Minority enrollment rises to record high

Undergraduate minority enrollment jumped nearly 21 percent this fall, reaching an all-time high of 14.5 percent of the undergraduate student body. Last year, undergraduate minority enrollment was 12 percent.

Several factors helped increase the number of students of color on campus, according to Denise Dieffenbach, director of Multicultural Student Services and acting chair of the University Diversity Advisory Council (UDAC). Recruitment and retention efforts and new programs that encourage youth from historically underrepresented communities to attend college have helped to increase minority numbers.

“Part of this increase in students of color is due to more community outreach,” Dieffenbach said. “We help facilitate campus visits for students and build relationships with students. When students of color have a positive experience at St. Thomas, they encourage their siblings, cousins and different generations to come, and that’s what’s been happening.”

Dieffenbach said programs such as the Student of Color Recruitment Team, Linkages and CommUNITY week all help draw students of color to campus and make the college transition easier for those students.

Sophomore Ana Maya, a Linkages mentor and president of the Latino subcommittee in HANA, said Linkages is a great way for students of color to get involved on campus.

“Upperclassmen get to be mentors for younger students,” she said. “We help them with their transition to college.”

Clubs such as HANA, which promotes diversity and puts on programming geared toward students of color, also help students of color connect with one another, Dieffenbach said.

Recruiting a more diverse student body

Over the last few years, the administration at St. Thomas has recognized the growing need for diversity on campus and has made more of an effort to start these types of programs, Dieffenbach said.

“The university has come to realize that the learning experience is truly better with diverse ideas in the classroom,” she said. “When you mix it up a little, you get different perspectives that challenge us to think differently.”

Diversity is a goal in St. Thomas’ strategic plan and the admissions office has many plans in place to increase diversity on campus, according to Marla Friederichs, associate vice president for admissions and financial aid.

“We hold fairs for students of color and we’ve started working with younger students and encouraging them to consider St. Thomas,” Friederichs said. “We’ve had an increase in the number of group visits of students of color as well.”

This increasing focus on diversity is evident in admissions statistics. From 1999 to 2009, undergraduate minority enrollment increased by 53 percent. During the same 10-year period, graduate minority enrollment increased by 57 percent.

“A big part of these increases is because students feel comfortable on campus,” Dieffenbach said. “If we weren’t a welcoming campus we wouldn’t see these kinds of numbers. We hear constantly that students of color feel welcomed here and are glad about their choice to come here.”

Students’ perspectives on campus atmosphere toward students of color

Sophomore Natasha Fuentes said she thinks St. Thomas is welcoming to students of color, for the most part.

“They’re really trying to make a welcoming environment,” Fuentes said. “They’re reaching out to more ethnic groups besides just African-American and Latino communities and holding different multicultural events on campus that are open to all students.”

Sophomore Vang Khang, HANA communications chair, said her experience at St. Thomas has been great because of the staff and faculty.

“You run into students who are rude, ignorant and racist, but the staff and faculty are great,” Khang said. “They’ve been amazing teachers, leaders and mentors for students of color. The staff and faculty at St. Thomas cancel out some of those prejudiced students.”

But even though the campus is mainly a welcoming place, some students have mentioned that they’ve encountered challenges as students of color.

“I’m not into politics, but my roommate is, and during the election she wrote ‘Go Obama’ on our white board on our door in Dowling,” Maya said. “Someone wrote racist comments all over our whiteboard. That was tough knowing there were people on campus who thought that way.”

Fuentes said she sometimes gets singled out in classes where she’s the only student of color.

“People see you as the ‘token’ student of color,” Fuentes said.

Freshman Emmaly Manchanthasouk, vice president of finance for the ASIA subcommittee of HANA, said the St. Thomas campus is usually welcoming. But she said she experienced one incident that reminded her that she is a student of color on a predominantly white campus.

“My friend wrote a blog saying racism no longer exists and people should stop blaming their skin color for their difficulties,” Manchanthasouk said. “I felt uneasy and it made me a little more uncomfortable at St. Thomas. We students need to remember to respect each other.”

Katie Broadwell can be reached at klbroadwell@stthomas.edu