For Latino students, several paths to increasing University diversity

Thursday, April 14, 2016 - 7:02pm

Amid a push by the University of Michigan’s administration to create a campus-wide strategic plan aimed at improving issues of diversity on campus, Latino and Latina members of the University community said in a series of interviews they feel that despite an increase of students identifying with this group on campus, there is more to be done to reach full inclusion and equity.

The current makeup of Latino students on campus

Hispanic students make up 5.4 percent of total student enrollment, which breaks down to 4.9 percent of the undergraduate body and 6.6 percent of the graduate and professional body, according the University’s annual enrollment report. Total Hispanic enrollment has increased by 0.75 percent since 2011. Hispanic students have a slightly higher proportional representation in the student body than Black students, another underrepresented minority group alongside Native Americans, Hawaiians and those of mixed race.

Larry La Fountain-Stokes, director of Latina/o Studies at the University, said despite increases in Latino and Latina enrollment over the years, the group still feels marginalized on campus. He pointed to the recent growth of the Latino population in Michigan as a reason for the increase in enrollment, but noted that the student body does not reflect the country in terms of diversity.

Latinos make up 4.8 percent of Michigan’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

La Fountain-Stokes also attributed some of the changes in Latino enrollment to factors like faculty and student involvement, and outreach to communities within the state, other states and Puerto Rico.

“Latinos are still very dramatically underrepresented but I think many of the efforts to recruit underrepresented students are being successful,” he said.

Multiple students and faculty echoed La Fountain-Stokes’ sentiments, saying despite an increase of students in past years, many aspects of inclusivity and equity still have significant room for improvement

Business senior Stephanie Betancourt, an undergraduate student representative for the Latina/o Studies board, said she is one of three Latina women she knows of in the Ross School of Business and does not believe there are enough Latinos or people of color in general in the school. Betancourt also noted that many faculty or staff members do not share the same perspectives as Latino students in the Business School, saying diversity is important in business schools because business professionals often work with people from around the country, of various backgrounds.

“If it is just one homogenous group talking to another homogenous group, then there is never going to be real progress,” she said.

Members of the Latino Law Students Association — a law student organization that puts emphasis on promoting more opportunities for Latinos and Latinas in the field and at the University — echoed similar sentiments on more diversity in professional schools.

First-year law student Mayté Salazar, LLSA’s Political Action Chair, said she believes the racial demographics of the Law School do not reflect those of the United States. The Law School currently has 35 Hispanic students enrolled, making up just 4 percent of the student body.

“We can always do more to increase Latino representation at the law schools across the country, including Michigan Law, to mirror contemporary American demographics,” Salazar said. “We have to think about diversity initiatives at the Law School in light of the number of Latinos graduating high school and college, and the kind of resources Latino students have at their disposal as they are matriculating through high school and college.”

First-year law student Melody Latino, who is also a LLSA member, said LLSA hopes to address these issues by actively engaging with Latino students. Over the past few years, this has included inviting undergraduate students to a panel featuring a successful Latina attorney, or hosting the male pageant Mr. Wolverine, which supports giving financial aid to LLSA members who work in unpaid summer internships.

Latino said she believes the University has taken steps to improve racial diversity, but added it is still important to continue making improvements.  

“There is always room to improve, and we need to increase diversity, especially racial diversity at the Law School,” Latino said. “The need for racial diversity is not something unique to Michigan. It happens at law schools all over the country.”

Sarah Zearfoss, senior assistant dean for admissions at the Law School, wrote in an e-mail interview she believes having diverse representation in the Law School can lead to a better learning environment for all students, and enhance their skill sets as lawyers.

“Having well-informed participants in those exchanges enhances the development of our law and therefore, I would argue, of our culture and our country,” Zearfoss wrote. “Having a variety of perspectives involved in the classroom discussions will help our students learn how to be more effective and persuasive of people whose point of view differs from theirs, which is the essence of successful litigation.”

