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As UK Campus Diversifies, Inclusion Still Needs Work

Members of the Black Student Union at UK
Members of the Black Student Union at UK

In room 235 of the White Hall Classroom Building on the University of Kentucky’s campus, images of couples such as Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Gucci Mane and Keyshia Ka'Oir, as well as fictional TV characters Whitley Gilbert and Dwayne Wayne, are taped to a whiteboard. The Black Student Union is wrapping up a discussion about healthy and unhealthy relationships.

The room is full of dozens of students. And according to the nonprofit education news site the Hechinger Report, UK is doing OK in terms of racial diversity. The nonprofit found that in some states, there’s a pretty significant gap between the numbers of black and Latino students that graduate high school and those enrolling in the state’s flagship universities. UK still has a gap for black students, but it’s smaller than the gap in many other states.

“I chose the University of Kentucky because I wanted to get out of Louisville,” 22-year-old Christina Lucas said. “I was like, 'Oh it’s very diverse; it seems like it’s cool.'”

She credited the university's Come See Blue For Yourself initiative as making UK feel like a place she belonged. The event targets underrepresented high school juniors and seniors to visit the campus.

The Hechinger Report looked at data for 2015. It found that in order for UK’s 2015 freshman class to have really represented the state’s demographics, there would have had to be three percent more African-American students. But the gap didn’t exist for Latino students — in fact, that year the freshman class had a slightly higher percentage of Latino students than had graduated high school in the state.

Tsage Douglas, 19, originally chose to attend Georgetown University but ultimately decided on UK.

“They are paying me to go here,” she said.

Flagship universities like the University of Kentucky are significant because they’re more affordable than private universities. They’re tax dollar funded and have a mission to serve all residents of their state equitably.

Many of these flagships also have large endowments, which allow for scholarships. UK’s endowment is more than one billion dollars. Nationally, graduates of flagships out-earn graduates from regional public universities.

“We always say we’re the university for Kentucky,” said Sonja Feist-Price, the vice president of institutional diversity at UK. “And I know that we’re intentional about recruiting a diverse student body. And so it’s not by accident that we have a significant number of black and brown students.”

In 2015, the number of undergraduate first-time, degree-seeking black students was 420. That number for Latinos for the same year was 265.

“We strive to create a community of belonging,” Feist-Price said. “To ensure that all of our students feel that they belong here and that University of Kentucky is their home away from home.”

Diversity And Inclusion

Fabian Leon is an agricultural and medical biotechnology student at the university.

“Diversity ultimately at the University of Kentucky is doing fine,” he said. “I think inclusion is definitely where we need to bridge some gaps.”

He and Elisa Diaz are both part of the Latino Student Union. Diaz said she’s never heard a racist comment or experienced a micro-aggression inside the classroom. But she has been in some uncomfortable situations at off campus events with UK students.

“There was this one instance we had gone to a party that was near campus; like literally walking distance,” she said. “And I don’t know how it came about but someone said ‘yeah, there’s a whole bunch of beaners in here.’"

That’s a derogatory term for people of Mexican descent. Diaz said she brushed off the comment and left the party.

Leon, who wants to be a scientist, hasn’t experienced direct racist comments in the classroom. But his major in agricultural and medical biotechnology juxtaposed with the stereotype of Latinos doing menial farm work can pose problems in discussion in the field.

“It’s never been directly racist or anything like that," he said. "But there’s been subtle undertones about the way things always have been and the way things are just in what classes I take and what’s taught.”

Other universal issues can make it difficult to adjust to college life. Financial issues, separation from family and friends, academics and making new friends can make inclusiveness difficult for some black and brown students.

“Black UK is very cliquey,” said Ryan Page, a freshman referring to the black community on campus. “And so if you get here and you don’t know a certain person or a group, you’re going to be left alone.”

He said this can lead to further ostracization in an already predominantly white institution.

Unconscious Bias

The university does have an unconscious bias initiative, which trains students, faculty and staff about their biases. But as of now, those trainings aren’t required.

“I think it’s important for everybody to understand and know what racism is, stereotypes, prejudice … all that is is they don’t offend somebody or won’t feel like they’re about to offend somebody and we can still express ourselves,” freshmen Tyler Trabue said.

Leon, the agricultural biotechnology student agreed.

“The people who are drawn to those initiatives are the people who are affected by them,” he said. “A lot of times we’re the victims of those bias incidents, so maybe we’re the last people that need to be trained.”

Along with bias, microaggressions and ethnic slurs, there are occasionally other more threatening incidents, like the recent vandalizing of the university’s Jewish Center.

And as Fabian Leon sees it, it’s not enough to just attract a diverse student body. The next step is creating a welcoming environment while they’re here.

“Diversity is being invited to the dance and inclusion is being asked to dance to music you like to hear,” Leon said.

Roxanne Scott covers education for WFPL News.