Sports, Athletics

Through Eagles for Equality, BC’s Student-Athletes Advocate for Marginalized Voices

All her life, Marne Sullivan has felt like she’s been playing catch up. 

Sullivan, who competes for Boston College women’s track and field, is deaf and has a cochlear implant. For most of her life, Sullivan has felt like she is always one step behind her peers, she said. 

Time spent in speech therapy and audiologist appointments has left her playing the chasing game, always racing to keep up with those around her. 

But when Sullivan’s feet hit the track, she’s no longer chasing. 

“In track, … I don’t feel like I’m catching up with my peers,” Sullivan said. “I was getting my confidence from track, and beating people in races, and kind of just creating a sense of community with my teammates.”

Sullivan is the leader of the disability subcommittee of Eagles for Equality, BC’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) committee for student-athletes. The group’s mission is to build an inclusive environment for marginalized student-athletes on campus, according to BC Athletics’ website

For Sullivan, being a part of Eagles for Equality is a chance to no longer play catch up, but rather, to be a leader of the pack and change others’ perspectives about what having a disability might look like.

“I think a lot of people focus on the absence of something,” Sullivan said of her disability. “I haven’t lost anything by being born deaf. It only shaped a new perspective on life. … This committee’s not just hard-of-hearing and deaf people, it’s visible and non-visible disabilities. … I’m trying to make it as general as possible.” 

The disability subcommittee is one of four subcommittees that make up Eagles for Equality. The three other subcommittees are the race and ethnicity, gender, and LGBTQ+ subcommittees. 

While the group now tackles issues surrounding all four topics, the original idea for Eagles for Equality came as a response to racially motivated crimes during the summer of 2020. 

“Eagles for Equality grew out of the social unrest of 2020 and the things that happened with George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor,” said Michael Harris, director of student-athlete academic services. “There clearly were other challenges in terms of diversity that were happening on campus, but what prompted the group and the level of emphasis placed on diversity at that time was the current events.” 

Eagles for Equality started as a subcommittee of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), according to Harris. 

“In the summer of 2020, we didn’t have an athletic director at that point in time,” Harris said. “We realized that we needed a vehicle for our students to be the change that they talked about—to be a part of social justice and to also keep diversity and inclusion a part of our DNA.” 

(Courtesy of Sydney Moore)

With that mission in mind, Eagles for Equality began to separate from SAAC, Harris said. Part of the group’s long-term plan was to become an officially recognized student group on campus, which would provide the students involved with more independence in the group’s activities and less oversight from the athletics department.  

Jewel Strawberry, a former BC volleyball player and BC ’22, was the chair of SAAC’s diversity and inclusion subcommittee when Eagles for Equality was first introduced. Strawberry became Eagles for Equality’s president when it broke away from SAAC, a transition that came naturally, according to Harris. 

“I think Jewel did a really good job of bringing people together, being the face of the organization,” Harris said. “2020 … was a really difficult year, politics were pretty high, tensions were high, and I think Jewel did a really good job of having others at the table, making sure others’ voices were heard as we navigated some of those challenges as an athletics department.”

While Eagles for Equality centers its conversations around student voices, Harris said that as an administrator, his responsibility is to make sure student-athletes are educated on the issues they take a stance on and understand the different perspectives behind them. He also said that he works to ensure Eagles for Equality is aware of other DEI-related events and information, including those announced by the NCAA and ACC. 

“We do want student-athletes to take initiative,” Harris said. “We see it as a group where our student-athletes can participate and be a part of something greater than just athletics. My role is really to create synergies and collaborations across campus and to make sure that we’re in alignment with BC as an institution.” 

(Courtesy of Sydney Moore)

The surge of the Black Lives Matter movement as a result of racially motivated crimes during the summer of 2020 encouraged Sydney Moore, a member of BC women’s soccer and the current president of Eagles for Equality, to become involved with DEI advocacy. 

She said the mission of Eagles for Equality is to not only be a support system for student-athletes with marginalized identities, but to also educate and spread awareness about the experiences of individuals with those identities. The group also does community outreach. 

“I do think that it can be challenging to be a student of color,” Moore said. “I feel like we have resources, but I don’t know how supported they are. I do feel like every year we brag about the amount of students of color we’re bringing in, but I don’t know that we’re fully supporting them to the best of our abilities.” 

For Maria Gakdeng, a member of Boston College women’s basketball and the leader of the race and ethnicity subcommittee, being in a community with student-athletes of color uplifts her. But it doesn’t stop her from observing the challenges student-athletes of color face, she said.   

