December 8, 2017
By Nancy George
DALLAS (SMU) – Biko McMillan was supposed to be named "Stanley," after his grandfather. But his father wanted a name that came with a legacy, so he named him after Steve Biko, South African anti-apartheid activist and leader of its 1960s and '70s black consciousness movement.
"When I think of my name, it's a lot to carry," says McMillan.
The SMU senior biological sciences and Spanish major from St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, is graduating Dec. 16. But McMillan is well on his way to living up to his name, says Creston Lynch, SMU director of multicultural affairs and a mentor to McMillan.
“Biko is an amazing example of how SMU shapes leaders," Lynch says.
After commencement McMillan plans to earn graduate degrees in science and public health. His dream? To become a researcher and leader at the National Institutes of Health or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"He can do that and much more," Lynch says. "Biko has the creativity and passion to come up with innovative solutions to longtime problems."
Growing up on the tropical Caribbean island of St. Croix, McMillan says he was always, "really, really curious about how things worked." After completing seventh grade, he joined STEMPREP, a six-week summer science research program designed to expose talented minority students to the sciences. Six years of research experience with STEMPREP in Dallas, Philadelphia and Bethesda confirmed McMillan's interest in science, but it broadened his outlook in other ways as well.
"When I left the Virgin Islands, my world opened up," McMillan says. "I didn't understand the nuances of race and I became more aware of inequality. I learned that minority representation matters a lot, particularly to kids who look like me and come from backgrounds like mine."
Service opportunities at SMU encouraged McMillan to address his own preconceptions. In 2014, he served as leader of SMU's alternative spring break trip to Austin's Blackland Community Development Corporation, a neighborhood program that serves homeless families. While raking leaves with a woman served by the program, he asked if he could practice speaking Spanish with her.
"In our conversation, I learned that she had two doctorate degrees. She shattered my stereotype of the homeless in one minute."
McMillan is former president of Sigma Lambda Beta fraternity and of the United Student's Association, an organization designed to unite campus communities through diverse leadership. He is a four-time alternative spring break leader and trainer, and former president of Open Minds, a mentorship program for foster care children of color. He also is a liaison between Hillel, SMU's Jewish student organization, and the campus multicultural community.
McMillan found another meaningful leadership role serving on the SMU Greek Life Diversity Task Force, formed in 2015 by former SMU Vice President of Student Affairs Lori White to review diversity issues in the SMU fraternity and sorority community. Several task force recommendations have been implemented, including the addition of cultural intelligence workshops to sorority and fraternity recruitment and the establishment of an all-Greek council designed to implement Greek community-wide programing. McMillan received a 2016-17 A. Kenneth Pye Outstanding Greek Leader Award for his service on the task force.
"I gained confidence from serving on the task force," he says. "I learned to facilitate conversations about race relations and better understand the dynamics of leadership."
His thoughtful participation led to other opportunities. "Biko learned to advocate for his community, to communicate effectively during conflict and to take accountability for his actions," Lynch says. "He became a strong, valuable voice representing students' perspectives."
McMillan met regularly with SMU President R. Gerald Turner and other stakeholders in support of creating a more diverse community at SMU, wrote editorials for the Daily Campus and never stopped looking for opportunities to engage in dialogue.
"Biko leads with influence," Lynch says. "Because of that he is invited to the table and included in conversations."