Cleopatra’s Sisters founder, alumna returns for an in-person discussion

By Piper Sartison
Elm Staff Writer

On Friday, April 15, the Washington College community was invited to join the student-led sisterhood Cleopatra’s Sisters event, “In Our Words,” featuring author and WC alumna Zylia Knowlin ’95 at Rose O’Neill Literary House at 4 p.m.

According to the organization’s Instagram account, Knowlin’s discussion is part of several events during Cleo’s Week, which is from Sunday, April 10 to Saturday, April 16. During the week, members celebrated the 30th anniversary of the organization’s 1992 inception.

In addition to being the founder of Cleopatra’s Daughters — now Sisters — and the Dale Adams Heritage Exchange — now the Black Student Union — Knowlin also contributed to the WC campus newspaper The Elm and graduated with a major in history and a minor in education. 

Since graduation, she wrote two books, “the latest of which being ‘1991,’” according to the April 14 email sent by Cleopatra’s Sisters advisor Christalyn J. Grandison ’11.  

Following Knowlin’s reading an excerpt from “1991,” there was a facilitated discussion regarding “the student experience, utilizing creative outlets, and maintaining connections between alumni and current students” during one’s collegiate career, according to the Apri1 14 email. 

According to Knowlin, “1991,” which focuses on the experiences of a young African American college student, was based on her own time as a WC student. 

“My experiences at WC were my experiences,” Knowlin said. “It is a collection of stories that [I] obtained through my lifetime.” 

“It’s a story that we all can relate to; it doesn’t even matter what school you go to, or what walk of life you come from, it’s [an] experience of going to school,” Knowlin said. “In 1991, when I first attended, there [were] about 10 [students of color]. It was a culture shock…Having to assimilate and [retain] who I was culturally; that is what this story’s all about.”

Throughout the book, Knowlin said she used pseudonyms to protect the identities of students that she attended WC with, including changing the name of her alma mater to the fictional “Walcott College.”

In an effort to raise awareness about the discrimination she faced during her collegiate career, Knowlin said she wanted to address this with WC.

“I wrote many articles [for The Elm] to speak out against what we felt was oppression, and what we felt was silencing of our voices — [and] 30 years later, our organization still stands,” Knowlin said. “[And with BSU] we made waves. We came, and our voices were heard.”

“It may have been a little stagnant at first, but [they heard us], and we were recognized,” Knowlin said. 

Upon graduating in 1995, Knowlin was awarded merits and honorable certificates from WC in recognition of her efforts against racism within the community. 

While Knowlin said she contemplated transferring from the College because of the adversity and discrimination she and her peers faced on campus, it was “[her] choice to endure” and go after what she wanted most. 

“[It was my choice to] show myself that I can do anything that I want to do — and I wanted to attend WC,” Knowlin said. 

Photo by Olivia Dorsey

Featured Photo Caption: On Friday, April 15, WC graduate and founder of Cleopatra’s Sisters and Black Student Union Zylia Knowlin ’95 was invited to read an excerpt of and lead a discussion based on her most recent book “1991.”

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