May 112010
 

By Aaron Hedge

Collegian Special Report

Chigozie Okocha filters through paperwork at his work-study job in the International Student Scholar Services last week at the Office of International Programs. As the leader of the United Men of Color, Okocha says part of his mission for the group is to redefine diversity.

Ethnic studies majors bustled through the hallway on the third floor of the southeast end of Aylesworth Hall Wednesday, as Eric Ishiwata hurried into a study room and asked a woman to forward him an e-mail from student government saying the new leaders were doing away with the office of diversity and outreach.

The e-mail, sent by vice president-elect for the Associated Students of CSU, Jennifer Babos, says the incoming administration will discontinue the office due to budget restraints.

Ishiwata’s request for the e-mail, which he later sent to the Collegian, immediately followed a conversation in his office at the end of the hallway with a student, Chigozie Okocha, about their desires for a comprehensive revamp in the way CSU recruits and retains its minority students.

Talking with Okocha, Ishiwata said CSU must work “… to become as diverse and integrated as all of their photos show CSU. … Make efforts to make CSU look the way you’re advertising it, and I’ll call it good.”

The professor, who teaches race and ethnicity policy courses, said the department floor acts as a safe haven for a select population of ethnic minority students and their sympathizers.

“Look down the hall here,” he said. “Our hall is like a refugee center.”

There are many places on campus –– various advocacy offices and residence halls dedicated to accommodating diverse students –– where CSU’s minority populations can find solace.

Dylan Gallacher, left, talks to Poudre High School students Kyle Rutherford, Kelsey Romero and Ace Knaus about applying to college through a student-led initiative called the DREAM Project, which aims to convince underrepresented students to apply to college. On this day last month, Gallacher and his team convinced four students to fill out applications.

But with CSU looking at creating an administrative position charged with integrating diversity efforts at the university and boosting the health of its minority population, Ishiwata said those places on campus might not be needed.

“Ultimately, we’re gonna be able to develop a culture of mutual respect at CSU where you don’t have these refugee centers,” he said.

Numerous campus community members and diversity experts interviewed for this report including Ishiwata, however, say it’s not a simple road to that goal.

Simply in terms of race

Okocha came to CSU in the wake of the academic tenure of his sister, who created Africans United, and, in that shadow, felt compelled to champion diversity issues on campus.

“Just how driven she was kind of instilled in me a hard work ethic, and I’ve always wanted to just surpass her in any way I could,” he said in an interview.

So when he came to CSU three years ago to pursue his degree in political science, Okocha immediately got involved in the campus’s diversity programming, eventually becoming the president of the United Men of Color and establishing his role as a leader who wishes to expand the definition of diversity past the concept of race.

“People always want to default to racial diversity,” he said, “and … you cannot talk about racial issues without talking about gender issues and talking about sexuality and talking about disability. These are underrepresented issues that for the most part aren’t being addressed at all. At all.”

On the surface, the organization, especially seen solely through the lens of its name, might be viewed as one that aims to unite men of color on CSU’s campus. But Okocha’s mission as this year’s president is to establish a sense of community between men of all races on campus, including the white ones, who he sees as just as diverse as those of any minority.

He wants to make them “better men,” he says –– illustrating that desire by deriding profanity in the meetings and sparking discussions about the men’s respective roles in CSU’s culture –– and reintroduce them, and the CSU community, to an often overlooked definition of diversity.

The problem is one that many on campus say should have been addressed long ago.

A decade ago, CSU’s entire student body was an even 11 percent culturally diverse, according to university demographic reports. Since then, it has increased by 2.6 percent to 13.6 percent, a figure Blane Harding, an adviser in the College of Liberal Arts, says starkly exemplifies CSU’s continued racial homogeneity.

“To me, that’s nothing,” Harding said. “That’s absolutely nothing.”

So in light of CSU President Tony Frank’s latest administrative brainchild, a separation of the Diversity branch of the Office of Equal Opportunity after former director of that office Dana Hiatt retired last semester, Harding and a number of other community members say he should be commended.

The position will align the university with many of its peers nationally, including the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, which is looking to add a full-time staff of five to the very same office, Harding said.

But the initiative comes with a host of questions about the way CSU markets itself as a diverse community: is it honest? Does it do a good job in retaining minority students? At CSU, does the term “diversity” describe rigid boundaries between races, genders, classes and levels of physical abilities? Or is it more complex?

Four university employees are currently vying for the VP position. The person who fills it will oversee every area of CSU’s diversity operations. But the full force of the university’s staff that works with minority populations lies with seemingly countless offices and organizations, from top-level administration to the minutest student-led think tank.

A grassroots effort

Dylan Gallacher, a junior sociology major at CSU, made his way through the thick crowds in the hallways of Poudre High School during a Thursday lunch break last month.

He stopped at the groups that had gathered in the corners and against the sepia-tone walls to tell their members why they should apply to CSU, and if not, another university or college.

“We got four applications,” he said, as the students started to file back in to their classrooms for the next period.

This brought his initiative –– called the DREAM Project, which is a spinoff of a program started at the University of Washington that aims to promote a higher education to underrepresented high schools –– to between 12 and 15 signed applications.

Looking a bit downtrodden by the small number of applications, which a group of CSU students, who call themselves “The DREAM Team,” have been gathering since the beginning of the semester, Gallacher chatted with Isabel Thacker, one of the school’s counselors about the progress.

The WU program is said to be incredibly successful, but it had a full five years before it was fully implemented, whereas the one at CSU only had the semester.

