Augsburg, after all, has a student body that has grown more and more diverse in recent years. This year’s first-year class in the Day College is made up of 42 percent students of color.
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January 17, 2010
Minnesota Colleges Find Diverse Ways to Say ‘Welcome’
By Emma L. Carew
Growing up in Minneapolis, Brandy Hyatt assumed that when she headed to college there, she’d be surrounded by the rich diversity she was used to. At Roosevelt High School, as at most public high schools in the city, a variety of ethnic groups was represented. More than half of the students are black, like Ms. Hyatt.
But when she started at Augsburg College, two years ago, Ms. Hyatt was surprised by the predominantly white campus. Students of color accounted for 22 percent of her entering class at the small Lutheran college. At the time, she says, she went out of her way to meet other students of color when she saw them on campus. She was one of only a few black students in the residence halls.
“There were four on my floor, which was really out of the ordinary,” she says, adding that the other three black students were split among the remaining floors. “I was the only African-American student in the majority of my classes.”
Just two years later, in the freshman class of 449 students, 42 percent are students of color, identifying themselves as nonwhite or multiracial.
And now Ms. Hyatt, a 20-year-old junior, doesn’t have to make an extra effort to meet other students of color on the campus, and she says the residence halls, where she works part time, are much more reflective of the diversity on the campus.
When politicians and education leaders talk about demographic shifts, people usually think of Texas and California. Not so much Minnesota, where locals have long joked that “diversity” means people of Swedish, German, and Norwegian descent. But for decades the state, especially the Minneapolis area, has had growing Asian and African immigrant populations, who are now being joined by Latin Americans. In all, the state’s immigrant population has nearly doubled since 2000, according to the State Demographic Center.
That diversity is showing up now on the state’s college campuses.
Augsburg and other colleges in Minnesota have seen a rapid infusion of underrepresented students in the past couple of years – the result of both aggressive recruitment among black, Asian, and American Indian students and the influx of new immigrants. Augsburg had fewer than 300 students of color a decade ago. That number more than doubled, to nearly 700, in 2009.
This fall the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system reported a nearly 19-percent increase in the number of students of color. But the changes have been starkly different for the private college, with its enrollment of about 3,800, and the large system of community colleges and state universities.
The system’s 32 colleges and universities, all around the state, serve about 250,000 students. The administration faces wide-ranging challenges, not least among them the declining levels of state support and the need to create systemwide policies to meet the demands of its many constituencies.
“We’re looking at fundamental institutional changes as well as programmatic changes,” says Whitney G. Stewart-Harris, the system’s executive director for diversity and multiculturalism. The changes have included creating a designated diversity coordinator on each campus and adding diversity issues to the formal evaluation of each president.
Mr. Stewart-Harris’s office uses both systemwide tools – such as last year’s recruitment brochure, printed in nine languages – and college-specific tactics, which include bringing culture and language training to campuses in areas with growing numbers of people of color.
In contrast, Augsburg officials say the college’s modest size and lack of institutional bureaucracy have allowed them to be nimble in making changes. Their location, too, is key: the heart of the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood in Minneapolis, home to some of the state’s newest immigrants.
Each year the college “adopts” a class at a local elementary school, and Ms. Hyatt often sees them on Augsburg’s campus. Now, when the children visit, “they can think, Maybe I can come to college here,” she says. “It gives us a chance to reflect the community we’re living in.”
On a recent afternoon, during International Week at Augsburg, the flags of 10 African nations circled the main entrance of the Christensen Center, a hub of campus life. Students beelined to the Pan-African Student Union’s table for free food and T-shirts.
International Week has been held for a number of years, but recently its programs have grown and become more prominent. “We’re kind of getting to an economy of scale with our student groups,” says Anne L. Garvey, vice president for student affairs. She says students of color are telling staff members, “It feels like there is a lot of us, and I’m not the only person.”
Augsburg has a long history of intentional diversity. The college has weekend degree programs for older students, and for years has had programs designed for students with learning disabilities or who have a chemical dependency.
But making accommodations for a student with dyslexia poses a challenge unlike that of accounting for the cultural expectations of a refugee student from Somalia.
