Students share frustrations with IC “diversity”
When junior Yukino Kondo talks about growing up in the Netherlands, people often respond with puzzled looks. Though she was born in Japan, Kondo spent most of her childhood in the Netherlands. She frequently finds herself explaining her entire backstory when meeting new people due to their confusion. And as an international student, Kondo has had some other frustrating encounters on campus.
Various members of the Ithaca College community have expressed concern about discriminatory comments made in classrooms and across a campus that, in its diversity statement, claims to “commit ourselves to change, growth, and action that embrace diversity as an integral part of the educational experience and of the community we create.”
In one of her past classes, Kondo was grouped with three American students for a project working with nonprofits in Asia. During group meetings, the other students made comments like, “Aw, Asian babies are so cute.”
“I was there and they were saying this as if I didn’t even exist, and I mean you can clearly tell that I’m Asian,” she said. “I guess I understand what they’re trying to say, but I’m just not sure how Asian babies are any different from any other babies.”
While she did not confront the students at the time, Kondo said, “It made me really realize that there is definitely a lack of understanding and a lack of knowledge of different cultures.”
Isuru Perera-Somasinghe is a sophomore international student from Colombo, Sri Lanka, located in Southern Asia. When he was running for SGA Vice President of Academics, like any other student campaigning for office, he faced criticism. However, one critique was unrelated to his political platform. Some students questioned his ability to communicate.
In a personal conversation before the election, he was asked: “What is an international student who’s not exactly acclimated to the American society going to do to communicate to students who are American in a college that is American?”
He was frustrated and offended, but said he understood why the question was asked. He responded, “I may be Sri Lankan and my first language might not be English, but I’ve been educated in English my entire life, while learning other languages. I’ve also learned Latin. I’ve done Japanese and French, and I’m a German minor right now, so I’m pretty sure that language isn’t a barrier for me.”
Perera-Somasinghe won his election, and despite situations like these, he said he felt welcomed to Ithaca College as member of the HOME Program, a residential housing program in Terrace 3 for international and domestic students seeking a more diverse living environment. Residents engage in frequent workshops and discuss global issues. However, not all residence halls and classrooms across campus are as diverse as this specialty housing community.
The Office of Institutional Research generates reports documenting racial and ethnic diversity at Ithaca College based on the federal government’s race/ethnicity categories: White, Hispanic/Latino, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaskan Native, Asian, Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and two or more races.
On the report, the “White” category is directly under total enrollment and is separated from the other races and ethnicities, which are placed under a section titled “Minorities”. Each category also indicates the number of males and females who identify with each race. There is a gender gap at Ithaca College, but it does not reflect the historical exclusion of women at higher education institutions. According to the Office of Institutional Research Fall 2012 report, female undergraduate students outnumber males 3,518 to 2,763.
As of Fall 2012, of the 6,281 undergraduate students on campus, 1,034 individuals identified with one of the minority race categories. The most represented categories are Hispanic/Latino with 385 students, Black or African American with 257 students and Asian with 198 students. One-hundred-seventy-five students identify with two or more of the racial categories, meaning over 70 percent of the undergraduate student body, 4,412 students on campus identify as white.
Based on national statistics, Ithaca College’s racial diversity does not measure up to the national average for fall enrollment in degree-granting institutions. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, as of 2010 white students made up 61.6 percent of enrolled students, compared to the over 70 percent at Ithaca College. All the students of minority races combined only make 16.5 percent of the undergraduate student body at Ithaca College, compared to 36.1 percent at the national level.
However, the numbers in the college’s report aren’t even fully representative of the entire campus. It actually captures less than 90 percent of the undergraduate racial composition. There are 709 students, or 11.3 percent of the entire undergraduate population, whose race or ethnicity is classified as unknown.
There is also a section in the report for international students. At the national level, full-time international students made up 4.3 percent, compared to the college’s 2 percent.
Claire Borch, Assistant Director of the Office of Institutional Research, said international students officially recognized by the college are called “Nonresident Aliens,” in compliance with the federal government’s race and ethnicity reporting guidelines, but the office plans to include the term “International” on future reports.
Some students who personally identify as international students are not identified as such by the college. As of Fall 2012, Ithaca College officially recognized 126 individuals as “Nonresident Aliens,” while the Office of International Programs says there are about 200 students from 55 countries studying at the college.
