The University of Iowa’s majority white student body was one of many novelties Miguel Torres noticed when he stepped off the bus from Chicago for orientation in fall 2013.
His parents were against him leaving the city and primarily Latino community, the Pilsen neighborhood, where he grew up. Torres came to Iowa City alone.
“I never knew where Iowa was. I’d never seen the campus before,” Torres, 22, now a fifth-year senior studying chemistry.
A new Hechinger Report study shows many flagship universities across the country have low enrollment of African-American and Latino students, yet the University of Iowa shows a slight rise in first-time degree-seeking students from those minority populations.
The report, released Jan. 29 and covering enrollment in 2010 to 2015, shows the university’s Latino student enrollment for first-time, degree-seeking undergraduates increasing from 5 percent of all students in 2010 to 9 percent in 2015. African-American undergraduate first-time degree enrollment rose from 2 percent of the student body in 2010 to 4 percent in 2015.
Despite the increase, minority students IowaWatch interviewed said the UI could do more to cultivate a culture of diversity and create a safer learning environment for African-American and Latino students on campus.
African-American students, for example, face micro-aggressions or hostile racial slights, daily, Matthew Bruce, 22, a senior from Des Moines, said. They are so pervasive on a campus such as the UI that Bruce said they’re hard to even articulate. They include food served at residence halls that caters to white students, how people react to what black students wear, being told to change your tone of voice and implications that your dreadlocks aren’t appropriate for a job fair.
“There’s no room for people to look different. There’s kind of, in my opinion, a culture of assimilation, for sure, like: to be a Hawkeye looks like this, sounds like this,” Bruce said.
Moreover, the current political environment surrounding hot-button matters such as U.S. immigration policy and race relations has contributed to minority students’ general feelings of discomfort on campus, the IowaWatch interviews show. Bruce noted a white nationalist flyer was found recently on the door of the university’s Afro-American Cultural Center.
Other problems facing African-American and Latino students IowaWatch interviewed at the UI, the only Iowa college or university covered in the Hechinger Report, include:
- A general cultural change from where the students formerly lived and their new Iowa City home.
- An access gap in which minority students are not aware at an early time where to find some university resources, such housing and orientation.
- Low numbers for African-American and Latino faculty with whom students can identify.
- Relatively small enrollment numbers for African-American and Latino students, despite the Hechinger Report results and what students interviewed said was movement by the university in the right direction when it comes to diversifying the student body.
Updated total enrollment figures filed with Iowa’s Board of Regents for fall 2017 showed 3.2 percent of the UI’s students were black or African-American and 6.8 percent were Latino.
Although they were not in The Hechinger Report study, enrollment figures in the regents’ report showed 2.6 percent of Iowa State University’s total fall 2017 enrollment was black or African-American and 5 percent was Latino. The University of Northern Iowa figures showed 2.7 percent black or African-American and 3.6 percent Latino.
IowaWatch interviewed black and Latino students but not other minorities because the Hechinger Report only covered those minority groups.
Latino students in fall 2017 comprised 6.6 percent of total University of Iowa enrollment. African-American enrollment was 3.1 percent of total enrollment. Latinos comprised 5.8 percent of Iowa’s estimated population in 2016, U.S. Census Bureau data show. African-Americans comprised 3.7 percent.
“People being willing and interested and caring for making campus more diverse is present here,” Gerardo Guerrero, 22, a senior from Sioux City, said. “I hope it just continues to increase and enhance and become enriching.”
Iowa uses more than 30 programs to recruit Latino students, as well as other minorities. The programs are used, for example, to bring high school students to campus for as long as a week in some instances, to familiarize the youths with the university. The university’s Diversity at Iowa website lists more than a dozen scholarship programs for minorities among its 25 programs for those in what the university identifies as underserved populations.
Student organizations also exist for cultural groups.
A high school counselor helped Torres use university resources to apply and get into the school.
“If you don’t have diversity you don’t learn things from other people,” Torres said. “You don’t learn other people’s culture, you become uncomfortable…it doesn’t challenge you to open your mind.”
Andrew Beckett, the associate dean of University College who oversees academic support, retention and orientation services for all UI students, said one of the challenges facing many first-generation students — which minorities often are — is that they aren’t aware that many services and programs for first-year students are on a first-come, first-serve basis.
For example, the earlier students apply for university housing the more likely they are to get preferred living arrangements, Beckett said. “I’m not sure a first-gen student would even know that applying for housing basically in October of their senior year of high school was an important thing to do,” he said.
In order to combat that the university began to pre-enroll all students who had low ACT scores and attended one of the last summer orientation session, where they can register for other classes, into a first-semester rhetoric class.
“Students who do well first semester are more likely going to be retained, students who struggle the first semester are more likely to leave,” Beckett said.
Financial matters come into play, as well. Students deciding between several colleges while in high school might have to pay more than one fee when applying for housing on more than one campus.
Guerrero, a first-generation student studying nursing, immigrated to Sioux City from Guanajuato, Mexico, when he was 5. He is an active leader in Latino life on campus and the president of Lambda Phi Latin Fraternity Inc.
Guerrero navigated applying for college and finding financial aid by himself when pursuing higher education.
