The University of Iowa has services and programming to help African American and Latino students feel welcome but a lot of those students don’t know about them, students at a Thursday night IowaWatch/KCRG-TV9 public forum on diversity at the university said.
Meantime, these students struggle to exist in a predominantly white campus, African American and Latino students at the forum said.
“When you think of universities, you think of white spaces,” Kimberly Chexnayder, a senior from Kansas City, Missouri, said. “It’s so hard for white people to think about their own privileges.”
Chexnayder said she has faith that the University of Iowa can recruit students of color but new students often are not aware of services that exist to help them feel more welcome and comfortable at the university, she said.
Asked how universities, in general, can address cultural issues, Chexnayder said, “I think it starts with cultural competence.” College courses stressing cultural competence help but a lot of times the information goes in one ear and out the other, she said. Or, students take the class simply so they can show they attended, she said.
Universities need to start recruiting students of color in kindergarten and track them through grade school to keep them focused on education, Chexnayder said.
The Thursday night forum, held on the university’s campus, was in response to a Jan. 29, 2018, Hechinger Report study showing that, while many flagship universities across the country have low enrollment of African American and Latino students, the University of Iowa showed a slight rise in first-time degree-seeking students from those minority populations.
Mario Williams, a senior from Chicago, said he didn’t know about UI programming for minority students when he was recruited. He since has learned about them and tapped into them. However, “I still don’t think Iowa’s diverse and we’re still striving to get to that point,” he said.
Lauren Garcia, assistant director of the University of Iowa’s Center for Diversity and Enrichment, said university officials try to connect students with resources and space. Full-time staff are dedicated to cultural centers, she said. Also, university officials are reaching out to students in places such as West Liberty, which is predominantly Latino.
“There’s obviously work to be done, and to approve upon,” Garcia said. For example, her office tries to reach students and counsel them early in their college career but also when recruiting students to the university.
“I think students, individually, are helping promote that awareness. I think the university is trying to grasp with that perspective,” Gerardo “Geo” Guerrero-Segura, a senior from Sioux City, said.
The Hechinger Report study covered enrollment in 2010 to 2015. It showed the University of Iowa’s Latino student enrollment for first-time, degree-seeking undergraduates increased 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 all students in 2010 to 4 percent in 2015.
Updated total enrollment figures (pg. 50) filed with Iowa’s Board of Regents for fall 2017 showed 6.8 percent of the UI’s students were Latino and 3.2 percent were black or African American. Latinos comprised 5.8 percent of Iowa’s estimated population in a July 2017 U.S. Census Bureau report show. African Americans comprised 3.7 percent.
The Hechinger Report did not cover Native Americans. Dawson Davenport said Native Americans often are ignored but that he wanted to attend the UI. Davenport, a Native American senior from Meskwaki studying graphic arts, said Native American faculty are small and stretched thin helping to support the university’s Native American students.
Native American enrollment was 58 in fall 2017. Davenport said six students from Meskwaki to the UI next year. “To me that’s huge. Six people from my community are coming to college here,” he said. “We’re here…We just want to be acknowledged.”
Although the UI enrollment statistics were close to what is seen in Iowa’s overall population, Jorge Guerra, an adjunct faculty member in Latino studies, noted that a lot of the African Americans and Latinos at the University of Iowa come from places outside of Iowa, notably the Chicago area.
“If you were to take away our athletes you would take about 300 black students from our campus,” Chexnayder said. She has been working with the Iowa football team as a student recruiting assistant and is starting a career as a junior executive in the National Football League after graduating this month.
A lot of black athletes drop out of the UI because they do not feel like they fit into the campus, she said.
Other concerns students aired during the forum were similar to what IowaWatch heard during interviews last winter. They included relatively small enrollment numbers for African American and Latino students that leave new students looking for people with whom they have something in common, culturally. Also, needing funding for programs that promote diversity at the UI and helping students from culturally diverse cities undergo general cultural change at their new home in predominantly white Iowa City.
Faculty and staff of color are important when supporting minority students but there aren’t many on campus, Lilián Sánchez, a senior from Des Moines, said. Also, she said, out-of-state tuition can be prohibitive for some students who do not have financial resources to attend the university.
Sánchez said students need to keep bringing up concerns about cultural diversity so that university administrators understand that those concerns exist. “Without us voicing that, how else are we going to make that a priority with our administration?” she asked.
Enrollment figures in the state 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. ISU and UNI were not part of the Hechinger Report study.
IowaWatch reporters Lauren Wade and Maria Curi contributed to this story.
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This IowaWatch story was republished by The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA), the Iowa City Press-Citizen and KCRG-TV-9 produced its own report from the forum under IowaWatch’s mission of sharing stories with media partners.