“When you look at the international students that the college reports, it’s the narrowest definition. It’s the foreign nationals,” Diana Dimitrova, director of international student services said.
The “Nonresident Aliens” are only one part of the international student community. Students coming to Ithaca College from other countries hold various types of visas depending on many factors, so the term international student is very subjective and often depends on a student’s personal background, Dimitrova said. Some students are American passport holders who are foreign born, or grew up and were educated abroad because their parents were involved with business, missionary or military work around the world.
The issue of determining who is and is not an international student was raised when SGA elections took place for the newly established position International Student Senator, currently held by Steven Kobby Lartey, a Legal Studies major from Accra, Ghana.
As a leader in SGA, Perera-Somasinghe said compiling a list of students to vote was difficult because not everyone in the international student community is officially recognized by the school’s documents, but, “you can’t deny that student the right to be international students because that’s their identity.”
Even though the international student community has now been given a voice in the student government in an effort to encourage fair representation and integration, the attempts made to compile an official list or a number of international students highlight the frustration that students of various demographics often feel when the college starts using the numbers in marketing material and recruitment.
While Kondo said she understands that the school needs some statistical information about diversity on campus in its marketing material, when she encounters it she said she feels like a number. “I don’t want to just be someone to fill your quota,” Kondo said.
In regards to the college’s efforts to promote and increase diversity, sophomore MLK Scholar Candace Burton, who identifies as African American, said the school concentrates heavily on increasing numbers, rather than making sure students are comfortable on campus.
“I don’t think they’re going about it the right way just because it seems like they’re very numbers focused. It needs to be more about making sure people feel welcome,” she said. “I would rather them just say, ‘we’re committed to increasing our ALANA population, our LGBTQ population.’”
Last spring emails were sent out to all ALANA students on campus, or students who identify as Asian, Latino, Native American or African American, asking them to participate in a photo shoot for the college’s marketing materials. The cover photo on the Ithaca College Facebook page, which features students of various races, was taken as part of the shoot. Burton did not participate.
“I’m not gonna show up for that just so they can have a couple pictures and say, ‘look we have students of color on campus,’” she said. “Taking a picture of all of us isn’t an accurate representation of the campus.”
When sophomore Heléna Murphy received the first few messages about the photo shoot she was apprehensive, but ultimately she decided to participate because she knew some of the people in admissions who sent the emails, and the MLK Program Coordinator encouraged her to participate. She said about 15 students of various races showed up at the academic quad to meet the photographer, who instructed them to walk around as if they were heading to class.
Murphy said the photos used do not appear staged, but the process of constantly emailing ALANA students for marketing purposes raised ethical concerns for her.
She looked at the numerical breakdowns of races when she was applying to colleges, but said that just because there is a certain amount of people who identify with a certain group doesn’t mean that there isn’t social segregation on a campus.
“Marketing it as everyone gets along, everyone is integrated and there are no problems, I have an issue with that,” Murphy said. “It’s like they emphasize the numerical diversity but they don’t try to keep students.”
Murphy is not the only student frustrated by “Ithaca’s constant use of the word diversity,” specifically in marketing strategies. “It has no meaning now,” she said.
While some students criticize the college’s frequent use of the term, Paula Ioanide, an asistant professor in the Center for the Study of Culture, Race & Ethnicity and co-chair of the Diversity Awareness Committee, said, “The word diversity and the way that it began to get used in higher education has to do with a shift from affirmative action to what is now called diversity.”
“Affirmative action programs in higher education were originally introduced to provide pathways to recruit and retain students who hadn’t been historically included in predominantly white higher education institutions,” Ioanide said.
The mentality behind affirmative action policies was that higher education institutions should be proactive in recruiting women, students of color and other people who had historically been excluded on the basis of factors like race or gender. Ioanide said that the race or gender was only one component in admissions decisions that factored in affirmative action policies, and that students still had to be qualified.
Since 1978, many Supreme Court cases have addressed affirmative action policies in university admission practices. The Court has gone back and forth about whether or not race or gender can be considered in admission decisions. In 2003, the Court ruled that universities had an interest in working to make their campuses more diverse, and that race or gender could play a limited role in admissions decisions.
However, because of former Court rulings, Ioanide said the language and focus has shifted away from making up for historically excluding people based on their race, gender, sexuality and ability, to simply creating a more diverse environment on campus.
