By Casey O’Brien and Allison Nasson
By some counts, President Ronald Thomas referred to home 57 times in his commencement speech for the class of 2019. That rhetoric doesn’t always line up with many students’ realities on campus.
“It seemed to be a very liberal, open-minded community on the surface level,” sophomore Matelich scholar and first-generation college student Andres Chavez said. “However, the more deeply I get involved with social justice issues on campus, and helping and supporting my own culture, the more I see the things beneath, which are very discriminatory and often times oppressive.”
Part of the issue, Chavez said, is a deep-rooted lack of diversity in regard to socioeconomic status.
“It’s very rare that you see these Liberal Arts colleges going into inner city areas. I know in Southern California, all of the Puget Sound meetings were in very high income communities. Never once did they come to my community or these inner city communities. It seems like on the surface level, diversity is wanted and appreciated, but the institution itself and how the system works, they’re not going out of their way to get these students and bring awareness of the institution to these students,” Chavez said.
Chief Diversity Officer Michael Benitez thinks that Puget Sound has made significant strides in recruitment diversity, though work still remains to be done.
Puget Sound recently partnered with the Posse Foundation, which identifies high school students with leadership potential who might be otherwise overlooked by colleges, to bring 10 students to campus each year.
But there remains a great need for improvement once students arrive at school.
“What we need to address is: when they get here, now what?” Benitez said. “They know it’s going to be hard. But they don’t know how hard it’s going to be, you know?”
Benitez stressed that there is still a gap between the guidance and support potentially needed by students and what the University provides. He also believes that the focus of retention should not be purely on ensuring that minoritized students stay at Puget Sound, but that they prosper here.
“We think about retention as folks who stay. What we don’t really think about is persistence from year to year and eventual success, which is defined as graduating. But what does retention really mean?” asked Benitez. “Does it mean that we did enough for students to feel like they could make it through? Does that mean that we are actually creating a culture of thriving?”
ASUPS President Nakisha Renée Jones described the situation as utilizing a “fish hook” approach.
“We reel students in, but then we leave them out to dry,” Jones said.
Chavez expressed similar sentiments about the lack of support systems in place on campus for first-generation students, low income students and students of color.
“My whole life, I was used to this great amount of diversity, and all these different cultures. When I came here it felt very homogeneous and like I couldn’t really relate to anyone,” Chavez said. “I felt really isolated, and this is something that a lot of my peers have shared with me as well. I have a completely different background and understanding of things than most of the student body.” According to Forbes, in 2012 Puget Sound was comprised of 75% white students. It is about 7% Hispanic, 6% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 1% African American.
Supporting students in a holistic manner requires helping students to acclimate socially as well as academically. Chavez described feeling that he was behind academically, and struggling to catch up to his peers, many of whom were more familiar with the style of education that Puget Sound espouses.
“So many people here went to private schools and had tutors their whole lives, whereas I went to a inner city school, and the education did not prepare me at all for the education we have here, in which I am expected to excel, due to my scholarship,” said Chavez, referring to the GPA requirement in place in order for him to maintain his Matelich scholarship. “I am at a disadvantage from the start, but they have such high expectations they set out for me.”
Benitez has spoken out about the importance of structural academic support, and described a desire to put in place writing and math workshops for first generation students alongside social support. Students like Chavez often feel that they are “playing catch up” to the other students in their classes, who have had more access to academic preparation for the type of educational structure of a liberal arts university.
Student success is also closely tied to a level of social comfort on campus — feeling the sense of “home” and belonging that President Thomas so famously describes.
“Being that it is a predominantly white institution, the deeper I get into my own culture’s needs, the more I see a lot of discrimination and just, I don’t know, negative things in our student body. I feel that a big chunk of the student body is sheltered–they haven’t been exposed to different cultures. There’s a lot of more subtle racism, a lot of comments being made about different peoples,” said Chavez.
Benitez also expressed the role of white students, faculty, and staff on campus in addressing the issues present in current campus climate.
“In racial and ethnic terms, it’s important to think about what resources and support services are available to minority and marginalized communities. But I also think it’s just as important to think about what privileged communities, mainly white folk, on our campus — how are we thinking about how they contribute and what their role is in assuring that they’re helping to foster that kind of community?” Benitez said.
Statistically, students of color are far less likely to remain at college than their peers. Only 40% of Black students at American colleges will have a degree within 6 years, and only 49% of Latinos, according to the Education Trust. For White students, the rate is 60%.
Increasing resources and support structures available to minoritized students, as well as improving visibility on campus, are key methods of combating these issues.
“We need more funding for places like the Student Diversity Center, and these culturally and identity based groups, and I feel that bringing that that awareness to help the individuals, not the image of the school, would be really helpful. Whenever there’s a cultural event, it’s for the prospects, it’s for the parents, it’s for the people on the outside looking in. There’s always more cultural events around this application season, and I want the audience to be us, not entertaining the predominantly white audience,” said Chavez.
Chavez and other minoritized student leaders need to be able to have their voices heard and not feel as though they are being seen and treated as “token” students. But without funding, the resources necessary to pursue such visibility are difficult to access.
Benitez expressed that the lack of funds also make these resources difficult to provide. With a small staff team and a limited budget devoted to diversity, Benitez is stretched thin in his attempts to change the campus climate. Benitez said that he feels that the university sees his work as legitimate, but doesn’t give it enough financial backing.
“Is it given recognition? Absolutely. Is it given the resources it needs? No. And that’s a struggle with most institutions, I think. Very few institutions actually adequately equip offices like mine with the kind of funding and resources that are needed to carry out the work,” he said. “Because of the lack of awareness and understanding around what the work of equity and justice is, the work that it is, we are not able to respond and allocate the resources according to the work that it is, because there’s a limited understanding of what that work is. It’s also a challenge accepting the work that it is.”
Ultimately, funding is about choices made by the Board of Trustees and administration. With students demanding more support for their own cultural programming, and staff people such as Benitez urging more backing for institutional diversity work, the university may be pushed to allocate more financial support to programming for underrepresented students in the future. Currently, however, funding these matters does not seem to be considered a top priority.
“I love that we maintain the campus and it’s pretty and it’s beautiful, but sometimes do I question, do we need to cut the grass every day? You know? And those are funds that could go somewhere else. But that’s just one example of how we don’t think about — how are we spending our money, and how are we must effectively utilizing the funds and resources that we have,” said Benitez.
For Chavez, the small budgets allocated to equity and justice work feel like a dismissal of the needs of minoritized students on campus.
“If you care about us, demonstrate that you care about us. Fund our cultural centers and provide more programs that help us as a community,” he said.