By Taylor Pomasl and Allison Anhalt
Joel Sweeny prefers to sit in the back of his University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire classes. When topics of diversity are brought up, he says, he is often singled out to speak on an entire race’s behalf.
Sweeney, an African American student, says that how people on campus see him is not how he sees himself.
“Many people in a small town may see me as that large individual,” Sweeney says. “He looks pretty intimidating, but at the same time, it’s not like that. I’m not going to come up to you and ‘Gimme your lunch money’ or something like that. I just try to come off as a calm, gentle person and as relatable to anybody. It doesn’t matter where you come from. There’s always something that I can find that I can relate to you or you can relate to me.”
The hallways of academic buildings. The classroom teaching a minority culture. The lines of people waiting to see the future president. These are some of the places where the UW-Eau Claire’s students of color have reported feeling unsafe, uncomfortable, and unwelcome. Students of color, including the 101 African American and 326 Hmong students, report experiencing various types of aggressions on campus including gestures made by other students, microaggresions and political conflict. The university has reacted, setting policies to overcome these issues and introducing support groups to assist. Students have joined organizations on campus to work at the issue and new groups have emerged over the past year, but according to the Executive Director for Diversity and Inclusion, there’s still more work to be done.
“Eau Claire’s not very heavily populated with minorities,” Sweeney said “…they’re trying to accommodate for everyone who’s trying to come here.”
Sweeney isn’t the only student of color who’s expressed concerns and hopes for campus. According to the 2015 UW-Eau Claire Climate Study, students of color reported feeling more uncomfortable compared to non-minority students. The study used a scale from one to five, very comfortable to very uncomfortable respectively. Students of color rated the university at 2.43, while white men indicate a greater degree of comfort with a rating of 1.85.
In fact, Gary Butcher II, a senior, Larrick Potvin, a senior, and Isaiah Watkins, a sixth year student, all shared similar experiences of feeling uncomfortable on UW-Eau Claire’s campus. The group identified several examples, including the small number of diverse students currently on campus, microaggressions within classrooms, and a struggling effort to retain students of color at the university as a whole.
President Donald Trump’s visit to the university in November of 2016 is a recent example of an on-campus event that students described as making them feel unwelcome on their own campus. While visitors stood in a long line to listen to the candidate speak, Sweeney said he had to refrain from getting into arguments with those waiting in line in order to protect himself.
It’s these circumstances, Butcher and his friends say that result in friends leaving the university. UW-Eau Claire has seen a lower level of retention among students of color compared to white students. According to the UW-Eau Claire’s Office of Institutional Research Factbook, the university has a three-year retention rate of 63.4 percent among students of color compared to 75 percent for white students.
Jodi Thesing-Ritter, the Executive Director for Diversity and Inclusion, said the concept of diversity on campus isn’t new.
“We have a lot to dismantle,” Thesing-Ritter said, “because the structures were designed for white men, and so the addition of priorities in the last three years are a function of our need to get better, faster, not a new desire, because I think the desire has been here for a long time to be better, but it’s hard to undermine systems of oppression.”
According to the UW-Eau Claire EDI homepage, the equity, diversity, and inclusion program’s goal is to “provide an exceptional educational experience for students and a campus community where all members at UW-Eau Claire thrive and succeed.” It hopes to succeed by creating community engagement on campus, focus on specific groups to maximize impact, and incorporate a range of voices in the program process.
Recently, the new vice chancellor for EDI put together several initiatives to increase comfort level and minority population on campus. The program has spent the past year putting together the 20/20 plan. This plan has four main goals to be accomplished by 2020:
- ensure all students have a high-impact learning experience
- keep almost all students enrolled through their second year
- have half of all students graduate within four years
- increase the enrollment of students of color to 20 percent.
The university will also require:
- all staff to take online diversity and sexual harassment training and include diversity language in evaluation plans
- staff to take inventory of faculty work spaces to identify minority situations
- offer training on microaggressions
- give students the chance to evaluate the inclusivity of the class
Outside of the EDI program, there are individual organizations that target other aspects of students’ lives. At the end of last year, Dennis Beale, UW-Eau Claire’s College Success Coordinator, started an on-campus group for black male empowerment.
