Note: Originally published Sept. 19.
“The College of Charleston is a special place. From the moment you step on campus, it is evident that there is no other university like us. We are a blend of the old and the new, the traditional and the progressive—a dynamic public liberal arts and sciences education in one of the most distinctive living learning laboratories in the nation.” –Boundless: The Campaign
“I ran for Vice President because I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me running Student Government. I wanted to lead by example. I wanted to be the person I didn’t see.”
Jasmine Gil’s words settled over an attentive audience of over 100 students, faculty and administration in the Alumni Hall on Thursday evening.
Gil, Student Body Vice President, appeared as one of the seven panelists at the Diversity Town Hall event—an opportunity to hear about the College of Charleston’s plans to increase and support diversity on campus.
The conversation began with a welcome from President McConnell. He attested that of the newest group of students on campus—the Class of 2020—one out of every five represents a minority group, making it the most diverse class in College of Charleston history.
And although McConnell recognized the past successes regarding diversity on campus, he made it clear that we still have tremendous ground to cover, leaving the audience with a challenge: “Let’s keep the College of Charleston moving in the direction we’re headed.”
Michael Faikes agrees. As Student Body President, Faikes has overseen and implemented the creation of initiatives like improvements to the Stern Center and Cougar Shuttle, the augmentation of the College Amnesty Policy and internal restructuring of SGA. During the Town Hall, he also announced that SGA recently passed a resolution which will allow prospective College of Charleston students to identify as transgender on their application. Faikes attested that SGA has taken a big stand promoting the LBGTQ community.
Correspondingly, Brian McGee, the Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs at the College and a panelist of the evening, revealed just how much progress our campus has made over the last half-decade alone: “Five years ago, we did not have a gender studies center, but we do now. Five years ago, we had no African American Studies major, and we do now. Five years ago, we didn’t have any gender neutral bathrooms, and we do now.”
Human beings naturally learn from each other. Highly diverse cultures boast a wide range of views and experiences which they can share with all their members. A diverse student body is characteristic of a strong college campus. But how can all College of Charleston students benefit from the self-awareness, future career success and social development diversity brings if they cannot afford to attend classes?
“How can you claim to promote diversity when you keep raising tuition every year, keeping many financially incapable students from attending this college?”asked a student at the Town Hall. McGee responded that “The reality is that when inflation goes up, tuition has to be paid for by somebody. We can only cut costs so much without passing it on.”
Are There Solutions?
Derwin Simpson, Student Services Manager in the Financial Aid office and a Town Hall panelist, spoke specifically to South Carolinian students when he stressed the importance of keeping scholarships such as LIFE and Palmetto Fellows: “Keep your state scholarships and use the resources provided to you. Don’t wait until the last minute.”
He also discussed the new program Lunch & Learn, an opportunity for advisors in the Financial Aid office to make themselves available at lunchtime so students can learn more about loan repayment, scholarships available on campus and cutting costs while in school.
Enter the Boundless campaign.
A funding initiative which has raised $125 million over the past seven years, Boundless is built upon five major goals, one of which is awarding scholarships to deserving students from diverse backgrounds. The campaign states that its scholarships change the lives of students at the College of Charleston—students who would not have been able to attend otherwise, making the institution “more affordable, accessible and inclusive.”
Joe Kelly, a professor of English at the College, spoke with me about his role as the former co-Director of the President’s Diversity Commission on Diversity, Access, Equality and Inclusion, chartered in 2010. He also provided some insight into why minority students may feel excluded in the classroom.
“I can tell you what a lot of African American students have told me: on the academic side of things, African Americans do not feel at home. In almost every single class, if you’re lucky, there are three people of color in the classroom. Say we’re discussing James Joyce, and I’m trying to teach students about Stream of Consciousness, and I tell them to get into groups of three. I stopped doing that because of what an African American student told me, that they felt excluded. It never would have occurred to me, but it happens.”
Students can produce quality work only if they feel comfortable and respected. According to Kelly, that comfort begins with “learning how to conduct ourselves in the classroom as professors. We need to learn how to manage what goes on the classroom. To pretend there’s not a problem is to ignore the evidence.”
An important element of incorporating diversity on a college campus is to secure minorities as professors in every department.
Kelly attests that seeking out minority professors can sometimes seem like a quest, especially when the College has to compete against other schools for new hires, go to conferences and establish networks with a high concentration of minority candidates.
Renard Harris, a panelist and the Chief Diversity Officer of the Office of Institutional Diversity, spoke about one of the reasons why potential faculty members are dubious about accepting job offers.
“A white woman, a potential new faculty member, came down from Maryland and she leaned over and whispered to me, can we talk about race here? And she was from Maryland, which I consider part of the South. It’s an honest conversation about the South. It’s a question of, do you want to be a part of making a difference, making a change. I still think it’s worth the conversation.”
The Diversity Town Hall event on Thursday evening voiced the concerns that dozens of minority students share—feeling excluded in the classroom and social events on campus, given the task of representing their entire race where they might be the only minority student in the classroom or simply not being able to even attend college because of the rising costs of tuition.