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Illustration by Shannon Nehiley.

Despite an increase in enrollment among minority students at UF, there’s still more to do to combat a racist climate.

 

I don’t feel connected.”

“I don’t know if this was the right fit.”

“I’m the only black person in my class.”

Brandi Pritchett-Johnson, a clinician at the University of Florida Counseling and Wellness Center, regularly hears these and similar sentiments from the minority students she works with. Over her four years at UF, Pritchett-Johnson has observed that “systematic pervasive bullying is what I sit with on a daily basis.”

In light of student protests at Yale and the University of Missouri, college campuses around the country are reacting to a renewed desire for a more involved and engaged administration when it comes to matters of race and diversity. UF students and administration are also responding to a shifting moral culture that strives to ensure equality and inclusion.

With the inauguration of President Kent Fuchs in December, the university’s 12th president has made diversity at UF a priority. It is one of the top goals of his strategic plan for the school, said Mary Kay Carodine, vice president of UF Student Affairs.

According to UF’s Multicultural and Diversity Affairs, minorities comprised about 41 percent of the university’s student population in 2013. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, from 1976 to 2012 the percentage of Hispanic college students in the U.S. rose from 4 to 15 percent, and that of black students rose from 10 to 15 percent.

This reflects a nationwide increase in enrollment of minority students at American colleges and universities, according to the Pew Research Center. Despite increasing enrollment, the same article reports, minority students are struggling to complete their degrees or graduate on time. Hispanic and black students are making significant gains in college enrollment, and yet a smaller percentage are enrolling full-time and earning less.

From 2003 to 2013, overall six-year graduation rates increased by 4.9 percent at four-year public universities, according to a 2015 Education Trust report. It also states, however, that over 54.3 percent of four-year public institutions were unable to decrease the gap between graduation rates of white students and underrepresented minorities. Those gaps either stayed the same or widened.

These statistics make it imperative for students and administration to embrace diversity. A month prior to his inauguration, Fuchs published a column in The Independent Florida Alligator titled “Listening, learning and combating racism” where he encouraged the UF community to be “courageous when we have the opportunity to oppose and combat racism, no matter how slight or subtle, including when it means a change in our own perspective, words and actions.”

Carodine said the university is not simply reacting to the change in climate across American college campuses, but rather that UF has continuously made a concerted effort to foster a more inclusive campus environment. At the same time, she said the university needs to “not just create programs, but really look at the culture of the University of Florida.”

A lack of minority faculty and staff is a common concern, PritchettJohnson said. “A student should never say that they haven’t had a professor who looks like them.”

And bureaucracy has presented some obstacles.

“There is a great tradition of marginalization [at UF], and to not name it is unjust,” she said.

Pritchett-Johnson said it took her more than two years to get one of her diversity training programs off the ground.

Damian Gonzalez is the co-president of the Pride Student Union, but as a queer Latino, he struggled to find his place on a campus that only acknowledged “one-dimensional” diversity — meaning there were safe places for students of an underrepresented racial identity or sexual identity, but not for both, he said.

At the same time, she said the university needs to “not just create programs, but really look at the culture of the University of Florida.”

When Gonzalez was a freshman, a law faculty member told him someone had keyed the word “faggot” onto his car. 

“There are students who are still hiding,” he said, “and the administration ignores them.”

PSU was predominately white when Gonzalez joined, but he said he helped create an environment where both sexually and racially diverse students can feel comfortable.

“Last year every speaker I brought for Pride was a person of color,” Gonzalez said.

He said he is also frustrated with the small number of minority students selected for leadership positions on campus.

“I’ve been told that they don’t apply, but there even seems to be a barrier of entry at the beginning,” he said. “I know freshmen applying to entry-level positions and getting denied.”

As a co-president of PSU, Gonzalez has observed that leadership positions in other prominent student organizations such as Accent Speaker’s Bureau, Student Government Productions and Florida Blue Key have historically been filled by students from the Panhellenic Council and the Interfraternity Greek Council, while students from the Multicultural Greek Council and National Panhellenic Council are underrepresented in these organizations.

Gonzalez said that UF depends on its student organizations to celebrate and acknowledge diversity, but the administration doesn’t do as much to acknowledge and celebrate minority populations.

“UF does an awesome job of promoting community,” Gonzalez said, “but that needs to cross over to the system.”

He also said minority students don’t feel that connection to the administration.

“There is a huge gap,” he said.  

How can students and administrators bridge that gap?

Lloren Foster was appointed executive director of Multicultural and Diversity Affairs at UF in late August and works for Carodine. The position is a new one, consolidating Carodine’s prior oversight of the Center for Leadership and Service, Florida Opportunity Scholars and Multicultural and Diversity Affairs.