“It took the power out of questions of inclusion, so now inclusion was just about a celebration of peoples’ differences, as opposed to redressing these past exclusions,” she said.
In 2005, the University of Texas at Austin created a policy in which they automatically accepted the top 10 percent of each high school’s graduating class — a policy partially modeled after the University of Michigan Law School affirmative action policies upheld in the Grutter v. Bollinger case in 2003. Fisher v. University of Texas is currently before the Court. If they decides to overturn the 2003 ruling, affirmative action policies could end at U.S. public universities.
As a private institution, Ithaca College has an entire section of its website devoted to diversity, which includes tabs to explain the President’s Advisory Committee on Diversity, IC 20/20’s Diversity Strategic Plan Goals, and the school’s diversity statement.
Perera-Somasinghe said that in addition to the small city and interesting politics courses, the diversity statement was a pull factor for him, because he wanted to go somewhere accepting.
“I have to say that I’m a little disappointed,” Perera-Somasinghe said. “I feel like what appears on paper, what appears on the website isn’t always what comes into play here.”
What attracted Kondo to Ithaca was the theater program, as well as her financial aid award, rather than marketing strategies around diversity. While she was unfamiliar with the diversity statement until recently, she said, “It even looks like it was copy and pasted from a dictionary. It’s so perfect and … trying to be really politically correct.”
She said that she doesn’t believe the school is completely living up to its diversity statement, but it’s going in a good direction. However, whether or not the college lives up to its published and self-proclaimed standards is only one element of the discussion.
Cedrick-Michael Simmons, a junior MLK Scholar who identifies as African American, said, “I think that the diversity statement is incredibly inclusive…which makes it mean nothing.”
He said he understands from a marketing standpoint why the college has its current diversity statement, but that he does not think it is useful for discussions about diversity because of its inclusivity.
While he is critical of the diversity statement, Simmons said he thinks the college does a good job of highlighting the diversity that does exist on campus, and noted the many initiatives students, professors and the college are creating to encourage conversations about racial, social and other types of diversity.
“I think students groups are doing great things. I wish there was a way to highlight their efforts more,” Simmons said. “This has to be a sustained effort.”
Simmons is the former president of Created Equal, a political activist group on campus that encourages critical thoughts and discussions about inequality.
As a Created Equal E-Team member, Burton said, “It’s really a club about diversity intersectionality with an LGBTQ focus, so we talk about issues that specifically affect the LGBTQ community, but bring it back so people can understand how that issue also affects them.”
Created Equal is one of many organizations and offices on campus that encourage discussions about what diversity means and seek to make students of different genders, as well as cultural, social and racial backgrounds, feel welcomed and accepted.
Because international students come from all over the world, making them feel welcomed and adjusted to campus is a main focus for the Office of International Programs. Dimitrova said the OIP concentrates on helping students adjust to campus, rather than developing hard and fast definitions for how to recognize an international student or even diversity itself.
“Our goal at the OIP is not to define,” Dimitrova said. “We want to be the ones that say welcome, come in.”
The OIP reaches out to students who definitely or may identify as international, through emails and brochures, and provides programs to help the students adjust. There are orientations at the start of every semester and a buddy program in place, so international students can direct questions and make friends with students who are already familiar with the college.
One of the challenges with all of these initiatives to promote and understand diversity is what Simmons called “preaching to the choir.” Many of the students involved in organizations like Created Equal already understand the difficulties of defining diversity, establishing a diverse environment on campus, and making students from all backgrounds feel welcomed. Reaching out to students and community members unaware or unfamiliar with these issues is a challenge.
Dimitrova said opening up the buddy program to American students this year was educational for both the American and international students, and while it was challenging at times for the American buddies to relate to their international counterparts, students learned a lot from the experience.
While every person has a different definition of diversity, there are many opportunities on campus for students and faculty to develop their personal definitions.
Ioanide defines diversity as “a code word that conceals what are actual power relations in higher education, on the basis of wealth, on the basis of race, on the basis of gender, on the basis of sexuality, on the basis of ableism.”
For Perera-Somasinghe, “It’s about gender, it’s about sexuality, it’s about how you look at yourself as a person,” he said. “It’s all about how you can bring these different people together, people of different opinion and different thoughts come together and live in one unit.”
Jessica Corbett is a sophomore journalism major who thinks real diversity is pretty rad. Email her at jcorbet2[at]ithaca[dot]edu.