No stranger to diversity

Brian Stevenson

When Sean Lyons entered the classroom in January 2002 at Hampton University, he was the minority.

Lyons was starting his new job as an assistant professor of journalism at Hampton, a historically black college, in Hampton, Va. Lyons is caucasian.

As a resident of Boston and a former writer for The Boston Globe, Lyons was surrounded by minorities and was always in the majority. He recognized the lack of diversity in most newsrooms.

“The newsroom at The Boston Globe was not diverse at all. I saw the job at Hampton as an opportunity to add diversity at the school as well as eventually adding diversity to newsrooms throughout the country,” Lyons, who is now an assistant professor of journalism at Quinnipiac, said.

When Hampton received a large grant from Scripps Howard to hire faculty, Lyons jumped at the opportunity. The job offered him something new and exciting.

During his first class at Hampton, one of his African-American students asked Lyons where he was from.

“I told her I was from Boston and she said ‘I could never live there. They are all racists,'” Lyons said.

Lessons like this came frequently for Lyons, who was now living in an entirely different culture. Because he was white, nearly all of his actions were questioned by students, parents and the administration.

“Everything was new at Hampton. All of my expectations of the students were questioned because I was white,” Lyons said. “Whenever I would hold a student to a certain standard, most would accuse me of being unfair because we were of a different race than one another.”

He eventually earned the trust of Talia Buford as well as many other students. Buford, who is now 22, and a graduate of Hampton University, recalls Lyons attitude during his time at the school.

“He was somewhat of a rebel at Hampton, but very passionate. His class always seemed unorganized yet structured, he was inspirational and always striving to make a difference,” Buford said.

Buford is set to begin a two year internship at the Providence Journal, the same program that jump started Lyons’ career.

His rebellious style led to his departure from Hampton in May 2004. He assisted his students in battling the university administrators after they burned the student newspaper containing a story they deemed inappropriate.

As tensions rose between Lyons and the administration, he continued to support his students.

“I tried to show the students that in order to be successful, you sometimes need to take chances,” Lyons said.

Lyons and other white faculty left the university. He says it has left a lasting impression on him.

“The experience taught me about the rights and views of African Americans. I now understand their perceptions and point of views so much more,” Lyons said.

While Lyons is back in the majority at Quinnipiac, he attempts to convey some of the lessons he learned to all his students.