Being a Black women’s basketball player in the Ivy League
Eight student-athletes describe the perceptions, challenges and joys of the experience
It began as a standard trip to the grocery store for Gabby Donaldson and her parents.
A Black student at Harvard where she plays for the women’s basketball team, Donaldson was home with her family in Raleigh, North Carolina, after the coronavirus pandemic upended her sophomore season.
While waiting in line with her mom, Donaldson, dressed in a Harvard sweatshirt, caught the attention of a woman in line, who directed a question to Donaldson.
“You don’t actually go there, do you?’ the woman, who was white, asked with a smile.
“No, I do,” Donaldson answered proudly, in slight disbelief about the exchange.
Donaldson’s mother, standing beside her, stepped in.
“Yes, she does go there. She worked for it. She earned it.”
It’s an exchange that is not uncommon for Black students and Black student-athletes who attend Ivy League institutions, which have been historically viewed as exclusively white.
“I just hope that it brings to light that … people are still shocked to see Black people who attend Ivy League schools. That just shouldn’t be the case,” Donaldson said.
Andscape spoke to Black women’s basketball players representing each of the eight Ivy League institutions. They detailed the challenges and joys of their collegiate experiences, from dealing with microaggressions on their campuses to finding and creating communities with other Black athletes at their universities.
The participants are: Lexi Love, senior, Brown; Lillian Kennedy, senior, Columbia; Jada Davis, sophomore, Cornell; Karina Mitchell, senior, Dartmouth; Gabby Donaldson, senior, Harvard; Sydnei Caldwell, senior, Penn; Chet Nweke, junior, Princeton; and Nyla McGill, sophomore, Yale.
These interviews have been edited for clarity. All answers from each participant are not included. The Ivy League Women’s Basketball Tournament begins Friday and can be streamed on ESPN+.
What were your expectations of attending an Ivy League? Were there any hesitations related to diversity before your arrival?
Kennedy: With Columbia being in New York City, I kind of was coming into it really excited for what comes with living in New York City, like diversity. Prior to coming into Columbia, I was definitely excited for the different opportunities and different types of people I’d be able to interact with.
Mitchell: In terms of academics, I expected to come into a rigorous institution with really high expectations. I expected a lot of work. I expected a grind. In terms of social and racial climate, I knew Dartmouth was very underrepresented in terms of minorities. I couldn’t set the expectations for that. I grew up in a diverse city, and went to diverse schools. I was never around just a predominantly white crowd. That was something I knew to expect but couldn’t really prepare myself for.
Donaldson: Coming into Harvard, I came in with a great expectancy of diversity, knowing Harvard and knowing that so many people come from all over the world. Thinking about the different types of people I could meet from all walks of life was really exciting to me. A lot of people, when I got into Harvard, they made comments like, ‘oh, I thought that was just for rich people or for white people.’ They never really saw people that looked like me go into a space like that.
Caldwell: I feel like for me personally I was nervous, especially being a transfer student. Being at a previous institution [Arizona State], I kind of knew what to expect going into my third year, but it’s like this is a whole new university, it’s Ivy League. The academic stress while being able to manage it being a Division I athlete as well and then the community was just so open but also made you feel independent, too. … It was just like, ok, what am I to expect, how am I going to manage the class load, the travel schedule?
Nweke: I know Princeton, it’s like 10% African American, so I kind of knew there wasn’t going to be as much diversity as I would have expected if I were to go to any other school.
Love: My [recruiting] class — it was like three Black athletes. I was not expecting that at all. I wasn’t expecting to see a lot of people that looked like me. To be able to come into that was very fortunate. As far as the rest of the school body, I feel like it’s very diverse here at Brown.
McGill: I knew I was coming into a diverse institution with a lot of international students and not a huge Black population. I’m also from the South, so just coming to the north was a big culture shock for me.
Davis: Coming here I knew there was going to be a lot of academic pressure as well as athletic pressure. … I knew it was also predominantly white, even on my team it’s predominantly white. It has been, even in the athletic community, it’s a lot more diverse than in my high school. I can look around and see a lot of people like me that look like me.
