Underrepresented, but Not Unheard

    In 1995, the year before California voters approved Proposition 209, which banned the use of race as a factor in public university admissions, UCSD’s black student population stood at 2.2 percent. Little more than a decade later, the numbers are even lower – a mere 1.1 percent of the university’s 21,369 undergraduates self-identify as black.And even though admissions officials have strived to compose a student population reflective of the state’s racial makeup, the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest statistics indicate that blacks comprise nearly 7 percent of California’s population.

    Hydie Cheung/Guardian
    John Muir College senior Sheyna Moore is one of the 276 current UCSD undergraduates who self-identify as black. In total, black students comprise 1.1 percent of UCSD’s undergraduate population.

    Although the low numbers of black students at UCSD – and the UC system in general – have been part of a very visible trend for years, many of the campus’s black students, staff and faculty say the problem only partly stems from factors affecting black students’ preparation for college. The biggest issue affecting the university’s black student population, they said, is the fact that many blacks admitted to the university choose to attend other institutions.

    “”African-American students admitted to UCSD are often highly competitive scholars with many college options,”” Thurgood Marshall College Dean of Student Affairs Ashanti Hands said in an e-mail. “”The fact that they are not attending UCSD does not mean they are not going to college.””

    According to Hands, who serves as the director of the university’s Ujima Network – a coalition of members from the campus’s black community that works to advance the educational, cultural and professional conditions of blacks at UCSD – the university’s low yield rate can be attributed to multiple factors, including the university’s high selectivity, general environment and the amount of financial support offered to black admits.

    Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Joseph W. Watson, who charged a campuswide committee last year with exploring the low numbers of underrepresented students at the undergraduate level, and Assistant Vice Chancellor of Admissions and Registration Mae W. Brown also said that UCSD’s yield rate is a major contribution to the lack of black students on campus.

    However, in addition to the low retention rate, Watson said that many black California high school students face inadequate enrollment in required UC “”a-g”” courses, a problem that significantly lowers the available black applicant pool.

    Moreover, Brown said that this small applicant pool directly affects the “”critical mass”” of black students necessary to present the campus as a more welcoming environment for black applicants.

    Hands also said that the low visibility of a support system for the black community on campus may further repel black admits.

    “”Unfortunately, due to our low numbers of African-American faculty, staff, students and alumni, some African Americans may not see our campus as a match for the type of environment envisioned for their college experience,”” Hands said.

    Eleanor Roosevelt College senior and Black Student Union President Melony Varnado said that although “”at large universities like the UC system, it’s hard to see at first glance just where that type of support may come from for black students,”” groups such as Ujima and BSU do actively try to provide a welcoming niche for the on-campus black community through year-round activities and outreach efforts.

    However, she said that despite the group’s efforts, low numbers of black students lead to low levels of participation for black students, and in turn low black student visibility.

    “”We can’t be everywhere all the time,”” Varnado said in an e-mail. “”Our time and resources are limited.””

    Although the BSU’s efforts may be invisible to some, John Muir College senior Sheyna Moore said that the organization has provided her with essential community support. And even though she does not regularly attend BSU meetings, the group’s activities have helped shape her experiences at UCSD.

    “”When I first got here it was kind of a shock because I didn’t realize how few of us there were going to be,”” Moore said. “”But the BSU is a great way to connect. For me, it’s about the sense of community I know I can find there.””

    However, not all black students have expressed satisfaction with BSU.

    Muir junior Elisabeth Henry said that she does not rely on BSU activities to provide her with support because she feels like the group often segregates itself from the rest of the student population.

    “”There are so [few blacks on campus] that sometimes I feel like they think that they always have to find and cling only to each other,”” Henry said. “”They’re proud through isolation.””

    Though they may disagree about BSU’s methods, Varnado, Moore and Henry all said that they have had generally good experiences at UCSD. But they also stressed that more needs to be done to increase black students’ overall numbers, starting with educational reform and more outreach at both the elementary and high school levels.

    In order to accomplish these goals, Watson said UCSD will try to establish more K-12 partnerships with local schools. The campus already has ties to San Diego’s Gompers Charter School and Lincoln High School, which serve many traditionally underrepresented students.

    This year, the university has also implemented an African American Studies minor, which students and administrators agreed could serve as a catalyst for attracting and retaining not only black students, but students of all ethnicities.

    “”Everyone benefits from interactions with people from different backgrounds,”” Varnado said. “”Creating a diverse community at UCSD creates critical thinkers [and] people who are ready to not only embrace, but create a world that is actually as equal as it claims.””

    This would require support from all campus sectors in addition to the framework established by groups such as Ujima and BSU, according to Hands.

    “”Achieving diversity on a college campus our size is more than a collection of individual programs,”” she said. “”Diversity is everybody’s business.””

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