Legal barriers to increasing numbers

However, despite the recognition of the importance of increasing diversity by both students and administrators, the University is restricted in its efforts to increase Latino representation by Proposal 2, which banned the use of affirmative action in college admission in the state of Michigan in April 2014. That ban includes a prohibition on looking specifically at an applicant’s race or ethnicity in the admissions process.

Zearfoss said the admissions office has not changed its views on diversity since the ban, but has rather begun employing different practices. In light of the affirmative action ban, the Law School increased their emphasis on soliciting applications, and on increasing the number of accepted offers of admission to maintain a racially diverse class without factoring race into an application.

“It is certainly true that Prop. 2 has removed our ability to take race into account as a factor in making an admissions decision, but that doesn’t mean our desire to have a racially diverse class has changed,” Zearfoss said.

Both Salazar and Latino said they thought affirmative action was one way to increase diversity, saying the ban stymied efforts to do so on campus.

“We want to believe we don't need these policies because we are a ‘race-blind’ society,” Salazar said. “But this ‘colorblind’ fiction is one that erases the melanin in our skin, the struggles we have endured and the stories that remain untold.”

Despite benefits from affirmative action policy, however, Latino said she thought it is possible to promote diversity in other ways than just racial consideration in applications.

She noted that one way to do that is focusing on the pipeline from college to law school, which she said LLSA seeks to expand by connecting law students with undergraduate and high school students.

Salazar added the issue of diversity supersedes the admissions process, and emphasized that minority students also need continuous support when they get to campus.

“We must then realize how the lack of resources in our communities put Latino students at an academic disadvantage,” Salazar said. “The issue is not only how many people are getting through the door and sitting at the table, but also how many people are getting to the door.”

Student activism for Latino representation

Echoing Salazar’s sentiments about experience when on campus, Betancourt also said she thinks activism in undergraduate students has been decreasing for Latina/o students in recent years.

In particular, she said older students seem to be most involved, suggesting that potentially the younger generation either has not sought out more questions or the inspiration for activism hasn’t been passed down to them.

LSA junior Ramiro Alvarez, who participated in various activist groups on campus, said he thought the peak of Latino activism at the University was reached a long time ago, whereas Latino activism today has dwindled. That activism, he added, had noticeable ties to Latino identity on campus.

“There seems to be this huge history in the Bentley Library archives of us doing really radical and important work with multiple organizations,” Alvarez said. “That’s really put me in an ambivalent place about what it means to be Latino on this campus.”

Overall, Alvarez said he’s found campus to be a hostile place for people of color in recent years, citing an incident in which a faculty member asked him if he was documented. He added that while he sees value in hosting events, he’s also hoping to see activism in more radical forms as it had been done in the past.

“For example, BBUM and UM Divest, there were very little Latinos who showed up for that,” he said.

While Alvarez and Betancourt both said they believe the University succeeds in getting people of color into the school, they also said they think the University can do more with retention.

“It’s been real. With any Latino senior you ask, we can name countless friends who are no longer here and entered with us freshmen year,” Alvarez said. “And that’s a root issue and it’s harder for the University to tackle its demons, like financial accessibility or adequate mental health support that are deterring these students,”

Betancourt also cited hiring more Latino and Latina faculty members as a way the University could aid students during their time in school.

Nonetheless, for the students that are there, both students and faculty said they believe they have a noticeable presence on campus.

In the Law School, Salazar wrote that despite the small population, she believes the Law School’s Latinos have a strong impact on the rest of campus.

“Michigan Law has a vibrant and active Latino community. As one of my friends put it, ‘Somos chiquitos pero picosos,’ ” Salazar wrote. “ ‘We are small, but spicy,’ meaning we don’t make up a large portion of the student body, but our existing community still makes a huge impact at the Law School and beyond.”

Correction appended: A previous version of this article incorrectly labeled the proportion of Latino residents in Michigan.

Correction appended: A previous version of this article misrepresented the way Aurora Mayté Salazar and Melody Alvarado Latino spoke about affirmative action and increasing diversity on campus.