Closeup of Donna Arnold
Donna Arnold

Without a doubt, Black History Month is the busiest time of the year for Donna Arnold, the associate director and retention specialist in the Office of Multicultural Student Services.

Her work on the annual celebration begins prior to the winter holiday and picks up steam when students return to school in January. Then she is on the phone with WSU staff, in meetings with student leaders, and sending emails to faculty advisors – all part of the planning for the annual month-long Black History Month celebration.

The end result of this effort is a February chock-full of activities for almost every day of the month and every interest. Visit the African American Student Center website to see the events planned for this week.

This is Arnold’s 15th year coordinating Black History Month and leading the African American Student Center, and, her passion for working with students and educating people about Black culture is as strong as the day she started.

“In putting together the Black History Month calendar, I want to make sure all our Black student organizations are represented,” she said. “It is important for the community to see these groups, attend their events, and learn what they have to share with us.”

Authenticity builds trust

When thinking about the students she serves, Arnold said it is important to acknowledge the unique history of African Americans in the United States. Black people have experienced centuries of discrimination and oppression, and racial disparities persist today in everything from policing to access to COVID-19 testing. Arnold said these life experiences have helped shape who Black students are and, at the same time, motivate them to create a better tomorrow for themselves, their families, and all communities of color. She describes WSU’s Black students as resilient, hopeful, and ready to work toward positive change.

Mikayla Makle, Black Student Union president and College of Arts and Sciences ambassador, knew going to college was her path to a successful future. Having grown up in a working-class family in Maryland, she is the first in her family to attend college, and her goal is to one day become a lawyer for the entertainment industry. When Makle arrived in Pullman, however, she felt alone and far away from everyone she had ever known. That changed when she visited the African American Student Center and met Arnold, affectionately known to many as “Ms. Donna.”

“You build your family wherever you go with people you know you can trust, and that is how we see Ms. Donna,” Makle said. “She is a very genuine person who will do everything she can to help you.”

Her life’s mission

Arnold credits her mother with inspiring her to attend college. When she enrolled at Miami University near Cincinnati, Ohio, as a first-generation student, her mom soon followed in her footsteps.

“It took my mom seven years to graduate because she continued to work full time, and I was so proud of how she stuck with it despite all the challenges,” Arnold said.

It taught Arnold that persistence, coupled with the right kind of support, can make it possible for anyone to achieve their higher education goals. It helped define her life’s mission of helping those who want a college degree, but face uncertainties and obstacles along the way.

A natural fit

Arnold came to WSU in 1991, when WSU hired Loren Thompson as the new director for the Student Advising and Learning Center. Thompson previously worked at Miami University and was aware of Arnold’s passion for helping students. He recruited her to join his team as an academic advisor and over the next 15 years, she helped first-year students, student-athletes, and even student leaders in Residence Life stay on track with their academic goals. It wasn’t until 2006 that the retention specialist position in the African American Student Center opened up – a position Arnold knew would be a natural fit for her.

One of the first things she wanted to improve was the culture within the center, making it a place where all students feel welcomed and respected.

“When I started, I felt the center needed some attention, care, grooming, and patience,” Arnold said. “I feel we have reached a place where it is a healthy community that promotes strong relationships and leadership growth.”

Arnold said it sounds cliché, but her goal for the center has always been to make it a home away from home for students – a place where students can just be themselves and feel comfortable asking for help whenever they need it.

Makle said students feel a strong connection with Arnold, who has a knack for making them feel special. In talking with her friends who have graduated, Makle said they have told her they never would have made it through school had Arnold not been there for them.

“I know of students who went to her office ready to drop-out,” Makle said. “She told them she will to do everything she can to help get them through college and they graduated because of her encouragement and help.”

Graduation is one of Arnold’s passions, and once Black History Month is over, she will start encouraging seniors to make plans to attend the MSS graduation celebration, an event she looks forward to every May.

“It is the grand finale of their WSU experience and a tribute to everything they and their families have gone through,” she said. “I wouldn’t miss it.”