Beale said that one of the motivating factors for creating this group was the death of his colleague Derek Swanigan. According to WEAU News, Swanigan was the director of football operations and player development at UW Eau-Claire and was active with youth football in the area when he was fatally shot in Chicago in December 2016.
“Me and my colleague Derek Swanigan, we recruited all of these young men from Chicago
Minnesota, Milwaukee, Madison, Indianapolis, but the thing about it is when he passed away due to gun violence in Chicago that in itself and me being from there just had me look at Chicago at a whole other realm … how can I give back to my city when I’m not in my city?” Beale said.
Beale’s group seeks to teach young men how to break stereotypes placed on black men. As part of the group, the students dress up on Wednesdays, work on resumes and cover letters, volunteer, and also get together to play paintball. Beale hopes that this group will help these young men develop professionally.
Other students on campus are working within already existing organizations to improve diversity and equity at UW-Eau Claire, including Justin Vue, a Hmong student.
Now the chair of the Equity in Student Matters Commission for UW-Eau Claire’s Student Senate, Vue grew up in the Eau Claire community. He said he faced a high school experience that consisted mostly of white people. When he got to the university, he saw a need for change, especially within the Student Senate.
At the time of his arrival, the senate had one student who was meant to represent the entire student of color population. Now, he’s created an entire commission meant to embody the needs and goals of the diverse students on campus.
His personal experience as a Hmong student is similar to those Sweeney and others described, particularly those in the classroom.
“Myself as a Hmong American, in a history course when it’s a unit on Hmong people, I’m often times looked to teach about the whole entire thing, the history of it. I’m just a student,” Vue said. “The reason why I’m taking this course is because being here in America, culture is so stripped from us that I want to learn more about it, so institutionally services, education hasn’t quite been there to provide the historical background for a lot of students of color.”
His experiences and those desires he’s heard from other students of color add up to a short list for the university’s consideration. A safe space for students of color, similar to that of the LGBTQ+ room already in the campus’ Davies Center, would allow a place for students to interact with people similar to them with similar experiences and to be themselves. In addition, he says upper-level classes meant to teach about minority cultures are needed.
This would allow students of color to learn more about their own culture and allow majority students the chance to glimpse their peers’ culture. Vue said without these changes campus won’t feel like home for students of color.
“I think it’s a very dangerous thing, bringing in a very diverse group, but then not having the resources to help them out, so I am definitely for the 20/20 [plan]. I would just like to see more resources to be there for those students,” Vue said.
UW-Eau Claire is not alone in its attempts to diversify campus. The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse’s Associate Dean Barbara Stewart in charge of diversity and inclusion said she didn’t have time for comment, but said the university has various efforts in place to reach a goal of creating a welcoming environment. Regardless, the UW-La Crosse Institutional Research Fact Book, reports its retention rates for students of color are behind their overall retention rates. These are 81 percent and 86 percent respectively.
For the entire UW System, about 75 percent of its students of color stayed in school in 2015, compared to 82 percent overall. Nationally, the country struggles with retaining students of color as well. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, U.S. universities fell short across all sectors in 2015. These retention rates persisted through fall of 2016:
- 9 percent of Asian students
- 4 percent of white students
- 0 percent of Hispanic students
- 5 percent of black students
Overall, this is a national challenge, because just having a different state of mind and training faculty might not fix hundreds of years worth of systematic oppression, Thesing-Ritter said.
“It’s like expecting a model-T to work in today’s society. It doesn’t go fast enough, because it was designed for a different time,” Thesing-Ritter said. “Even though our educational systems have changed over time, the foundation upon which they were built was that not everyone goes.”
Vue offers advice for students of color approaching the university until the needed changes arrive.
“Take pride in your culture and wear it like armor,” Vue said, “because it’ll be with you wherever.”
On a 10-point scale, Vue gave the school a two rating. On the same scale, Thesing Ritter gave the school a six and said that it’s likely the rating will be the same for decades to come.
If it were easy, I wouldn’t have a job, Thesing-Ritter said. According to Thesing-Ritter, there are pockets of greatness, but still a lot of work to do. The university can put as much work and resources into programs and resolutions as possible, but no amount of work at a university level is going to fix the overall problem: inequality in society. Still, she says, this is not an excuse to stop working toward a better campus.