This year, for example, the Muslim observance of Ramadan, which includes fasting by day for a month, fell earlier in the year than usual, and the college wasn’t prepared. The cafeterias were closing, as usual, at 6:30 p.m. “We still needed to have students help us adjust here to meet their needs,” says Ms. Garvey. “I wish sometimes we were a little bit better.”
Augsburg employs four full-time coordinators of ethnic-student services. Mohamed Sallam, director of the Pan-Afrikan Center, had to navigate serious cultural differences last year, when a Somali student was shot and killed at a nearby community center.
The college leadership’s first instinct was to hold a large prayer service and vigil, as on other campuses in similar circumstances. But Muslims handle death differently than Christians do, Mr. Sallam explained, with no mourning period and an almost immediate burial.
In the end, the college held a short gathering on the campus. “That 20-minute slice of our life has been so important in talking about this experience, of how we became a place that honors diversity,” says Paul C. Pribbenow, Augsburg’s president.
Respecting diversity, of course, can get a college only so far. There are practical concerns that must be tackled.
Admissions paperwork, for instance, generally assumes that an incoming student comes from a home with one or more parents. But a lot of African immigrant students come from “complicated homes,” Mr. Sallam says. “A lot of East African families were broken.”
Penh Lo, director of Pan-Asian Student Services, says some Hmong students are reluctant to deal with the health-care system because their families, in and around Laos, follow traditional shamanic beliefs. Such families, he says, view Western medical conditions, like attention-deficit disorder, as “supernatural or paranormal” in origin.
Even the northern weather can cause complications. When Wynfred Russell arrived in Michigan from Liberia, 10 years ago, he stepped off the plane and confronted his first real winter. His dorm mates all had jackets and sweaters. Now director of the Center for Multicultural Services at nearby Normandale Community College, he recently posted a picture from that first semester on Facebook, and a friend joked about his sweater. He laughed, saying it had been given to him that first winter.
Mr. Russell relies on his own experience to help immigrant and refugee students navigate Normandale’s 13,500-student campus, in suburban Bloomington. Beyond language barriers, many of those students are unfamiliar with processes like registering for courses and doing library research. More than a few refugees, he says, came from one-room schools in border camps and can be overwhelmed by the complexity of an American college. “I put myself in their shoes, because I have been there,” he says.
Mr. Russell’s office created an orientation program for international students to help bring them up to speed. Over all, he estimates, the multicultural center has provided resources and support to a few hundred students since it opened, in 2008. During that same time, students of color at Normandale have increased from 21 percent to 26 percent of the total.
Staff members who work in the center are reflective of the population they serve, Mr. Russell says, hailing from Canada, Ecuador, India, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Latvia, Mexico, Nigeria, and Somalia.
The multicultural center was created with a grant from the Legislature, part of a larger push by lawmakers to make diversity a top priority for public colleges.
New programs to serve students of color, students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, and first-generation college students have been created at both the system and campus levels in the state college and university system. It also participates in Trio and Upward Bound, federal college-readiness programs that serve student populations that have been underrepresented in higher education.
“Recently a lot of effort and attention has been devoted to being much more inclusive,” says Mr. Stewart-Harris, the college system’s diversity director. “Looking at how all of those groups need different kinds of services, and curriculum and campus climate.”
The system has made changes in its recruitment tactics, starting with the recruitment brochure published in English, Spanish, Hmong, Somali, French, Russian, Vietnamese, Ojibwa, and Dakota. In January representatives of the colleges and universities visited religious and community centers across the state, hoping to include families of underrepresented students in the admissions process.
The resulting increases are impressive: The number of ethnically underrepresented students shot up 90 percent between the 2001 and 2009 fiscal years. The number of black students increased 115 percent, while total enrollment grew just 15 percent during the same period.
Mr. Stewart-Harris’s office works with each campus on issues like cultural competency training for faculty and staff members, and navigating anticipated changes. In central Minnesota, for instance, the office has noticed that some elementary schools have diversity levels nearing those of inner-city public schools, with 30, 40, and 50 percent students of color, and work has begun accordingly on those area campuses.