“When I tell people that I’m going to Princeton, it’s just that sense of like ‘oh, wow, you’re going to Princeton?’ It’s kind of a shock just because you see the people that go to these prestigious institutions and I guess people look at me or my skin color and are like, ‘oh, wow, how are you there?’ “— Chet Nweke
Gabby, you mentioned comments people made about your attending Harvard. Where did those come from and did anyone experience something similar?
Donaldson: It actually came from people at my high school. A lot of people just had what movies depict Harvard to be, how it shows up in the media sometimes or notable alumni like [Facebook CEO] Mark Zuckerberg. That’s the Harvard they were looking at.
Nweke: When I tell people that I’m going to Princeton, it’s just that sense of like ‘oh, wow, you’re going to Princeton?’ It’s kind of a shock just because you see the people that go to these prestigious institutions and I guess people look at me or my skin color and are like, ‘oh, wow, how are you there?’ I’d get people being shocked at the fact that I’m going here to play a sport.
Love: When I would tell someone I’m going to Brown, people would quickly assume it has to be for sports. They think you can’t be smart enough to go to an Ivy League. That’s very interesting, too.
McGill: Definitely going to a high school where there’s a small Black population, the first claim, other than sports, was that it was affirmative action and, ‘oh, you’re just a minority.’
What kind of school environments did you attend prior to Ivy? How did that impact your transition to your universities?
Caldwell: I went to three high schools, we moved around a lot, but they were all predominantly white private schools. Mainly the only Black people at the school were athletes. I went to a really small private school so we didn’t have a football team. Basketball was the big sport. So it was me and my teammates.
McGill: I will say it wasn’t much of a transition for me because of the area I’m from where there’s a lot of subtle and blatant racism going on and just a lot of prejudices towards females and women of color in particular. Coming to the Ivy League, I adopted the mentality that nothing was going to surprise me and that I’m going to focus on the positives and focus on building connections with people that are being supportive.
Nweke: I’d agree with that. I’m coming from a high school where we had 100 students in our senior class and three of them were Black. I’m kind of just used to being that minority. It wasn’t much of a shock when I came to Princeton.
Kennedy: I also came from a predominantly white area and I think that did prepare me to kind of know what to expect or how to handle myself coming to an institution like this. It’s important that you find your group of people that you vibe with, you connect with especially, because if there’s a lot of people around that don’t look like you, you want to be able to find that group.
Was going to/playing for an Ivy League something you always wanted?
Kennedy: I’ll say no. I kind of had the same stigma that everybody else has with Ivy Leagues. It was for the best of the best, the smartest of the smartest, the valedictorians. I was like, yeah, I was smart, but I’m not Ivy League smart. I didn’t grow up saying I’m going to go to an Ivy League one day.
Nweke: For me, I have two older brothers who also go to Ivy League schools, so my parents kind of really pushed the whole Ivy League thing on all of us.
Donaldson: When I was a little girl, my whole family was really big on faith, and there’s a Scripture that talks about writing a vision and making it plain. When I was a little girl, I would tell people that I’m going to Harvard, that’s where I want to go. … It wasn’t until my junior year that I realized ‘hey, I have a shot at the Ivy League,’ and I’m so glad that I pursued it.
Love: I wouldn’t say I dreamed of going to an Ivy League. I would say I was pretty open to any program that would take a chance on me. As far as being confident enough and being like can I handle the Ivy League, I definitely had doubts at times, but I feel like representation is definitely key and me being here has been such a good experience. I feel like I’m able to show young girls, my little sister, that this is possible.
As a Black student-athlete, is there anything about your experience at your institution that differentiates from that of, say, your teammates who aren’t of color?
Kennedy: This is pretty top of mind just because it recently happened, but I would say the non-people of color on my team don’t necessarily have to deal with being the person, or one of the people, that is contacted to make a Martin Luther King video or talk about ‘XYZ.’ There was a lot of backlash that came from the MLK video that the league decided to do. They had one female and one male from each basketball team recite some closing piece of an MLK speech. Just kind of having to almost feel like you have to feed into the performative actions sometimes that the Ivy League does choose to do. … Or whenever [the 2020 social justice movement was] happening and all of that it was constantly like, ‘hey. can you record a video on this, or be a part of this?’
