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Life after Bienen: Minority enrollment still issue on campus

Christina Salter

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It’s been over 40 years since black students staged a sit-in at the Bursar’s Office, 14 years since Asian-American students organized a hunger strike, and six years since the Northwestern community was shocked by a series of hateful messages written in residence halls.

With a quick glance at the vibrant and active minority communities on campus, it may appear that NU does not have a problem with diversity.

But after only 87 black freshmen enrolled in the Class of 2012, concerns about campus diversity resurfaced.

BY THE NUMBERS

In 2007, NU’s black and Hispanic enrollment ranked 14th in a comparison of 18 peer institutions, according to data compiled by Associate Provost Michael Mills from the National Center for Education Statistics.

As of late February, applications from black students had increased 26 percent from last year and Latino applications by 53 percent, according to Mills. Applications continue to be processed.

Administrators said the increase may be partially due to NU’s decision to waive application fees for students from Chicago Public Schools this year. About 37 percent more CPS students applied this year. Applications from first generation college students, which Mills described as “a rough approximation of income status,” also increased 30 percent.

“Especially after the bad news in the fall, I think there have been great signs with all the programs,” said Mike McGee, Associated Student Government academic vice president and member of the NU Admissions and Financial Aid Committee.

The question now is whether the increase in applications will lead to an increase in enrollment.

Although minority applications increased from 2007 to 2008 – 9.9 percent for black students and 0.8 percent for Latinos – there was still a drop in enrollment.

All the efforts made this year come down to Spring Quarter, when accepted students decide whether to enroll, said Veronica Morales, co-chairwoman of the Council of Latino Admission Volunteers for Education.

“The pivotal time is right now, to try and engage students,” Morales said. “If they’re on campus and their expectations aren’t fulfilled, it all falls apart.”

University President Henry Bienen said that due to a “knowledge information gap,” many minority students may not know that they can get good financial aid packages at private schools.

“I think there are things working for it and things working against it, in that in tough economic times, a lot of minorities will look, I think, to public institutions,” he said.

DIVERSITY ON CAMPUS

Many students said the sizes of minority communities impact social attitudes on campus, making students feel like representatives of their race.

Medill freshman Ashleigh Joplin said that while she expected to find a small black community on campus, the reality of the situation was still surprising.

“I can walk down Sheridan and not see a single person who looks like me,” Joplin said. “I find that odd.”

Joplin said she thinks the connection between minorities is probably stronger here than at more diverse campuses because students feel more pressure to take pride in their heritage and band together.

Joplin said she views tight-knit racial communities as a way to build a group on campus.

Many students, however, said NU exhibits a form of self-segregation on campus, often pointing to Foster-Walker Complex’s reputation as a minority dorm as evidence.

Nick Wilson, a McCormick sophomore who lives in Foster-Walker, said self-segregation is “prevalent on campus.”

Wilson doesn’t think this happens for any reason other than that people tend to become friends with people of the same race.

“When I got here, I thought the diversity was amazing. But since I’ve been here, I’ve realized it’s really not,” Wilson said. “We obviously are a pretty liberal campus, but it’s sort of surprising that people are so uncomfortable with people of other races.”

Jesse Yang is the vice coordinator of For Members Only, NU’s largest black student group, and a member of the black fraternity Phi Beta Sigma. He’s also Asian.

For Yang, who says he struggled to gain acceptance in the black community, race relations at NU still have “a long way to go.”

“You can just walk into a dining hall and you’ll tend to see all the black students at one table and all the Asian students at another table,” he said. “I would like to see more individuals putting themselves in situations where they’re the minority and not the majority.”

Still, some students said they don’t see the tendency to form groups of friends based on racial identities as a problem.

Freshman Dallas Wright said self-segregation is the wrong label because minority students may simply want a “safety net or comfort zone.”

“It’s no different than A&O or the chess team or whatever,” Wright said. “If you have a common interest or goal, it’s only natural to be attracted to those groups of people.”

Bienen also said he doesn’t see promoting integration on campus as a responsibility of the president.

“Honestly, I didn’t go around the eating halls and the fraternities and sororities and tell people they should socially interact with each other across race, class, geography or anything else,” Bienen said.

Jessica Lozada, president of the Latina sorority Lambda Theta Alpha, said NU’s multicultural groups were founded to cater to students’ needs.

While partitions among different groups exist, Lozada said students are trying to branch out more.

“There’s always a lot of open discussion on how we should collaborate more with each other,” she said. “We need to take our words and put them into action.”

While proposals for collaboration are a great start, problems in organization arise, said Promote 360 president Tabitha Bentley.

“When it comes to organizations focused on minorities, one thing that people don’t realize is that because there’s so few of us, we’re pushed and pulled in so many directions,” she said.

Low campus diversity may be a self-perpetuating problem, especially if high student motivation to get involved in enrollment efforts doesn’t continue after this year.

“A lot of kids look at the numbers are like, ‘Hell no, I’m not going to be the only one,'” said Camille Nickow, Race Alliance special events chairwoman and SESP junior.

Many students mentioned the importance of reaching out to students in Chicago and other inner-city areas.

These students may have a sense that NU is unattainable, due to NU’s lack of socioeconomic diversity, said Sam Ludington, Weinberg senior and Phi Beta Sigma fraternity president.

“It seems like there’s a cookie cutter social class that most NU students come from,” Ludington said.

MOVING FORWARD

While NU plans to continue the admissions initiatives created this year, the future of minority enrollment policies will also depend on the strategy of future University President Morton Schapiro.

Schapiro will be a “great buffer” against any possible loss of interest in future efforts to increase minority enrollment, Mills said.

According to the NCES data, black and Hispanic enrollment in 2007 at Williams College, where Schapiro is currently president, was 18 percent, compared to 13 percent at NU.

“(Schapiro) has a lot of good ideas and fresh thinking about this,” Mills said. “We’re hoping to learn from him.”

A notable difference between NU and Williams’ campus is the Williams housing system.

Williams’ freshmen are divided into groups of 20 to 30 students, called entries. After freshman year, the entry groups are placed into four neighborhoods for upperclassman housing.

The neighborhood system, now in its third year, replaced an open lottery system.

In an interview with The Daily, Schapiro described the system as a “worthy experiment” that found both success and failure.

Regardless of the result – and whether it would work at NU – the makeup of each entry is supposed to “reflect Wil
liams as a whole,” said Aaron Gordon, Williams’ assistant director of campus life.

“The idea behind that creation of diversity is you’re giving people an experience with someone they may not normally interact with,” Gordon said.

c-salter@northwestern.edu

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