Susan N.T. Sam-Mensah ’18 is a champion among the approximately 1,100 smart, motivated students who attend Colby-Sawyer. Setting her apart is her public and conscious journey to shape her identity in a world that attempts to dictate her self-worth.
In many ways, Susan’s profile resembles those of many successful Colby-Sawyer students. Inside and outside the classroom, and during her internship with the Colby-Sawyer Archives, the history and political studies major on the pre-law track passionately engages in her academic responsibilities. She has served as an orientation leader, a Community Council Hearing Board member, a student ambassador, and as president of both the Law and the Knitting Clubs. She boasts multiple jobs on her campus résumé, including the ReChargers program coordinator, communications specialist for Campus Safety, and, beginning this fall, teaching assistant.
Susan came to Colby-Sawyer from Ghana’s capital city of Accra, where she was raised by her architect father and businesswoman mother. She felt loved and adored by her parents, three older sisters and younger brother, yet at a young age, she sensed outside messages and attitudes were attempting to sabotage her wellbeing. “I’ve always been the black sheep [in my family], literally, because I’m dark skinned and they are light skinned. It became really challenging for me,” Susan said. “Growing up, people used to ask me if I was the ‘house help’ or ‘Are you even related to them’?”
It wasn’t until Susan began to spread her wings during a gap-year job with EducationUSA at the U.S. Embassy in Ghana that she began to understand what she had experienced as a child and teenager, and that it has a name: colorism. Defined by writer Alice Walker in 1982 as “prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color,” the bias has existed worldwide for centuries. Its U.S. origins are linked to white supremacy in the form of slavery, while colorism elsewhere manifested itself in class hierarchy — those with lighter complexions ruled over those with darker skin.
As a self-proclaimed “big talker,” Susan is determined to create a dialogue about colorism and hopes to see the topic integrated into more classroom discussions. Meanwhile, she finds opportunities to share her thoughts about colorism with professors, coworkers, friends, family and via social media. On her public Instagram account, Susan posts images that “appreciate blackness and dark-skinned beauty in order to get others to appreciate it, too,” and she plans to create a YouTube channel with a similar message.
In addition to generating greater awareness of colorism and an appreciation of dark-skinned beauty, Susan’s long-term plans include attending law school in the U.S. before returning to Ghana for a possible career as a human rights lawyer. But before she goes, Susan wants to acknowledge those who have been there for her during her academic and personal journeys. “My professors are my favorite people on campus. They challenge me to think critically and to excel at college, and in life,” said Susan. “The students here are interested in knowing who I am — my race, ethnicity, background, religion and all. I have formed some lifelong friendships with other international students and U.S. citizens alike. I like that at Colby-Sawyer I’m not just seen as another black student: I’m seen as Susan.”