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ND still grapples with diversity issues

Kaitlynn Riely | Thursday, September 7, 2006

The number of freshmen from ethnically underrepresented groups increased from a relatively stagnant 21.2 percent to more than 24 percent this year as part of Notre Dame’s continued quest to diversify the student body.

That three percent jump is good – but not good enough, say University officials and students. And for some students, it can be hard to spot that increased diversity on a stereotypically homogenous campus.

How diverse is Notre Dame’s diverse?

Slightly more than 24 percent of the approximately 2,025 freshmen are from ethnically underrepresented backgrounds – meaning, groups that “based upon national figures [are] underrepresented here at Notre Dame,” said Dan Saracino, assistant provost for enrollment.

This year’s freshmen class consists of 11 percent Hispanic students, 8 percent Asian, 4.6 percent black and 0.6 percent Native American.

In an address to the faculty last October, University President Father John Jenkins listed promoting diversity – within both the student body and the faculty – as one of his five primary goals for the start of his term.

Saracino said Jenkins was pleased with the progress made this year by the Office of Admissions.

“In conversations, he congratulated us on our successful first year and wished us continued success,” Saracino said.

This semester, approximately 22 percent of Notre Dame undergraduates from the United States are from underrepresented minority groups. Approximately 0.72 percent are Native American or Alaskan Native, 6.55 percent are Asian or Pacific Islander, 4.05 percent are black, 9.29 percent are Hispanic and 1.41 percent are not specified. There are 382 international students.

“It has a distant perception”

Despite the University’s amped-up recruiting efforts – for the past two years, the percentage of minority students has hovered around 22 percent – some students see the school’s image as a natural, if unavoidable, deterrent.

Senior Jason Laws said Notre Dame’s reputation as a white Catholic university may dissuade black high school students from considering it in their college search.

“It has a distant perception,” Laws said. “It is in the distance because it is a white Catholic university, and when you see Notre Dame advertised, you don’t see or think of black, unless it’s football.”

But Chandra Johnson, director of Cross-Cultural Ministry and associate director of Campus Ministry, said Notre Dame’s Catholic identity and the pursuit of diversity go hand in hand.

“The University of Notre Dame is indeed Catholic, and therefore our search for truth involves exposure to different identities and world views,” Johnson said.

Saracino said Notre Dame’s Catholic identity does not in any way negatively influence its applicant pool, noting that many minority Catholics apply to Notre Dame.

The University does not need to change its image, he said, but it needs to introduce Notre Dame to a larger audience to attract a more diverse applicant pool of talented students.

“If we are educating the Catholic leaders of tomorrow, and we are only educating white students, that’s not educating the Catholic leaders for tomorrow,” Saracino said.

Senate Multicultural Affairs committee (MAC) chair Destinee DeLemos said she is happy with the increased diversity within the Class of 2010, but warned against increasing the numbers of minority students while ignoring the problems these minority students face on campus.

“I think it’s important to increase diversity numbers, but it’s also important to recognize that increasing diversity numbers is not necessarily conducive to the success of minority students,” said DeLemos, who is multi-racial. “There still needs to be other efforts made to improve campus climate.”

Other students, like freshman Ted Lee, said the Office of Admissions should continue to increase ethnic diversity while focusing more on increasing socio-economic diversity.

“Rich kids have such a big advantage over the poorer kids,” Lee said. “The poorer kids should be given some advantage, a little bit at least.”

The University recognizes that, said Saracino, who called ethnic and socio-economic diversity “equally important.” The Office of Admissions strives to increase both types, he said.

“Telling the story”

Just as it is not talent-blind, the admissions process is not race-blind, he said. The University wants to increase numbers of talented students from these groups to more closely mimic the ethnic distribution of the United States.

Applicants may choose to reveal their race on their Notre Dame application. Most of the applicants decide to complete this part of the form, Saracino said. The admissions office uses these statistics to develop a profile of the applicant pool, and later, of the admitted class. The applicant decides what race he is, not the University.

“They don’t have to prove it,” Saracino said. “We trust the applicant student who claims to be whatever race they are.”