“My parents during this process, they’re good support for me when I need them, however I find myself teaching them on what I’m doing.” he said. “I find myself clarifying how school works, and sometimes they can’t even help me with certain academics because they don’t have the education themselves.”
Guerrero’s father only attended school through kindergarten and his mother through third grade.
The UI’s Center for Diversity and Enrichment is staffed with multicultural specialists whose mission is to help underserved students, such as ethnic minorities but also disabled students and veterans, arrive and thrive at the university.
Lilián Sánchez, 22, a senior studying public policy and ethics, and political science, from Des Moines, said the Center for Diversity and Enrichment was key in her decision to come to the UI. She and her mom, who was a single parent, were able to sit down and talk with a minority advisor, Gabriela Rivera, who Sánchez connected with through the program.
“Not only do we have the same Latinx identity, we have the same cultural background, and it helped me feel comfortable,” Sánchez said. “It helped my mom feel this was a place she could send her daughter.”
Nadine Petty, who directs the center, said the university is deliberate when recruiting minority students. Some recruiting efforts include offering substantial need-based and merit-based scholarships in programs, including the university’s Advantage Iowa, and hosting information sharing events with K-12 students in Iowa as well in places like Chicago and Minneapolis.
Nadine said the conversation at the university has shifted since she began as director from ensuring that a certain number of minority students are enrolled to ensuring those students are included in what the university has to offer them once they arrive in Iowa.
“There is a greater understanding of how do you maintain a student once they’re here, how do you help with the community building, how do you address individual cultural concerns,” Petty said.
FIGHTING THE STATUS QUO
Bruce said he has spent his time at the UI actively pushing back against the status quo of a predominantly white institution. “You’ve heard about the highly publicized KKK statue here? I was a freshman on campus. I could see the statue from my dorm room in Daum,” he said, referring to the residence hall where he lived then.
In December 2014, Serhat Tanyolacar, an assistant professor at the time at the School of Art and Art History, placed a statue of a robed clansman made from newspaper articles of racist incidents on campus without university permission. The act sparked an apology from then-President Sally Mason to those made uncomfortable by the incident.
Originally a political science major, Bruce will graduate in May with a major in African-American studies. He has been active in many minority organizations on campus such as Black Hawkeyes and Phi Beta Sigma African-American Fraternity, and helps with programming at the Afro-American Cultural Center.
“It wasn’t a space that black people could feel comfortable, acclimated and safe in,” Bruce said about the university when he was a freshman. “So, after that, I kind of challenged myself to become a leader, and try and change the campus around me.”
Bruce said the biggest thing the university can do to create a inclusive environment is hire a more diverse faculty and staff.
Iowa’s Board of Regents showed in its Annual Equal Employment Opportunity and Affirmative Action Workforce Report that 2 percent of the university’s tenured or tenure-track faculty and staff were African-American in 2016, while 4.2 percent were Latino. Non-tenure track numbers were similar, with 2.1 percent African-American and 4.8 percent Latino faculty. The African-American numbers are down slightly from 2015, while Latino numbers are about the same for tenured or tenured-track and up slightly for non-tenure track faculty, the report shows.
African-American employees comprised 3 percent of the UI’s total staff, which includes educators, administrators, and service and maintenance. Latino employees were 3.3 percent of the total staff. Those numbers are up slightly from 2015.
Sánchez, who is now vice president of the UI Student Government, said doing more to educate faculty and staff on cultural sensitivity would create a more inclusive environment for minority students. As a member of the student government, Sánchez participated in the National Coalition Building Institute, which develops skills and resources for dealing with issues of culture and inclusivity. Sánchez said faculty and staff would benefit from being more involved in the program.
The UI has four cultural centers for students: The Afro-American Cultural Center; the Latino and Native American Cultural Center; the Asian Pacific American Cultural Center; and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Resource Center.
UI residence halls often are separated into Living Learning Communities where students with similar interests are housed in the same area or floor.
Aspyn Johnson, 22, a Dallas, Texas, senior studying political science, helped create Young, Gifted, and Black Living Learning Community in Slater Hall for African-American students to have a community and provide the opportunity to learn more about culture and resources on campus.
“It’s supposed to be just, not a mecca, necessarily, but definitely a communal area,” Johnson said. “A communal area that was supposed to facilitate not the cliche stuff: black power, nothing like that, but certainly comfort and familiarity and information.”
Jesús Payán, program coordinator for the Latino and Native American Cultural Center, said the centers also provide a sense of safety for students who struggle expressing their identities, and don’t feel free to present themselves the way they would elsewhere in Iowa City.
“The physical space, in itself is a representation that you’re welcomed at a home away from home.” Payán said.
Miguel Torres said the opportunity to live in a Latino living learning community, if it had existed, would have helped him adjust better as a freshman. Without it though, Torres, as well as Johnson, participated in Iowa Edge, an orientation for minority students to help meet other minorities and introduce them to resources on campus. Torres also said an Association of Latinos Moving Ahead organization was key in helping acclimate to campus life.
But the Association of Latinos Moving Ahead is a student organization, Bruce pointed out, and Iowa Edge and the multicultural programs are largely programmed and organized by students responding to the need for community among minorities.
That student leadership is critical, Bruce said. “Students are coming here and being like, “If we don’t do this we’re not going to survive.”
This story was produced by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch.org, a nonprofit, online news website that collaborates with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting.