A Crystal Clear Purpose
Distinguished Alumna recalls a time at Fresno State that helped shape her future
By Eddie Hughes and Esra Hashem
Safiya Umoja Noble sees change when she walks onto Fresno State’s campus nowadays. She senses more diversity, more unity and more opportunity. But she also remembers a campus, in her day, that presented the types of challenges that ignited her passion for getting involved and making a difference.
In the early 1990s, Noble recalls some fellow students referring to her and her friends as “socialists” or “communists” when they would champion diversity. She says contentious political debates once led to incidents of vandalism. She remembers student newspaper stories consistently opposing the ideas she believed in.
While no one experiences college life — or life at Fresno State — exactly the same, that was part of the way Noble experienced it. And it ignited a passion in Noble to get involved and let her voice be heard.
“Fresno State is the place where clarifying who I wanted to be, the kind of human being I wanted to be in the world, crystallized,” Noble says.
As a student, she helped organize international trips for her peers, and helped establish a black theater project, the Women’s Resource Center and a children’s activity room in the library for students who were parents. In 1993, she became the second African-American student body president at Fresno State.
And now, as an author and assistant professor at the University of Southern California, Noble is being honored with the Fresno State Alumni Association’s Top Dog Distinguished Alumna Award. Based on scholarship, leadership and service to the University, the award is the highest alumni honor given.Each year, one alumnus is chosen from each of the University’s academic schools and colleges, and a select few other areas (page 32) to receive a Top Dog Outstanding Alumni Award.
Noble graduated from Fresno State in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree in social sciences before earning her master’s degree in information science and her doctorate in philosophy (information science) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Noble is revered as a researcher, focusing on the ways digital media impacts and intersects with issues of gender, race, culture and technology design.
“My work is concerned with looking at what happens when the public is highly reliant upon online information,” Noble says. “How do people make sense of disinformation, or commercial information, or advertising or some type of optimized paid content that might be completely fraudulent? And that, of course, has tremendous impact on our society.”
Noble’s research has led to numerous peer-reviewed articles and published books, including “Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism.”
At the time of her research, Noble says she found that when she searched for phrases like “black girls,” “Latina girls,” or “Asian girls,” pornography was a primary search result.
“That’s led to a long research agenda of looking again at who’s made vulnerable, who loses control over their identity, their story, the narrative, their representation online in these spaces and what’s at stake when that happens,” Noble says.
She was shocked to learn she was chosen to receive the Top Dog Distinguished Alumna Award, which she will accept on Oct. 26 at the Save Mart Center during homecoming week. She will be joined by 14 other high-achieving alumni who have made an impact on their communities in their own ways.
Noble left her mark, and she continues to make an impact on a broader scale globally with her research, writing and speaking engagements. Call her an advocate or call her an activist — to her, it simply means she’s acting on her values.
“When I walk on campus now, it seems and feels more diverse than it was in that time,” Noble says. “Maybe the fact that the students aren’t quite as active around certain kinds of issues, around racial exclusion, maybe that’s a signal that they feel more comfortable, they feel more accepted, they feel like there is more possibility for them there than my generation felt. I can’t deny that as a type of progress.”