“The real challenge in terms of growth,” Mr. Stewart-Harris says, “is growth in places that traditionally did not have this kind of diversity.”
‘Places You Can Hang’
Because Normandale must fit into the larger, statewide system, change has come somewhat slowly there. On a recent day, students in the Center for Multicultural Services discussed ways to raise the profile of their programming. Students describe a small, tight-knit community in the bright-yellow, one-room center, which they call a second home on the campus. In a program called Diversity Dialogue CafÃ©, about 20 students talked about how they used social networking to support various causes.
Ore Adenle, who was one of the center’s student leaders, wishes his first college had had a similar program. He emigrated six years ago from Nigeria and began his college education at Gustavus Adolphus College, south of the Twin Cities. He didn’t know to tip a waiter or what to do if a friend invited him home over the holidays. He could have been helped, he says, by an intense orientation to the culture and the college.
At Normandale, where he later transferred to study business and English, Mr. Adenle saw other students of color in classes and in the hallway, as well as at the multicultural center. “It makes me feel like I wasn’t in a no man’s land,” he says. “I actually felt there were other people that looked like me, and that felt good.”
When new students poked their heads inside the center, Mr. Adenle says, his goal was to make a good impression in the first few minutes. “Most of the time when you are on campus, there are places you can hang,” he says. “But you don’t have a spot you belong.”
He looks forward to having a similarly positive experience now that he has transferred to Augsburg, which he chose because his sister goes there.
Augsburg’s classrooms feel different than in the past.
David V. Lapakko, an associate professor of communication studies, says he used to pepper his lectures with wordplay and idioms but has cut back in recent semesters.
“I have to realize that for some of these people, either English is not their first language, or, if it is, they just haven’t been exposed to culture in the way that I have,” he says.
He has also noticed students who haven’t come through the traditional American education system sometimes fill in more than one answer on multiple-choice exams.
“From their perspective, multiple choice meant multiple choice,” he says. “It’s like being a fish in an aquarium: You know your own place. But it’s difficult to step outside of that and see it from the perspective of someone with a different cultural background.”
While the changes at Augsburg have been for the better, Mr. Lapakko says, he sees critical questions to be raised about the college readiness of some of the incoming students. “You reach a point in higher education where we will have to look very soberly at the idea of what level of skill and what level of cultural competence do you need in order to be a part of higher education,” he says. “And this is a question we don’t like to ask.”
So far, however, the college says the average ACT scores and grade-point averages of incoming classes have held steady, even as a more diverse group of freshmen has enrolled. Something else that hasn’t changed much is the composition of the faculty. It’s still about 80 percent white, says Ms. Garvey, the vice president for student affairs. That will change eventually, she says, “but so far, it has not.”
Mr. Sallam and Mr. Lo, the ethnic-student coordinators, say they have seen three distinct trends in recent years among the students they serve, particularly those who are immigrants or children of immigrants.
Such students, they say, were more timid in the past, with a group-think mentality. They came to Augsburg because a friend in their community or high school had attended and had a good experience. The students generally chose the same majors that their friends did.
Now, Mr. Sallam says, his students are straying from majors like business and communications, where they previously clustered, and choosing an array of fields including computer science, math, biology, even film studies. “Some students will still study what they feel their folks want them to study,” he says. “But because we have such large numbers, we are going to see some variation.”
And more students who visit the Pan-African and Pan-Asian offices are arriving at Augsburg with an interest in studying abroad (black students, and more specifically, black male students, are the least likely to study abroad in college). The Augsburg Abroad program recruits diverse students, Mr. Sallam says, but more now show up on Day 1 asking how they can get financial aid for a semester-abroad program.
At the encouragement of their friends, Mr. Lo says, more students of color are becoming athletes, trying out for the hockey or volleyball teams. And the assumption that students from East African countries will like playing soccer is outdated, Mr. Sallam adds.
“It’s only fair to assume now that they are going to have a wide range of interests,” he says, especially as more of the incoming students have grown up in the United States rather than immigrating in their teens or 20s.
In effect, students of color at Augsburg are becoming more and more like every other college student.