue,” said Parks about her love of journalism.
Parks mainly enjoyed doing feature articles at Columbia and her internship at the LA Times. At her first small newspaper she was a general assignment reporter where she said she learned a lot about various topics.
She recalled the pressure of having to write fast and how she became better with time where she’d cover a meeting and have just a few hours to turn her story.
Unfortunately, as a Black woman Parks still faced some negative experiences in Journalism. The majority of her negative interactions were on the East Coast, one particular experience taking place on a newspaper staff in Virginia.
“I was interviewed by the owner editor and he didn’t know what race I was. He asked me questions to try to figure out my race,” said Parks. “He was talking about South Africa and said, well we White People.”
She assumed his comments were to lead her to say her race. She decided not to and left her race a mystery.
“I knew if I corrected him I wasn’t gonna have a job and I knew that I couldn’t have pictures on my desk. I knew my husband could not come to the office,” said Parks.
So she worked there without disclosing her race until one Sunday she was having car problems and needed her husband to come to her job. As he was outside a co-worker ran to Parks saying “this black guy is trying to steal your car.”
Parks told her job that was her husband.
“It didn’t matter that he’s a doctor, right? He was a Black guy so obviously, he was stealing my car,” said Parks.
After word had gotten back to her editor he tried to fire her because she was not white.
While everyone in the newsroom was angry both with and for her, they encouraged her to quit, but she couldn’t just leave. She stayed until she found another job.
“Unrealistically I thought, journalism because the goal was the truth that it should be an industry that was fair. An industry that was not prejudiced,” said Parks.
While in journalism, Parks was a part of the National Association for Black Journalists for networking and camaraderie. She also wrote for Black publications such as Essence, Heart & Soul, and Health Quest.
While she continued freelancing she started missing having colleagues and decided to start teaching part-time at Bakersfield College and started another master’s program at Cal State Bakersfield. As she realized the love she had for teaching she eventually stopped freelancing and after Grad school became a full-time professor at Bakersfield College (BC).
While teaching at BC data had shown how Black students were not excelling at high rates in college. She’d heard of a Black learning community at another college and decided she wanted to implement it at Bakersfield College. The program wasn’t able to take off the first time she put together the program however, several years later the BC president, Sonya Christian wanted to help with Black Student success. That was the start of Umoja at BC in 2015.
The program has common values statewide that line with African and African American principles. At BC there are classes in the different majors where the classes have a Black theme or focus. The program has mentors for students, specific counselors to keep the students on track, statewide conferences, tours of Historically Black Colleges, and Village which is for the students to study together and access to other resources they need.
One student said this program helped her build bonds in college that she did not expect.
“Once I got into Umoja I started meeting people and now those people are my friends,” said Alexis Brown, Umoja Student Ambassador, and peer mentor. “One thing about Dr. Parks, she makes sure that you get everything you need. Especially when it’s your classes. Like if you need books, need to cover expenses, if you need school supplies, anything. She’ll find a way to help you cover that.
Parks recently conducted a study that showed Black Students who were involved with Umoja for at least one semester during 2015-17 are 4.2 times more likely to graduate in four years than students who did not attend the program.
Parks described what pushes her every day to keep this work going is seeing her students succeed.
“If a student is successful it affects not just themselves but their family,” said Parks. “It ripples out into the family and it ripples out into the community. Then not only are their lives better but Bakersfield is better. Just being able to make that change feels really good.”
Parks leaves that same lasting impression on her students.
“She is versatile. She is versatile. She is definitely a versatile woman. She can be your mom. She can be your mentor. She can be your best friend. She can be your counselor, your therapist, whatever you need,” said Brown.
Parks encourages students to keep going no matter what. To understand when they get into college, yes it is hard but that doesn’t mean you don’t belong there.