Mitchell: At Dartmouth there’s a group of people – I’d say maybe 30, 40% of the school, especially when I first got to Dartmouth – that believe that athletes didn’t deserve to be here as much as individuals who got here strictly on academics. There’s also a group of people that believe that minority students are only here because laws got put in place to increase equity. Being a Black student-athlete, I was, like, a double negative sometimes.
Going into some of my STEM classes and people are looking at me because they think that I’m lost. I’m looking at them, like, what are you looking at? Group work, getting assigned the easiest thing on a project, it was kind of like a shot at me. We’re going to give you the easiest thing because we don’t think you can handle it.
Davis: I definitely feel like there are times where it’s really apparent how differently we grew up. Recently there was a problem with me and a white teammate. There’s this one teammate who sometimes makes very insensitive comments about certain racial groups. …The one time I was not there and my other Black teammate was not there, she had said something about Black people and it got back to us. I got very upset, my other teammate got very upset. We had told her multiple times before this … you can’t say stuff like this and she continuously said it. We brought our coach into it because she wasn’t listening to us … and we had a discussion with her after that.
Obviously I love them and I know they love me, but there are times when it’s just so obvious how different we all can be. So that can be hard.
We’ve had discussions about it and I think they do try and learn from where me and my other teammate are coming from. They haven’t grown up around a lot of people of color so I try to be understanding about that as well and try and help them. But that can be difficult as well because on the one hand I don’t feel like it’s my job to teach them things, but also if no one else is going to do it, it kind of has to be you.
“Me being able to be in [Harvard coach Carrie Moore’s] ear — player to a coach, Black woman to a Black woman — constantly reminding her to keep her head up and know that she’s doing a great job, it’s just been an incredible experience.” – Gabby Donaldson
Are there any assumptions that come with being a Black student-athlete at an Ivy League institution?
Caldwell: I feel like just being a Black student-athlete sometimes, especially at an Ivy League institution or any institution, people are like, ‘oh, you just got here because of athletics. If you didn’t play a sport, you wouldn’t be here.’ I really feel like, especially being at an Ivy League, no, you’re getting in because your GPA is getting you in, that SAT and ACT got you in. Of course athletics helps, but it doesn’t do the job.
Donaldson: A lot of times people don’t know that we can’t get athletic scholarships. They’re like, ‘oh, you’re on scholarship’ and I’m like no we had to go through the process and apply like every other student. Of course there’s a different way recruiting works, a different process we have to go through, but at the same time I constantly had to say I had to apply like everyone else, do well in school like everyone else.
For those of you who play for a Black coach, do you believe that has positively impacted your experience?
Mitchell: If I’ve gone to any of these previous [Black] coaches with some kind of issue or conflict that I was having regarding my race and my experience, they’ve been very comforting in helping me understand that, in real life, I’m more than likely going to deal with this the rest of my life. I aspire to go into the health care profession and I want to be a surgeon and there’s not a lot of African American female surgeons. The microaggressions, the shots at my intelligence or my belonging, that’s something I’m going to deal with for the rest of my career, rest of my life. I think they’ve done a good job being an outlet and resource to let me vent when I’m frustrated but also being mentors and guiding me and helping me learn and work through situations.
Kennedy: When I first got here, my Black assistant coach was real quick to get me her Black braider’s phone number or let me know the spots to get hair products. Around here, unless you go to Harlem, you’re not going to find that. Letting me know the good spots to eat at that I could relate to. So connecting with her in that sense and also with discussing imposter syndrome — ways to continue to express my Blackness and be proud and comfortable with it.
Donaldson: My experience is a unique one. We just got Carrie Moore as our head coach, Black woman. Sixty percent of the coaching staff is Black; we have three Black coaches out of five. For me, I realize that there’s just this part of myself that hadn’t fully been brought out here. It’s not that I didn’t feel comfortable in the space — our coaching staff was awesome, teammates are amazing. To be able to go into the coach’s office and talk about hair products, talk about what it’s like to be a Black woman in a space that is predominantly white and how to show up in spaces and be confident.
On the flip side, me as a player being able to constantly encourage my coach and lift her up. There’s only two Black head coaches in the Ivy League. Me being able to be in her ear — player to a coach, Black woman to a Black woman — constantly reminding her to keep her head up and know that she’s doing a great job, it’s just been an incredible experience. I don’t think I realized the power of representation in close spaces like this until she walked through the door in April.
