Retention of Underrepresented Students: Sinking or Sailing?
By Elizabeth Bell
Last month, a retention consultant Charles Schroeder consulted with Southwestern pro-bono about the retention of minority students.
“I was glad that I had the opportunity to be a part of the conversation, [and I hope] this will be the beginning of many more discussions,” said Terri Johnson, assistant dean of Student Multicultural Affairs.
Schroeder met with students, staff, and faculty at a variety of committee meetings and focus groups. Each meeting targeted underrepresented student populations and attempted to develop ways in which to foster support for diversity students and encourage interactions between students of different backgrounds.
According to a sophomore, Schroeder’s lunch discussion with underrepresented students was an “honest conversation regarding diversity. However within campus culture exists a certain degree of ‘tokenism’ and that alone creates a level of shallowness. Having the ability to boast a racially diverse campus in comparison with other private colleges means nothing if no one is willing to take an in-depth approach towards race itself.”
Southwestern recognizes diversity as one of its core values and the university is gieven the highest ranking among Liberal Arts colleges when it comes to the admission and retention of underrepresented student groups.
According to Omar Rivera, chair of the Race and Ethnicity minor, Southwestern is “remarkably more diverse than other Liberal Arts schools.” At Southwestern’s recent Race and Ethnicity symposium, Rivera revealed that 32% of SU students are of underrepresented populations, 40% of the first-year grade are of underrepresented populations, and as of fall 2013, 30 faculty members and 80 students participated in courses included in the Race and Ethnicity minor.
However, students in the Coalition for Diversity and Social Justice (CDSJ) expressed that quantitative data regarding diversity is often misleading because it does not address the underlying problems minority students face at Southwestern. In particular, students in CDSJ pointed out how their organization received zero funding for the coming semester despite its status as the largest organization on campus.
Other students articulated the inconveniences and unfairness of automatically being grouped with international students. International students and minority students each face a unique set of issues. The implication that they have a shared experience stems from potentially harmful assumptions that ‘minority’ and ‘international’ are synonymous.
CDSJ students also stated that even though minority students stay at Southwestern until graduation, many do so out of a lack of better options. A current CDSJ member felt that it was too late to transfer because transferring would result in delaying their degree.
Even though Southwestern has taken steps toward fostering a supportive campus for minority students, members of CDSJ point out that the administrative level lacks a more encompassing representation for diverse students. Suggestions to improve the campus atmosphere included reintroducing the Gender Awareness Center as a separate facility and hiring diversity specialists to promote awareness of diversity.
In the future, the Office of Diversity Education (ODE) will take actions to promote and incorporate diversity as an integral learning experience at Southwestern.
As Johnson says, diversity enrichment is an ongoing process that does take work. On February the 21st, the Diversity Enrichment Committee has planned a retreat which will focus on increasing awareness of diversity on campus and by extension, an increased attendance at social justice events.
“We must ensure that we have a critical mass of students from diverse backgrounds and that underrepresented students are provided with appropriate resources, space and funding for their personal and professional success,” said Johnson.