“I feel like there’s a community of us here,” Gakdeng said. “We all come together and kind of form friendships, form bonds, through something that we all go through together. Whether it’s good or bad, we all find a way to talk about it with each other. So I think that there’s … a good community here for student-athletes of color, and I kind of embrace that.”

Gakdeng said she believes there are available resources that help build community at BC. 

“I think Boston College is a little bit challenging for student-athletes, especially because I feel like there’s a little disconnect between athletes of color and just regular students of color,” Gakdeng said. “BC [gives] us resources where we can come together, but I feel like overall it is a bit challenging to get used to the experience here.” 

Sullivan said she’s experienced a number of roadblocks in terms of accessibility since becoming a student-athlete. When Sullivan sustained a foot injury her freshman year, she was sent to Newton-Wellesley Hospital to receive an MRI, where she learned that the MRI’s magnetic capabilities would interfere with her cochlear implant. 

Sullivan couldn’t participate in the scan, and as a result, she was sidelined from track for four months while she was unable to properly receive a diagnosis. 

At the same time, Sullivan said she’s also had experiences where University accommodations have improved her quality of life. During the COVID-19 pandemic, mask-wearing made it difficult for Sullivan to communicate with others, as she relies on lip reading, she said. But thanks to BC’s accommodations, Sullivan could still participate in the classroom setting. 

“BC was very supportive with me,” Sullivan said. “Sometimes they would have the professors wear a clear mask so I can lip read. And they would wear an additional device—it’s called a microphone—that connects to my implant, so that would help me hear better.”

(Courtesy of Sydney Moore)

Being an athlete of color on a predominantly white team can feel isolating, Moore said. Moore said that she has benefited from playing for head coach Jason Lowe, who is Black.

“I actually have a different experience where my head coach is Black, which kind of provides some support,” Moore said. “It’s the person who’s in power on your team.”

Gakdeng said that her identities as a female athlete and an athlete of color intersect, which makes her experience as a student-athlete especially unique.  

“Being a student female athlete of color is kind of a different experience because there’s so many intersections of where I come from, and it just makes my experience especially specific because I have a different experience than most other people here,” Gakdeng said. 

While Gakdeng has confided in other female athletes of color, she said she wishes she was connected with more Black women outside of the athletics department. 

Sullivan has also participated in discussions surrounding disability advocacy outside of the athletics community. The Undergraduate Government of BC’s Council for Students with Disabilities hosted a talk in February featuring Abigail Heringer, the first deaf contestant on The Bachelor.

“I was like ‘Wow, okay, I want to go to that,’” Sullivan said. “Truly, I think Boston College, the fact that they gave me the opportunity to talk to this kind of role model—someone that’s older than me with a cochlear implant—that was kind of the turning point for me. It kind of changed my perspective on my disability.” 

After her conversation with Heringer, Sullivan had the motivation to increase her involvement in disability advocacy and create the disability subcommittee of Eagles for Equality. With a new understanding of her disability—that being deaf has offered her a new perspective on life—Sullivan said she’s felt more comfortable sharing her story with others and does so more often now.  

“It’s a brand new committee,” Sullivan said. “Right now the biggest accomplishment is we are striving to invite this Paralympian to come to speak at BC. I think that it is going to be super, super cool for student-athletes to hear her story and be inspired by her story.”

Gakdeng said she hopes Eagles for Equality will collaborate with other student groups and non-athletes on campus in the future.  

“Going into the spring semester, we’re looking to join with other student groups on campus and … not just let it be student-athletes but the whole student body—invite everyone,” Gakdeng said. “Last school year, we did a picnic for the end of the school year where … all students were welcome, so I feel like that was a good way to welcome people outside of the athletic community to learn more about us.”  

Moore said she has similar goals.

“A lot of the time at our events we see the same faces,” Moore said. “I hope that we can reach other sports that aren’t as involved, but also I hope that we can reach the general population of students at BC. A lot of our events are open to everyone on campus, which I don’t think a lot of people are aware of.” 

(Courtesy of Sydney Moore)

For Sullivan, the future of the disability subcommittee is filled with opportunity. 

As she looks ahead to what comes next for Eagles for Equality, she’s far from playing catch up. Rather, Sullivan—like Moore and Gakdeng—is one of the few student-athletes on campus leading the movement to ensure that BC prioritized DEI. 

“It’s a little nerve-wracking for me, just because it’s so new, but I also think it gives me the opportunity for my members and I to create it how we want it,” Sullivan said. “Boston College’s motto is men and women for others, and I believe our group reflects that.” 

Graham Dietz contributed to reporting.

November 20, 2022