Admissions strives for diversity
The diversity of life here on the Hill, or more accurately, the lack thereof, has been a heavily debated topic for many years. Students, parents, faculty and prospective students all question why Colby has the lowest percentage of minority students out of all the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) schools.
While the percentages of minority students, including Black, American Indian/Alaskan, Asian/Pacific Islander and Latino/Latina students, range from 20 percent at schools such as Hamilton College and Trinity College to as high as 30 percent at Amherst College and Bowdoin College, the most recent statistics indicate that minority students make up only 14.5 percent of the student body at Colby. Many are quick to blame admissions for not admitting higher numbers, but the source of the issue runs much deeper than that.
"We can admit as many students as we want, they're just choosing not to come," Denise Walden, Associate Director of Admissions and Multicultural Enrollment, says. "At some point it's upon the student to say that they want to come to Colby." While admissions is admitting the right number of minority students, those students are simply choosing not to enroll.
"People come and then leave, and culture and quality of life on campus plays into retention of students and impacts who decides to come," Walden says. "We have multiple minority-targeted programs in place. But if...the students arrive on campus and the culture is not very welcoming, perhaps not as friendly as other schools--they may decide not to come. Not to say it's not friendly here, but what's happening here now affects whom we bring in," Walden says.
The issues that the admissions staff face every year are finding ways to attract more minority students to the campus, convincing them to enroll and then ensuring that they retain those students for the full four years. "It's amazing to think about the extent to which we have come, but how far we still have to go," Sandra Sohne-Johnston, Associate Director of Admissions and Financial Aid, says.
"When I first came to the College in 2001, there was a program for students of color to speak to prospective students at the time," Sohne-Johnston says. "There was a student panel and a range of students on the panel spoke about their life on campus. Students of color on the panel told the prospective students of color not to come to Colby: 'It's an uncomfortable environment; you won't like it here.'"
Recently, admissions has adopted the model that peer institutions have had in place for years to bring higher percentages of minority students to campus. A new software program allows the admissions office to track high schools that have significant minority populations and helps project these demographics.
So far, admissions has traveled to Arkansas, Tennessee, California and Texas. Admissions also maintains pre-existing close ties to Philadelphia, Newark, Massachusetts, Maine and New York City. The College is also part of a Colby/Bates/Bowdoin initiative to work with the Wabanaki tribes of Maine to enroll larger numbers of American Indian students to enroll as well.
The College's lack of diversity, however, may have less to do with admissions and more to do with the students.
"Colby is not a place where students don't want students of color to attend--more white students and international students host visitors to make them feel welcome, but we need it on a larger scale. In October and November of last year, 50 students came to two different overnight programs, and a week before students arrived 25 of them still were without hosts," Walden says.
It is issues like these that prevent larger numbers of minority students from enrolling at Colby. At some point the responsibility of encouraging these students to come to the Hill rests on the students' shoulders.
"There is not enough of a buy-in from the students at large in terms of involvement in the weekends and in terms of hosting," Sohne-Johnston says. "There is no system or structure in place for the community to work with the admissions process."
"Every year when we read through applications in the 'Why Colby?' statement, many students of all stripes are indicating [that they are attracted to Colby's] diversity, and then they get here and there's this backing away into the 'what's comfortable' enclaves," Walden says. "But it almost makes you wonder, 'Are you really and truly seeking diversity? Do you want to see other faces but not interact with them? Do you keep interactions just inside the classroom and not in the dining halls, at the gym or hang out at the movies?' If you don't do these things then you haven't moved beyond your comfort zone."
And while the numbers of minority students might not reflect the growing desire for diversity on campus, the actions of students are more than able to compensate. On April 12, 2009, following an incident in which two students of color were assaulted and arrested, the entire school rallied around these students, determined to make the campus safe for all.
"April 12 was one piece of our history where we sank really low. Morale was low and people didn't feel good about Colby, but out of April 12 came some really powerful things that demonstrate the quality of this community," Sohne-Johnston says.
"That's how I knew things were getting better," Walden adds. "If April 12 had happened five years ago, the response of the community would not have been [as strong]. We had students of all backgrounds making statements of hurt, annoyance and anger and other people saying, 'You know, we can come together.' It was nice to hear all of that and it came full circle."
"We knew that out of [April 12] admissions was going to take a hit....[Some students] chose to come to Colby and [some] students...chose not to come to Colby, but across the board they expressed admiration for how well the Colby community came together."
"CCOR (Campus Conversations on Race) is a huge gift to students that doesn't happen out in the real world," Walden says. "You can't approach your boss and discuss gender, religion, sexual orientation, race--you can't address these issues because at that particular point you don't have folks reassuring the room that this is a safe place."
It is because of these open conversations that Walden and Sohne-Johnston are optimistic for the future of minority students. Through programs targeted toward these students, including the upcoming Colby Live, the school is able to bring students of color to campus, and when students visit the campus they are ultimately more likely to enroll.
"It isn't about having more faces to see in the crowds, but bringing people who are going to contribute in different ways to the classrooms, clubs, organizations--about bringing people who become Colby students, not just numbers," Sohne-Johnston says. "We want to have a diverse student population in race, geographic regions, first generations, socioeconomic status, etc. Colby life includes incredible support from students and faculty. The potential to have an increasingly diverse student body is incredibly real, but it requires everyone."
What sets students on the Hill apart from other schools, both faculty members noted, is their drive for perfection. "I talk about Colby like it's a utopia, but it's not perfect," Sohne-Johnston says. "What I really appreciate about Colby is how willing folks are as a community to make this a better place in the classroom, the Volunteer Center, athletics [and] the Pugh Center....They have a huge commitment to leaving a legacy and helping to shape the part of the community that they're involved in."
"When we think about enrolling the class of 2014 they don't come to Colby for us, they come for the students. When students of color come to campus, they're not spending time in the admissions office--they want to see the rest of campus. We're asking students, staff and faculty to just be themselves but know that others are picking up on that vibe. The positivity, the happiness, the passion for making a difference is a big thing at Colby. Colby students are passionate about wanting to make a change. Students want to make an impact on the world and it doesn't seem to be something that is just said on the application," Walden says.
To bring it all together, Sohne-Johnston stresses the connection that exists between current students and future students. "We really want to enhance the visiting experiences of prospective students. Colby Live has been really successful and we would love to continue that program in open houses for larger populations of prospective students, but it requires calling on larger populations of Colby students."
For students on campus who are serious about attracting a more diverse student body to the Hill, the perfect chance to take part in that recruitment is Colby Live. The event brings students from across the country to campus on March 4-6, and the admissions office is still in need of more overnight hosts.
"The thing is we never seem to be satisfied to just say 'O.K., we're here and now we're done,' because life keeps changing," Walden says. "[Colby] might not always get it right, but we're getting to a better place and making the experience everything that it could be."