Foster said UF has a history of exclusion, and it had policies that excluded people of color for attending the institution. Once those students were allowed to attend the university, they entered a construct where all the structures that excluded them were still in place. Today, Foster said, the university and MCDA are focusing on the similarities between people, rather than the differences.

“You learn from your mistakes as you move forward,” Foster said. “As the climate of the university, nation and incoming students changes, steps have been made along the way that got us to the point where we are now.”

Over the past five to seven years, Foster said, MCDA has added LGBT Affairs and the Asian Pacific Islander American Affairs to its umbrella of organizations, which already included the Insitute of Black Culture and Institute of Hispanic Latino Culture.

And all those organizations will have their own spaces in the newly renovated Reitz Union, bringing them together under one roof. Additionally, the Institute of Black Culture and Institute of Hispanic Latino Culture will keep their spaces on University Avenue. Foster said UF is the only university in the U.S. with two dedicated spaces to two underrepresented student groups.

“At this point in time we have to uncover ways in which the university is not inclusive: the structures that aren’t welcoming and the structures that have the tendency to promote animus, prejudice, discrimination or bias,” he said.

Black Student Union president Phillip Wells feels optimistic about Fuchs’ willingness to continue the conversation. He was impressed by “the culture of him as a person,” he said. “He likes to be present… he attends our events and stays there the whole time. It doesn’t feel like he’s just checking a box. It’s a different feel” from past presidents.

Fuchs will be in good company among the administrators and students already working to bring about change.

Along with her counseling work, Pritchett-Johnson also serves as the coordinator for Aspire , which focuses on retention of minority students and outreach to different departments.

Aspire was created with the CWC 15 years ago, after former governor Jeb Bush made affirmative action in college and university admissions illegal through his “One Florida” initiative. The university wanted to continue giving attention to minority students in light of the political climate. While the program provides comprehensive support to black, Hispanic and first-generation students, Pritchett-Johnson felt there was something missing in Aspire’s outreach component.

So she worked with the CWC and Aspire to start the Social Justice Summit, which had an attendance of about 200 students during its inaugural weekend in November.

“At this point in time we have to uncover ways in which the university is not inclusive: the structures that aren’t welcoming and the structures that have the tendency to promote animus, prejudice, discrimination or bias,” he said.

The main concerns the summit sought to address were recognizing diversity among people and antagonizing oppressive systems.

Pritchett-Johnson said that while the harm of marginalization is the same across sexual, racial, and economic diversity, people should also honor their distinctions.

Another recently developed program, the Bias Education and Response Team addresses incidents that could not be considered a hate crime, but can still harm the targeted individual by attacking that person’s identity. When a report is submitted to the team, the person receives a response within 24 hours.

According to an email from Carodine, incidents addressed by the team have included an individual being called a racial slur while walking on campus, a faculty member talking to a student about their accommodations in front of other students, and racially insensitive pictures posted by two sororities.

Other recent initiatives listed in the email include the student government’s work to increase all-gender restrooms and the signage for these restrooms.

Student organizations have organized programs such as welcome assemblies, Hispanic Heritage Month, Asian American Kaleidoscope Month, Fast-a-thon and weekly programs designed to educate the campus about diversity issues while also celebrating and supporting culture.

One such program was a week-long collaboration between several student organizations that promote various types of diversity on campus. Diversity Week, which took place Jan. 11-15, tackled issues such as one-dimensional diversity, racial identity and immigration.

“I’ve never felt like my voice wasn’t heard,” Wells said, but he admitted that his experience at UF may not reflect that of every student of color on campus.

He attributes this attitude to “plugging into the campus early on.” In addition to serving as BSU president, Wells has been involved in Cicerones, Gator Growl and Student Government, where he served as assistant director of a leadership cabinet.

“I’ve tried to fill my role and understand the people around me and what they want,” Wells said.

Wells wants to place training at the forefront of UF’s efforts to create an inclusive campus.

“We always wait until something happens instead of focusing on education,” he said.

Wells serves on the Black Student Affairs Task Force, which assesses campus climate and determines how to tackle issues of race and diversity through focus groups, town hall meetings and surveys. Wells believes these town halls have sparked the conversations necessary to bridge the communication gap between administrators and students.

“From sitting in town halls, there’s been healthy conversations,” Wells said. “People feel comfortable discussing issues.”

In 2016, the task force hopes to use this information to implement physical solutions in cooperation with Fuchs and Student Affairs.

But how does a university integrate these initiatives into a historically oppressive framework?

Pritchett-Johnson said the best way to combat systematic oppression is by visibly antagonizing it. Rather than feeling stressed out about something they feel they can’t control, Pritchett-Johnson said she has observed that this helps minority students feel responsibility for the campus culture.

“It flips the script,” she said.

In the print version of this story, the keyed car was mistaken as Gonzalez’s. This was corrected to show that the car was the law school faculty member’s.