“It’s just hard with staff turnover and teachers leaving every year to get this name built for your program,” Gallacher said in an interview before the recruiting effort.

Later, sitting in her office decorated by service awards and family photos, Thacker said that despite Gallacher’s disappointment, the widespread enthusiasm for the project among the school’s administrators will be justified.

Recruiting programs sometimes take decades to take strong root in an academic community, Thacker said.

The need for CSU students to work with local minority high school students is obvious, she said. And that need is exemplified in numbers reported by the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems: Colorado has by far the largest college achievement gap between white students and minority students at 24.6 percent.

Part of the problem stems from education cuts across the board. Schools’ budgets grow thinner by the month.

As a result of recent funding shortfalls, Thacker alone advises more than 300 high school students, a burden Gallacher and the DREAM Team, which is comprised of a number of other students, are trying to alleviate.

“The counselors are just swamped, so busy beyond belief,” Gallacher said.

Making it worse, in the current economic circumstances, the state is anticipated to have one of the country’s fastest increases in jobs that require college degrees in the next few years, according to experts.

“These statistics are alarming,” said Paul Thayer, the associate vice president for student affairs at CSU, during a meeting with representatives of the university’s Alliance high schools. “There’s no way to argue that. They are alarming.”

Thayer’s presentation to the schools showed that Hispanic and black students in Colorado have a far lower high school graduation rate than that of whites and Asians. It came before an announcement by several state higher education officials, including Mary Ontiveros, the vice president for enrollment and access at CSU, that they will conduct an audit of the Alliance schools in which they will ask students and teachers about the health of their interactions.

The audit follows one conducted in New Zealand by Tom Cavanaugh, a professor at Walden University who did his dissertation at CSU, about the gap in academic achievement in underrepresented populations, that showed native students have a lower success rate.

Efforts following the New Zealand survey resulted in higher levels of academic achievement for minority high school students there, and Cavanaugh said local high school educators are optimistic about the effort having the same effect in Colorado.

It is these initiatives Gallacher says is so important to establish continuity of action between the administration and the student body.

Realizing the American dream through an education

Thacker remembers looking out a porthole –– the diameter of which was as long as her 9-year-old body was tall –– in a cargo ship that carried her, her mother and her siblings across the Gulf of Mexico in 1963.

The ship’s cargo consisted of prisoners of war from the Bay of Pigs invasion and the final commerce items between the U.S. and Cuba after Fidel Castro’s regime took over in that country.

Behind her was her father’s death as an influential figure in Castro’s administration who was murdered for his rebellion. Ahead was a life in the U.S. where she was certain to lose her identity, denouncing Cuba’s communist proclivities, as well as her language, culture and family, most of whom died without her ever seeing them again.

After she graduated high school in Kansas with a 1.94 grade point average, she went to work for a meat packing plant, never expecting to obtain a college degree.

“I thought I was stupid,” she said in an interview. “… It was tough. It was really tough. I was a teenager while learning to speak English, dealing with incredible cultural conflict with my mom.”

But after more than a decade of that lifestyle, she decided to attend Kansas Teacher’s School, now Emporia State University, and eventually transferred to CSU where she graduated with honors and a bachelor’s degree in social work and went on to obtain her master’s in education.

Since then, she has been an integral figure in the education of minority students, in the Fort Collins area, including at CSU, where she has done work for El Centro and other Hispanic organizations on campus.

But her academic success would have been impossible without a helping hand, and that, she said, is where students like Gallacher come in for many students at PHS.

Now, plagued by state education budget cuts resulting in thin counseling staffs and dwindling funds for scholarships for minorities, high school employees like Thacker are forced to find creative ways to get their underrepresented students into college.

A systemic problem

Thacker was criticized by local media in 2007, during the heat of the national illegal immigration debate, for finding a resident status policy loophole at the University of New Mexico that allowed children of illegal immigrants full scholarships, when they would have had to pay full out-of-state tuition at CSU –– the university right down the street.

The coverage deeply troubled Thacker, who still tears up when she thinks about it.

“It was all over the news and all over the radio. … I was getting calls at home,” she said, her voice cracking. “It’s incredible how hurtful trying to do something good can be.”

UNM eventually determined the scholarship legal, and though Thacker was asked to resign, she was able to keep her job, and she goes on working with the hundreds of students at PHS who need assistance applying for college.

“I know for me, personally, it was nice when somebody sat next to me and helped me through the process,” Thacker said.

And while most students don’t have the problem of lacking documentation, Okocha says legal and socioeconomic systems that disable minority students from obtaining a college degree are what need to be examined.

“Colleges have gone to the high schools and said, ‘Come to college.’ But then there’s certain situations that wouldn’t allow a student of color … to come to college,” he said. “I still think we’re not addressing the root question: Why aren’t students able to come to CSU?”

University officials expect the new VP of diversity position to eliminate any redundancies in its diversity missions and work with existing organizations to bring their visions to fruition.

Whether similar positions at other universities do any good at increasing diverse populations is debatable, but many remain hopeful that it will help.

Harding says CSU must make itself more available to underrepresented students –– through scholarships, accurate advertising and racial fostering programs –– because that mission is essential to its identity.

Until now, CSU’s road to diversity has only lent itself to trial and error.

“Especially since we’re the land grant institution of the state, we should be the choice of (diverse) students … because that’s the whole purpose of a land grant institution,” he said. “But we’re not.”

Projects Editor Aaron Hedge can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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