Saracino credited this year’s spike to the combined efforts of admissions counselors, student workers, the alumni network and the Financial Aid office to encourage these students to apply to the University and accept its offer of admission.

“All of those groups really did a great job of telling the story of Notre Dame to students who may not have considered Notre Dame before,” Saracino said. “… We’ve gotten to have a critical mass of students here from ethnically underrepresented groups so that they’ve been a great help to us in following up with admitted students, contacting them to offer assistance.”

Visitation weekends gave students a “clear picture” of Notre Dame, Saracino said. The Financial Aid office ensured any demonstrated need was met. The Office of Pre-College Programs brought talented black and Hispanic students to the University, introduced them to a college atmosphere and gave them the chance to participate in academic and leadership seminars.

Laws said he still does not think Notre Dame is “on the radar” for many ethnic minority students. But the Office of Admissions is doing a good job of researching ways to attract minority students, he said, and the increase in ethnic diversity is evident.

“I can say that it seems that there is an improvement,” Laws said. “Not a major improvement, but there is a definite difference between my freshman year and now my senior year.”

“We have a long way to go”

When the Class of 2009 arrived on campus last August, Saracino told The Observer he was “disappointed” in the number of black students. This year’s class is composed of 95 black freshmen, and Saracino said he is “pleased with it, but not complacent.”

Saracino said he wants to continue drawing black students, as well as other minorities, into the applicant pool. He also wants to attract more international students. Citizens of foreign countries make up 4 percent of the freshmen class.

Next year, he said he would like to see a class of 5 percent black students, 12 percent Hispanic, 8 percent Asian and 1 percent Native American.

For the past two years, Johnson has led seminars on embracing diversity in freshmen Contemporary Topics classes. She credits Jenkins with directing this push to promote diversity at the University, but she cautioned against complacency with the recent progress.

“I don’t want us to stop, thinking we’ve accomplished our goal,” Johnson said. “We have a long way to go.”

Last year, Iris Outlaw, director of Multicultural Student Programs and Services, handed out bracelets that said “Diversity Matters at Notre Dame.” Outlaw is giving them out again this year to freshmen through the PILLARS program. She said Notre Dame students should be “global citizens.”

“I think it’s important to realize that the community is made up of different facets and that we should all bring gifts to the University that we should celebrate and embrace,” Outlaw said.

While pleased by the freshman class diversity statistic, Outlaw said more work must be done to bring diverse backgrounds to the University.

For freshman Brittany Perrie, Notre Dame is less diverse than her high school in California. She said she sees only a small number of ethnic minorities around campus – not enough to qualify for the official 22 percent figure.

“I’m sure they’re here, but I think overall I see more Caucasian people than really anybody else unless you’re at a specific ethnic event,” Perrie said.

DeLemos said she and other ethnic minority students at Notre Dame at times feel as though they are not represented within the community and that they are looked upon differently from white students.

DeLemos, who is from San Diego, said she is more aware of her minority background when she is at Notre Dame than when she is at home.

“Being a minority has a completely different concept when you come to Notre Dame, because when you are in a diverse atmosphere, being a minority isn’t relevant,” she said.

When Laws ran for student body president last year, he included in his platform the idea for a black student union to help black students discover ways to assume leadership positions at the University.

“It would be just another group that would help organize the black community, as far as providing a structure that can help us to have a stronger sense of empowerment, to unite our voice,” said Laws, who still hopes to implement the union.

The goal of the union – as well as the creation of MAC – is to prevent the minority student voice from being marginalized, Laws said.

While he does see an improvement in the diversity of the student body since his freshman year, Laws said problems of racial stereotyping and white privilege still persist.

“There are times when my opinion in a class might be dismissed, or I might give an answer and it’s not given a credible amount of consideration and then another student will say the same thing, and then, you know, there’s the answer,” he said.

From her interaction with students, Johnson said she has seen minority students face difficulties at Notre Dame due to their race and their separation from the white majority.

“I believe that [the minority student] experience is very different from the majority student simply because it is more difficult to find your voice in an environment that does not reflect your particular experience,” she said.

But for Saracino, this year is a step in the right direction.

“I’m excited by the current freshman class and what next year’s class will be, and what the overall community will be as a result of it,” Saracino said.