Every person who walks into Cherisse Daniels’ office is immediately welcomed by the tapestry on her wall of a black woman with her natural hair out and a crown atop her head.
“Black queen,” Daniels said. “Black women are told we can’t be this way or can’t look this way, we can’t do this, we can’t do that, [but] I want to show young ladies that yes you can and you’re very powerful.”
Daniels is the Director of Multicultural Student Affairs at Messiah University. She oversees the Multicultural Scholarship Program, mentors the student leaders who run cultural organizations on campus and supports domestic students of color. That being said, Daniels’ role requires much more of her than simply what her résumé suggests.
“[Daniels] wants to see students succeed and thrive and she’s aggressive in that regard. She’s going to remove whatever obstacles are in the way for her students’ success,” Dr. Todd Allen, the Vice President for Diversity Affairs at Messiah, said.
“The nature of her work is not nine-to-five…There’s some people working in higher ed spaces that think that there’s a certain time or a certain day of the week where they’re off the clock,” Allen said. “That’s not Cherisse. She is continually available for her students.”
Born two months premature, Daniels embraces the fact that she has always been a fighter from the beginning. She was raised by her grandfather in inner city Reading, Pennsylvania and recalls many moments when she struggled in her own journey to even get to college.
“I don’t have that normal childhood story,” Daniels said as she began to share her background. The neighborhood where she grew up was a “rough area,” and “a lot of my friends that I can think of now are in caskets or in jail.”
That being said, Daniels and her grandfather both sought more for her future.
“[My grandfather] always said, ‘you have to go to college.’ He didn’t know anything about college, but he said, ‘you have to go to college,’” Daniels said. “I knew that I did not want to be a statistic and I did not want to end up like a lot of people around me.”
After she graduated high school, Daniels was off to Shippensburg University.
“I came from a very diverse area so when I got to Shippensburg University, it was a culture shock. All you saw was cow manure and a bunch of white individuals,” she said. “Nobody looked like me so I was very shocked by everything that I saw because I was never used to it. And I think it was really hard to navigate because I would be in classrooms where I would be one of three, one of two or the only [black person].”
Being in a space where no one looked like her was a struggle, especially when she had been raised without a mother figure. Because of this, Daniels had learned to take in the world’s definition of beauty, and this affected her own self-perception drastically.
“When I first came to Shippensburg…maybe I was scared of my own voice or something,” Daniels said.
Her undergraduate boss and mentor, Director of Shippensburg’s Multicultural Student Affairs Diane Jefferson, was determined to help her become more confident about who she was.
“Her motto was you’re either going to sink or swim. If you sink, I’m going to pull you out. If you swim, I’m going to be right by your side… that’s why she gave me so much confidence in myself and then I began to like the sound of my voice,” Daniels said. “I began to feel comfortable to express how I feel, to stand up for people.”
Three years following her undergraduate graduation at Shippensburg, Daniels decided to obtain her master’s degree. She had earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology and hoped with her graduate degree, she could become a mental health counselor.
To support herself and pay for her education, Daniels worked as a graduate assistant for the university’s Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, working alongside her mentor, Jefferson, which led her to fall in love with helping students of color through their college journeys.
Daniels has worked in Messiah’s office of Multicultural Student Affairs for two and a half years now and was promoted to the director position this past January.
“I always wanted to be Ms. Di. I always wanted to be a Director of Multicultural Student Affairs Programs and I never actually thought I would get there that quick,” she said.
Senior Fatimah Jan says Daniels provides a “safe space” on Messiah’s campus for her and other multicultural students.
“It’s almost like when I walk into a space with Cherisse or with other mentors that I have on campus, I can shed this hard exterior that I’m holding onto while I’m walking around in a campus that kind of looks at me [differently]. I can be real,” Jan said.
Jan noted that students of color are often told they must fit into a narrative of who they must be in the eyes of white American society, but that Daniels works to fight that narrative and remind students of who they really are.
Daniels asserted that representation is crucial for young people, especially those who are black and people of color.
She said, “When students see you and see that they look like you and you look like them, they see a safe person. That’s just how it is at predominately white institutions.”
Daniels has achieved so much, but she never forgets to point to those who helped her get to where she is now. With a deep respect for those who have helped guide her—her grandfather, Jefferson and so many more—Daniels has since devoted herself to empowering students of color on Messiah’s campus for the foreseeable future.