When Keylin Perez became the first Latina to be crowned Miss Coppin State University, it was the second-most exciting moment of her life, she said, after joining the military.
“I have formed great friendships,” said Perez, 22, a nursing major from Mount Airy and a sergeant in the Army Reserves.
But as news spread of her accomplishment at the historically Black public university, she faced cyberbullying, much of it focused on her Latina heritage. Perez believes the harassment stems from the belief among some that HBCUs are solely for Black people. Perez said that some of her online critics also believe she is white, which apparently also angered some.
“I knew that it would happen when I first decided to run. I knew it might take this route. I just tried to remain focused on what I have done for the university. It makes me feel better,” she said.
She acknowledged some of the comments were “aggressive” and “hurtful,” but said she never thought of stepping down.
The comments started to explode after Perez posted a playful TikTok video, “When both Baltimore HBCUs Mister and Miss see each other.” The video received close to 3,000 comments — about 80% of them attacking Perez, she said.
“It was a mixture of me ‘invading their space,’ ‘How did Coppin allow this to happen?’ and that they are ‘confused,’ and ‘Black people can never have anything,’” she said.
To date, the video has amassed more than 400,000 views, 75,000 likes and more than 2,700 comments. And there have been cloned videos that have also gone viral — most of which were also negative, according to Perez.
Although this has been unsettling, Perez said she has faced discrimination and hate before, as a student at Glenelg High School in Howard County. A series of incidents there, including racist graffiti, attracted news coverage.
“At Glenelg, where less than 20 students were Black and less than five were Latino, I never felt accepted or welcome. It was very overwhelming. It was a lot to take it,” she said. “All of that was erased when I came to Coppin. I felt very welcome at the student orientation I went to. I went to three of them. Just talking to the students and staff and the culture made me feel welcome.”
“My parents are immigrants [from Guatemala],” she added. “I can relate to people who were first-generation. I was given the freedom to pursue my career. That’s also another reason why I feel so welcome here at Coppin.”
According to data from Coppin State University, 3% percent of Coppin students who identify as Latino or Hispanic. Eighty percent identify as Black or African American.
The liberal arts university, which is one of four historically Black colleges and universities in Maryland, was originally founded in 1900 as a training facility for Black elementary teachers. By 1926, it was named Fanny Jackson Coppin Normal School to honor the Black pioneer in teacher education. In 1950, Coppin became part of Maryland’s higher education system under the state Department of Education, and was renamed Coppin State Teachers College. In 1963, the institution was officially renamed Coppin State College.
The United Negro College Fund, a national advocacy group dedicated to increasing the number of underrepresented college students, did not return multiple requests for comment. Its Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute, which touts itself as the nation’s foremost research organization focusing on the educational status of African Americans from preschool through college, also could not be reached for comment.
Perez, who is scheduled to graduate in May, was named the university’s Miss Sophomore in 2020-2021 and Miss Junior the following year. She was also elected Miss Coppin State University last spring and crowned in the fall. In addition to being in the Army Reserves and a member of Chi Eta Phi Sorority, Perez has volunteered to perform health screenings in the community.
Perez said that the university administration and students have been extremely supportive. She has earned the respect of her peers, as well as the Coppin faculty and staff and other members of Eagle Nation, because of her character, according to a news release issued by the university.
“Keylin represents Coppin well in word and deed, with grace, humility, and resilience. She is a great ambassador for our university, our diverse student body, and all we stand for,” the new release stated. “Eagle Nation stands with Keylin Perez, and we are proud to call her our 91st Miss Coppin State University.”
Amaya Scott, 18, a freshman studying business management, wrote a message of support to Perez, which Perez later reposted to her Instagram account.
“I support Keylin not only because she is my queen, but because she’s my friend. She’s a genuine person who goes through a lot on a daily basis and still pushes past,” Scott said. “She never lets anyone see her down. She uplifts, she loves. … She is a true definition of a queen and will always have my support.”
Scott said negativity directed toward Perez does not originate from Coppin State University, where she drew applause at a recent basketball game.
“People need to understand that it doesn’t matter what race or color you are, because over here at Coppin, we don’t see color,” she said.
Chelsea Pratt, the 83rd Miss Winston Salem State University, also came to the defense of Perez through social media. The two met in September at the National Black Hall of Fame competition.
“She’s my sister queen,” the 21-year-old senior said. “I always thought that she was such a generous and amazing queen. She has always been such a beautiful force to be reckoned with.”
Pratt said Perez has a great personality and brings a lot of energy to the role. They recently spoke and Pratt offered words of encouragement.
“She’s also a person of color as well,” Pratt said. “She’s more than deserving of being the queen that she is.”
Pratt said Latinos are embraced at her historically Black university in North Carolina.
“I feel like they are treated with respect. We try to be very inclusive. They wanted to go to that school, and they shouldn’t feel like they shouldn’t be there,” she said.
As Miss Coppin State University, Perez’ title carries with it a book stipend. She and other members of the royal court also get a budget to produce events for students for the entire year. Perez, who plans to become a psychiatric nurse in the military after she graduates, said she has been encouraged by the support she received from the HBCU community at Coppin and elsewhere.
“As a person of color, I have been treated with love and support. It’s been very lovely. I have created a lot of friendships and bonds with them. It has been very pleasant,” she said. “I stated no matter the amount of hate I am receiving, I will continue my reign. I ran for a reason, and I will finish with the same positive energy.”
Perez plans to encourage other Latinos to attend HBCUs like Coppin.
“I would say to take that leap of faith and go for it,” she said. “It’s an incredible experience to grow with who I am. I have been able to make bonds, become a better individual, and to interact with a vast variety of people. It is a safe place for them.”