Jessica in the Middle: Forging Understanding and Promoting Identity

by Pamela M. Christian

The eldest daughter and middle child of an interracial couple, Jessica Barron ’05, Ph.D., felt called to racial reconciliation at a Christian youth camp at age 16. She drew upon her personal experience as a multiethnic minority to fuel her understanding of the struggles of others and her commitment to breaking down barriers.

Relocation from the diverse multicultural community she enjoyed as a resident of Los Angeles to the seemingly homogenous demographic of Denver as a teen presented significant challenges and some harsh lessons. As a high school student within that context, she discovered that her biracial nuclear and extended families were anomalies. She described the city as segregated, where racial identity was an all-or-nothing concept, forcing people to identify with a single ethnic identity. When it came time to select a college, she looked for a place that would reflect the diversity of the surrounding community and the Kingdom.

She chose Azusa Pacific. As a recruit for the Multi-Ethnic Leadership (MEL) Scholarship, Barron’s expectations were high. However, she soon came to realize that the APU campus of that time was much like her Denver school, only in a California setting. “What could have been a racial utopia was starkly segregated, but for a different reason,” said Barron. She recognized that APU had the heart for and tools to embody a God-honoring, racially reconciled community, but that the Christ followers within the organization were unfamiliar with available resources and how to employ them effectively. True to her calling, she set her mind to leading the way.

In spring 2003, Barron—nominated and selected from among 23 campus leaders—participated in the National Multicultural Institute’s diversity trainer preparation. As one of only two student members and the only undergraduate of the 15-person team that included the provost and a cross-section of faculty and staff, Barron not only engaged in the experience, but also provided meaningful insights during group discussions. Upon returning to campus, the team collaborated on the development of the university’s Imago Dei diversity training curriculum. Once implemented, more than 400 APU employees completed the training, which is still offered through the Office of Human Resources. That opportunity served as one of many vehicles for this emerging scholar to facilitate racial reconciliation. She also became an active MEL scholar, participated in student government, held a variety of leadership positions, and engaged in campus efforts to advance God-honoring diversity and promote accountability in this important area.

Barron demonstrated equal tenacity in the classroom. She participated in the Oxford Semester, and graduated in the top 10 percent of her class. As she reminisces about her journey at APU, she recounts the challenge of balancing being a biracial student and diversity advocate in a racially maturing academic environment. While she navigated the environment well, she knows that many students were not as fortunate during this time of communal growth. Today, the Office of Academic Advising and Retention, Office of Diversity, and Student Center for Reconciliation and Diversity work collaboratively to ensure that all students feel welcomed and valued at Azusa Pacific. The passionate students, staff, and faculty in these areas not only minimize the difficulties that first-generation and underrepresented students may encounter, but also provide personal connections and practical resources that set the foundation for a positive educational experience.

Barron’s drive to transform higher education through research and academic leadership led her to pursue an M.A. in Sociology at Loyola University Chicago on a full scholarship. Immediately following completion of her master’s degree, she began doctoral study at Texas A&M University, receiving one of only three full fellowships the program offers. She successfully defended her dissertation—“Living in the Middle: Multiracials, Residential Segregation, and the Fate of the U.S. Color-Line”—on June 26, 2013, and began her postdoctoral fellowship at Duke University in summer 2013. This prestigious fellowship positions her to continue her social justice advocacy as a scholar within the academy. Her response to the Lord’s call to racial reconciliation through academic excellence will equip future generations to demonstrate value for all God’s people.

Originally published in the Winter '13 issue of APU Life. Download the PDF or view all issues.