Josh Dawson still remembers his first day of general chemistry at the University of Washington.
Walking into a lecture hall of 650 students, Dawson, a Federal Way High School graduate, was one of maybe five African-American students in the room.
Thanks to family and mentors, though, Dawson was prepared for being a small fish in a very white pond on campus.
They all told him to find his community, a support system to help him process the reality: African-Americans at the University of Washington are scarce.
For the next two-plus years, Dawson and five other students from Federal Way realized just how isolated they were.
The six came together to help the university re-establish the Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity’s Kappa Lambda Chapter on campus. And, on May 26, the six became the chapter’s first line of pledges since 2009.
“We plan to be very present,” Dawson said. “We plan on showing students that this can be a community for them, a brotherhood that’s about community, scholarship and service.”
The University of Washington Seattle campus has a student population of just over 46,000. Approximately only 3.5 percent of that population is African-American.
Walking the halls at UW was far different than the halls of Federal Way High School. Dawson saw fellow African-American students in every direction possible at home, but that wasn’t the case on the 703-acre campus.
Luckily, in high school, he was warned by former Eagles who went on to UW that, at some point, he would feel very out of place. The key to overcoming that feeling was to find and take advantage of the resources the university provided through the Office of Minority Affairs.
“I remember getting a rude awakening,” Dawson said. “It came like a slap in the face like, ‘Wow.’ I thought back to my time and my friends at Federal Way High School, friends who didn’t make it to this level of education. [Being African-American] can be tough, for sure.”
Early on, Dawson kept to himself. Since he’s in a joint medical/PhD program, he had plenty of school work and projects to keep him busy.
Throughout his first two years on campus, he began attracting attention from other African-American students involved or interested in fraternity life. They asked what he thought about Greek life and whether he was interested. Dawson spent two-plus years brushing off offer after offer.
What Dawson noticed, however, was no matter how many times he refused, those same students still stopped to say hello, asked if he needed anything and just got to know him.
“Once I realized that there were opportunities here for me, it really became real for me,” he said. “And the more they invested in me, and saw me more than just a recruiting tool for this chapter, that I was Josh Dawson, it was real, and I wanted to be a part of it.”
And, after an experience with the Rotary Boys and Girls Club in Seattle’s Central District, that “want” became a need.
Dawson interviewed the club’s executive director for a class assignment. During the interview, she told a story about an African-American girl who was on the club’s basketball team. She was a natural at the sport and likely had a future in it.
After word got out about her poor report card, she was removed from the team.
The girl returned a month later asking to be reinstated on the team. She showed she had turned things around and was receiving straight As. What the director told Dawson next, changed him forever. It not only affirmed his desire to work with children — it sold him on the fraternity.
“She said to the girl, ‘What took you so long?’ And the girl replied, ‘No one expected me to,’ ” Dawson said. “That story had such an impact on me. It reaffirmed my belief that the most important things students need is mentorship, somebody on the other side who can just tell them they can. It made me more directional in what I wanted to pursue.”
Dawson said one of the problems with UW when it comes to attracting the students from Federal Way is not being able to show students that there’s a black community on campus.
“Bringing back and re-establishing Greek life and this chapter is huge,” he said. “Now, when students come to visit the campus, they can see that there is an established chapter, a community with support.”
Dawson proceeded with the plan to help the university re-establish the prestigious Phi Beta Sigma Kappa Lambda Chapter by reaching out to people he knew —Federal Way alums Joel Allen, Yarid Mera, Kolawole Akinlosotu, Devin Pegues and Treyvon-Conrad Webster.
With the help of the Phi Beta Sigma alumni chapter of the greater Seattle area, Dawson successfully helped re-launch Sigma at UW in May.
Nationally, Phi Beta Sigma, among others, has produced names like George Washington Carver, Bill Clinton (honorary) and Richard Sherman.
For Dawson, the work was hard, but the finished product was well worth it.
“Without organizations like Sigma, it becomes almost impossible for a place like Seattle to attract other African-American students,” he said. “I believe that there’s a community here. We have a lot of different resources available here to help diverse students thrive. If you’re a minority you think, ‘Oh, well, can I really do well on this campus?’ Yes, you can. Look at any one of my fellow line brothers’ bios. Let that be your evidence.”
Dawson is grateful for the early days in chemistry class.
When he raises his hand, and before being called on, he would wonder how he and the other four black students in the class would be judged if he got the answer wrong.
Dawson doesn’t want the next generation to feel that same pressure. It’s why he’s returned the last three summers to Federal Way schools to give them the same tips he was given.
It’s also why, once he eventually graduates from medical school, Dawson wants to someday build and operate a school in Ethiopia.
Through mentorship, Dawson wants to spread the message that mentoring can change the course of education, no matter a student’s race or socioeconomic background.
The message starts with a chemistry lesson.
“If I had raised my hand and given a wrong answer, it’s not hard there to think I look bad for all the black people here,” Dawson said. “Instead, I’ve decided to flip the switch, change my way of thinking. If I say something good or noteworthy, then guess what? I look good for all of black [people], too.”