Caldwell: Most definitely. Just seeing people in positions – I have had an interest in getting into coaching – who look like you in positions of authority and power.
Lillian, you made a comment about experiencing a sense of imposter syndrome. Can you expand a bit more on that experience and has anyone else experienced that?
Kennedy: Especially at my school, there isn’t very [much] Black female athlete representation here. I think [my assistant coach] just really continued to challenge and push me to use my voice in as many areas as possible, and challenge me to not feel as though I have to keep myself in this box or sit in the background. She recognized that I have leadership qualities and to use them in ways that are beneficial.
For example, we started our Black student-athlete alliance back in 2020. Me and my other teammate were a part of the co-founding board. Really challenging us and empowering us to use our voices in spaces, I maybe would have hesitated in doing so because I don’t see a lot of female representation or Black female student-athlete representation in those spaces.
Lillian, what has been the response to the creation of that group?
Kennedy: Overall positive reactions, but I think there’s still work that needs to be done. You can tell that we’re kind of a lower-tier organization. We’re kind of, like, asking for money some of the time or just wanting to be in those conversations with our athletic director.
One big reason why myself and a couple of other athletes wanted to create this is because we realized that we needed a safe space for us Black athletes to come together. What I realized, besides from my teammates who I am very close with, the other Black athletes I would see would really just be like a head nod wave. I didn’t really know a lot of them. I didn’t really have this space where we could connect with each other and actually be friends. Not only was it important to create a safe space where people could come together, talk about their grievances, things that we think can be improved or help improve the Black student-athlete experience, but also just really being a space where we could have fun, connect, low stakes, low stress.
Many of you are upperclassmen and were on your teams during 2020, during the height of the recent social justice movement. What kinds of conversations were you having with your coaches, your teammates?
Kennedy: When everything kind of went down, my coach felt as though it was going to be important to get together as a team to talk about it. She wasn’t the type to just let it sit on the back burner. She knows there are Black women on this team and it’s important to address it. She took the approach of creating an open forum where we could talk about how we were feeling, our teammates and everybody else who wasn’t Black being able to express their support, how they want to be allies.
Nweke: My coach did a really good job of bringing us together in the midst of everything. Kind of just having a really necessary and important discussion. Seeing how we were feeling, seeing how everyone on our team and our whole group was feeling about everything that was going on. I think that was really important so that we could hear other Black people on our team’s perspectives but also we made tangible goals as far as how other people on our team can inform themselves more of what was going on.
Donaldson: That moment and movement brought so much attention and recognition to privilege. I think that, of course, the Black student-athletes on my team were offered a lot of support from our coaches, from our teammates. I think like everyone else, I think our coaches were trying to find tangible ways to contribute and also continue to contribute once we were back in person. One thing like buying from Black-owned businesses when we were traveling on the road getting food. I think the biggest thing was it was a learning experience for everyone.
Love: We got a brand-new coaching staff right before [the murder of ] George Floyd happened. I think as a Black athlete I was definitely thinking what is this new coach and staff about to say about this because this is something big and, as a Black athlete, I want to know how you’re thinking. I think the efforts from the coaching staff were definitely genuine. If I’m being honest, I do think there was a sense of just being performative. We were on calls where all of the white coaches and players just looked toward the Black athletes to just explain everything – which was a lot. We just watched a man die on national television and you want us to express how we feel even though we’ve been doing this for a while. Then just to touch on performative — we did all that, but then what are we doing now? We’re not doing those Zoom calls anymore.
McGill: I was in high school when everything happened. I did not know how the coach was handling it. … I think our old coach came from a lot of privilege so a lot of the things she did were also pretty performative. I looked to reach [out] to the Black athletes that were already on the team at Yale to see what they were thinking about it and they were the ones telling me she was just pulling meetings because she just felt that she had to and that there was a lot of pressure to do so. Otherwise, she didn’t really want to do it out of a sense of desire to bring the team together. … The coaching change definitely changed the culture from a performative standpoint to a place of desire.
Did you feel like as a Black athlete you were doing a lot of heavy lifting in terms of being that reference point for your peers? Was that a burden?
Love: I 100% felt like it was a burden. I got a million texts, calls, voicemails. I just wanted to breathe. Fortunately because I came in with three other Black athletes, I think two of them were OK explaining basic concepts some of our white players didn’t understand. Personally, I wasn’t. I was genuinely just tired.
