Students discuss increase in student body diversity

Monday, October 26, 2015 - 9:18pm

Though the University’s fall 2015 enrollment data reported the highest proportion of underrepresented minorities in a decade, leaders of Black, Latin American and Native American student groups say the current numbers leave more to be desired.

Underrepresented minorities make up 12.8 percent of this year’s freshman class, up 2.8 percent from last year’s incoming cohort of first-years. The last time the percentage of incoming underrepresented minority students was this high was in 2005, when they collectively made up 13.8 percent of first-year students.

In 2013, minority students — Black students in particular — brought the issue of campus diversity and inclusion to the forefront of University concerns by popularizing the Twitter hashtag #BBUM, or “Being Black at the University of Michigan.”

Social media responses with the hashtag, which went viral, detailed ways Black students felt uncomfortable at the University due to microaggressions or explicit forms of racial harassment.

The #BBUM campaign heightened work between leaders of the Black Student Union, other minority groups on campus and the administration to make campus more welcoming to students of different ethnic groups — both by way of on-campus climate and in admissions. The University has outlined several new initiatives to increase the diversity of the student body, within the confines of the state of Michigan’s ban on affirmative action. Those programs so far have included increased outreach to specific school districts, the creation of new scholarship programs and an move to package financial aid packages with admissions decisions.

This year, the percentage of total Black students on campus is at 4.82 percent, or an increase of 59 students since last year.

Kinesiology senior Capri’Nara Kendall, speaker of the BSU, said increased number of Black students in class represents a positive trend, though she added that the University still has a way to go in terms of tangibly increasing diversity and subsequently improving student life for Black students on campus.

“Talk to me when minority enrollment is out of the 4 percent — when we’re looking at more of a 7-percent enrollment for African Americans,” she said in an interview with The Michigan Daily. “When we’re looking at more of a 7-percent enrollment for Latino students.”

Similarly, the number of undergraduate Hispanic students at the University also saw a slight bump in the last year, from 1,209 undergraduate students in the fall 2014 semester to 1,300 students as of this current semester. Hispanic students currently make up 4.93 percent of the undergraduate body and 5.9 percent of the incoming freshman class.

Note that the University’s enrollment report employs the term “Hispanic,” whereas most students tend to use, generally, the term “Latin American.” Though the University has increased diversity among its Latin American students, some student leaders say more efforts are needed on campus.

LSA senior Thalia Maya, the president of the historically Latina Lambda Theta Alpha sorority, noted that some of the reason for the increase in Latina students on campus is due to the increasing accessibility of higher education to these communities. She said many Latin American students, like herself, are born to immigrant parents and are the first in their families to attend college. This, she added, can pose a challenge.

“When I first came here, I was living in the dorms and surrounded by people who did not look like me at all,” Maya said. “That did make me feel uncomfortable, but being able to find people who came from similar backgrounds as me served as that support system.”

For Native American students, though increases in diversity have occurred, they have been slight. In the entire student body, there was an increase of only 12 new Native American students from last fall’s enrollment. This marked a percentage bump from 0.21 percent of the student body to 0.25 percent.

Public Policy senior Isa Gaillard, co-chair of the Native American Student Association, said the slight increase of representation for Native American students is a “drop in a bucket.”

Gaillard says NASA, originally designed as a group for undergraduate Native American students, has been struggling with retaining and growing its membership. This year, he said, only eight or nine students come to meetings — and they are a mix of both graduate and undergraduate students.

“We e-mailed all of the students that are listed as Native and none of them showed up to our meeting,” he said.

He attributes the decreased NASA membership to the general lack of Native American students on campus.

Gaillard and other NASA members work each year to raise awareness for Native American culture through hosting the Native American Heritage Month in November, alongside the Office for Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs.

NASA also organizes an annual “powwow,” or cultural celebration with food, dancers, drummers and fashion. According to Gaillard, the University’s powwow is the second largest student-run powwow in the nation. The 2014 iteration, the 42nd Dance for Mother Earth Powwow, was held at Skyline High School.

Despite NASA’s efforts to promote awareness of Native American culture on campus, Gaillard says when he asks, many students are unaware of the heritage month or the powwow. Gaillard says he wants to leave the University knowing there is a more representative and supportive community for Native American students on campus, which starts with increasing their representation within the student body.

“We really do want to work with the University in whatever ways we can to make sure that not only is Native American student enrollment increasing, but also that the community feels welcome on campus,” he said.

Though the proportion of Asian American students has declined slightly in the new freshman class — changing from 15.28 percent in 2014 to 14.09 percent this year — the University does not consider Asian American students to comprise an “underrepresented” minority group. The U.S. Census Bureau reports Asian Americans make up only 2.9 percent of the Michigan population but represent a much larger proportion of students.

Still, LSA junior Eman Hijab, president of Michigan Pakistanis, or MPak, said she and other Asian American students are subject to stereotyping and judgment despite being represented on campus. Furthermore, though Asian American students make up 11.87 percent of all undergraduate students, she said intra-Asian American groups, like South Asian, Southeast Asian, East Asian and Middle Eastern students have much smaller representations.

For this reason, Hijab said in an e-mail to the Daily, she hopes to see increases in all minority groups in the coming years.

“I can’t help but to think about how many potential connections, friendships, relationships, were forewent due to the decrease in theses enrollment numbers this year alone and how many will be foregone in the future years if enrollment doesn’t increase to include not just Asian Americans but other minorities as well,” she wrote.