As a student at the University of Washington, Garrett quickly realized the importance of getting involved on campus and taking on leadership roles. He knew that by stepping outside of his comfort zone and taking on new challenges, he would be able to grow as a person and develop valuable skills and experiences as a leader.
Garrett was introduced to the director of the University of Washington Black Student Commission (BSC) in his first quarter as a freshman, and that is where his leadership journey at the UW began. “I ended up becoming an intern for the BSC my first quarter and that’s how my transition began into getting more involved in the community,” said Garrett. While he was trying to find his place on campus, and while interning with the BSC he also joined the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Incorporated. Alpha Phi Alpha (APA) Fraternity Incorporated was the first historically Black fraternity in the nation, founded in 1906 in Ithaca, New York. Members of Alpha Phi Alpha over the years have included leaders such as W.E.B. DuBois, Edward Brooke, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thurgood Marshall, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell, and many elected officials, authors, musicians and notable celebrities.
Through joining APA, Garrett was also introduced to the regional National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC), otherwise known as the Divine Nine (D9). NPHC is an organization of nine historically Black fraternities and sororities with the primary purpose, according to their mission statement, to focus on “community awareness and action through educational, economic, and cultural service activities.” The NPHC was founded during a time when, “African Americans were being denied essential rights and privileges afforded others. Racial isolation on predominantly white campuses and social barriers of class on all campuses created a need for African Americans to align themselves with other individuals sharing common goals and ideals.” Many of these same barriers still exist in access to college and in finding belonging while attending many universities across the country. As Garrett was becoming more connected on campus, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the UW Seattle campus, and everything went remote.
After some uncertainty caused by the pandemic, Garrett secured a position as a Residence Advisor (RA), while at the same time being courted to run for office to serve on the regional NPHC board. With some encouragement from the outgoing NPHC vice president, he decided to take up the challenge and was elected NPHC president. “I grew up in a D9 household and I know what experiences my parents had in college being involved,” said Garrett. He continued, “it’s just more difficult at a predominantly white institution because the culture just isn’t there yet for people to understand what the D9 means and implies.” Various members of Garrett’s family belong to six of the nine historically Black fraternities and sororities as well, so when he joined APA, he was already somewhat familiar with NPHC Greek-letter organizations. Around this time, he also agreed to participate in the Office of Minority Affairs and Diversity Student Advisory Board, advising the vice president of OMA&D on student needs.
During the pandemic he led the other historically Black fraternities and sororities through online activities, mixers and other events that helped keep membership active in each organization. This included joint events to build community coordinated with the NPHC, BSC , and the UW Seattle Black Student Union. Another project that Garrett spearheaded was the creation and placement of the Divine Nine crests, carved in wood, and prominently placed on a wall in the Husky Union Building, creating for the first time a permanent representation of the NPHC Greek-letter organizations on the UW campus. Garrett describes the unveiling of the crests, “We had had almost a hundred people come in, alumni from the school who were involved. People were coming up in their old jackets to come out and see.” He continued, “because it really felt, to me, their college experience had been validated. I feel like we all gave them something that says, ‘we see you,’ and it’s something that they can show to their kids.”
All the while, Garrett was also growing more in his RA role and taking on more responsibility. He applied for an open Assistant Resident Director (ARD) position. “I ended up getting it. I was the youngest selected in my cycle,” said Garrett. In his senior year, stepping away from NPHC leadership, he became the newest director of the UW Black Student Commission. His priorities as director are to give voice to entities on campus that may not have a platform of their own, to revitalize the Black community on campus post-pandemic, and to help student led organizations remember or reinvent campus traditions that helped shape the Black student experience on campus before COVID-19.
Garrett has come a long way since his first year on campus. As he reflects on his growth he also looks to the future. “I’m no longer just someone out there, the random dude who came in scared in the election meeting. I’m somebody that people know as the leader of NPHC, of the BSC, and someone who’s engaged in things and I’m starting to see growth in my own life.” He is not finished learning or dreaming of how he can continue to change the world. “I’m a Psychology major. I’m currently a senior and I’m trying to pursue law. My main goal is to one day be a district attorney in LA County.” Garrett sees inequities and uneven representation in the courts and want to help reshape the power dynamic between the prosecutor’s office and the judges who he believes do not understand the people who appear in their courtrooms.
This year for Black History Month, we recognize and celebrate the accomplishments and contributions of Calen Garrett as we also honor the deep and meaningful contributions of Black students, faculty and staff through the history of the UW.
You can visit the UW Black Opportunity Fund to find out how you may be able to support Black students, faculty, staff and registered student organizations on the UW Seattle campus.