McGill: I would say there was a sense of discomfort at first like in your high school history class when they played a video of the civil rights movement and everybody turned in your direction. That’s kind of how it felt with this. After a while, I was sick of it and it did feel like a burden. Then I wanted to turn the page and turn it more into like, yes, this is what Black people do. We do this and we do this. I wanted to talk about it from more of a pride standpoint rather than explaining why we can’t do certain things.
Donaldson: I think for me, my biggest thing was being a bridge. There were a lot of people on a spectrum. Some of my teammates didn’t want to speak at all. Some people were halfway. Even myself, the phone calls, the text messages, they were appreciated but it was overwhelming in a sense. I just am really big on connections and making sure that peace is maintained while the truth is being told.
I think turning away from the text messages and the phone calls and actually strategizing ways. We know you’re sorry. This is hurting us, it hurts us to constantly talk about how we’re feeling and the burden we’re feeling but actually looking to make actionable steps I think is something that helped me see it as more of an opportunity.
Do you feel like that sense of urgency that was felt in 2020, the changes that your institutions promised to work toward in regards to race and diversity has continued, now in 2023?
Mitchell: I think yes. I would especially credit our new athletic director. He just started this year, came in, and personally wanted to meet with our Black student-athlete alliance. He’s already making tangible changes. I really appreciate that.
Kennedy: We’ve definitely maintained that. … I would definitely say my coach has made it very clear it’s not a performative thing we’re doing and we’re going to continue having those conversations.
Nweke: I definitely know that the support is there, I don’t think that’s dropped off at all. Not that it’s performative or anything like that, but I do think that there’s not enough outward showing that, ‘hey, we still support the Black community in whatever way shape or form.’ … I think there was a big emphasis on it from 2020 to 2022 but I do think it’s important to keep that going.
Anyone involved in Greek life at their institutions?
Donaldson: I am in Alpha Kappa Alpha Inc., first and finest. We have a few D9 [Divine Nine] Greek orgs here. It’s really nice. There’s not a ton of us up here, particularly with Harvard’s campus. The cool thing is my chapter is citywide. I get to connect with Black women on three different campuses — Harvard, MIT, and Wellesley. That’s another thing: Especially when it comes to athletics, a lot of the guys who are on Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Inc., are on the football team. We support each other at basketball games, at football games. My line sister is on the track team. That gave us another outlet as a few of us are Black athletes at different institutions across the different organizations. Our football captain is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. That gave us just a chance to expand our athlete circle and our Black circle.
Have you sought out other Black student communities outside of athletics? How important has that been to your experience?
Caldwell: Here there’s a lot of communities, even outside of athletics. There’s BSAC — Black Student-Athlete Committee. Some of my former teammates who recently graduated, they started it. This is the second year it’s really been running. They’ll host events for the Black student population to gather together and have time separate from the regular student-athlete population just for the Black student-athletes to gather and talk about issues.
Mitchell: We have the Black Student-Athlete Alliance. They’ve been around at Dartmouth for 3½ years, starting around COVID. They do so many great things for the African American athletes. They do a really good job of hosting these nice events that are beneficial. Just like letting everybody know hey, you have a community here, you’re not alone. It’s amazing because it’s just for us. It’s just for the Black people. I think it’s been a big influence in making Dartmouth a better experience for everyone.
Davis: I’m a part of a group called WOCA — Women of Color in Athletics. I haven’t been to too many meetings, but it is nice to be there. You don’t have to talk about superimportant topics or anything, but we get together and make candles or we have a Sunday brunch — come together and talk. It’s nice to have that outlet.
Is there anything you’d like to add about your experience, perhaps specifically what the joys of being a Black student-athlete at your institution are?
Donaldson: I think just the recognition of the people who came here before me, starting with W.E.B. Du Bois a long time ago, just thinking about the people who were here and quite frankly had it a lot worse than I do diversitywise. Just thinking about how much I admire them and how I’m an example of something like that to people who are going to come here in the future. It’s just really powerful.
Nweke: Also, just being role models. Being a role model for young girls that Black women can really make it in the Ivy League. Whether that’s playing sports or just being a normal student. We can make it, we can thrive and we can succeed.