Modest diversity gains make history at St. John’s/St. Ben’s

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Almost 50 percent of the students enrolled in fall 2005 at the College of Saint Benedict (CSB) and Saint John’s University (SJU), two single-sex schools located six miles apart in Collegeville, Minnesota, near St. Cloud, were new or first-generation students. Most of them, however, were also white.

The number of black undergraduate students at both CSB and SJU over a 10-year period from 1995-2005 barely totaled in the teens. Of the 2,045 women enrolled in CSB last fall, 17 are black; 13 of 1,875 males enrolled at SJU are black. The total minority undergraduate student population (black, Asian, Hispanic and Native American) is currently 4.7 percent at CSB and 4.1 percent at SJU.

“We’ve always been committed to being a welcoming community and a diverse community,” asserts CSB President Mary Ann Baenninger. “In the past, our efforts have been more directed at issues of numbers. But we’ve found that that is not enough.”

Diversity shouldn’t be one person’s or a single department’s responsibility, CSB/SJU Vice President of Institutional Planning, Research and Communications Jon McGee points out. The CSB and SJU board of directors approved Strategic Directions 2010, whose five key mission areas include recruiting more students of color, especially from Twin Cities-area high schools.

“We’ve improved the reach and quality of our admissions efforts,” explains McGee. “We are reaching out more systemically and building more bridges with more and different schools and community organizations.”

The I-LEAD (Intercultural Leadership, Education and Development) program was created to provide scholarships to help reduce or eliminate loans for low-income students, along with providing academic, social and leadership guidance. CSB/SJU Assistant Director of Admission and Diversity Coordinator Seth Snyder says that once the two schools understood the difficulties that first-generation college students face, it made it easier for him to search for students of color with high grade-point averages and leadership traits. Fifteen such students were selected last fall.

“Most of the students are students of color who traditionally would not have come to the College of Saint Benedict or Saint John’s University,” says Baenninger. “You get this incredible strong group of leader-students who don’t feel intimidated by being in an environment that they are not used to.”

Even though one student since transferred to another college, Snyder says the I-LEAD program will enroll between 12 and 15 students annually. “When they graduate and move on,” he notes, “they will be inspirations to their families and their home communities, helping bring CSB/SJU closer to low-income communities.” Another such program, The Fast Forward Youth Program, works with Latino students in junior high and high school.

If CSB/SJU were not committed to diversity, “It would be untrue to our Catholic and Benedict traditions,” says McGee.

Although pleased with how the student population slowly is becoming more diverse, Baenninger, the two-year CSB president, admits, “Having diversity on our staff is more of a struggle. From the day I arrived, this has been a driving goal of mine. Our faculty is fairly diverse for where we are in central Minnesota, but in terms of our support staff and other professional staff, it’s more difficult to attract a diverse group of staff.”

Elise Cooper is in her first year as CSB assistant athletic director and assistant volleyball coach — and the first Black female in the athletic department. She arrived last fall as part of a two-year NCAA Ethnic Minority and Women’s Internship Grant Program.

The program is designed to give persons of color athletic administration/coaching experience at the Division III level, which has the lowest percentage of ethnic minority and female coaches and administrators among the NCAA’s three divisions. CSB is one of 15 schools awarded the grant, which mostly pays the salary and covers all professional development costs.

Cooper, a Chicago-area native and a 1998 graduate of the University of Wyoming, where she also played volleyball (1993-1997), has impressed her superiors. “She has a lot of confidence in herself and is not afraid to ask questions,” says CSB Athletic Director Carol Howe-Veenstra. “She brings all these different experiences to the table in a way I can’t, growing up in central Minnesota, helping her understand how valuable those different experiences and how to use and tap into them.”

“I spent a lot of time learning about the institution, getting oriented to different aspects, because I am working with Seth in admissions and with athletics,” explains Cooper. She also is Student-Athlete Advisory Committee co-advisor, has made multiple presentations on diversity with students and staff, represented the school at various conferences, and helped facilitate a leadership workshop for first-year student-athletes.

“Elise has done wonderful work here,” says Snyder, adding that Cooper has been an effective role model for the CSB/SJU students of color. “She’s been a great support for minority students on our campus, and a wonderful role model for them as well.”

“I have to say that I am very proud to hold this position,” Cooper says, “and to know that while there is a shortage of women, especially minority women in athletic administration, I am one of the few who is stepping through that door and hopefully opening it a little wider. Without those internships created by the NCAA, would this be happening? Maybe, maybe not.”

Although her degree is in theatre and dance,” I knew I wanted to get back in athletics,” she admits. “I want to be able to make a difference in the lives of these student athletes. You can do that as a coach and an administrator.”

Despite there being no staff openings currently available, Howe-Veenstra says she wouldn’t hesitate to hire Cooper if one does materialize. “She is just so enjoyable to work with,” the AD says.

“If there was a place for me to stay,” says Cooper, “I would gladly stay. I really enjoy the environment, the people and the athletes.”

Baenninger says she expects great things from the I-LEAD students. “You are going to hear a lot of their accomplishments with this first group, because they are going to be movers and shakers in our community.”

Six Blacks are among the 14 students chosen in next fall’s incoming I-LEAD’s class, says Snyder. “We’re still not where we want to be in terms of enrollment of students of color, and the gains are still modest, but we’re finally making some solid progress!”

“Have we arrived yet?” McGee asks rhetorically of CSB/SJU’s diversity efforts. “No. It’s a road, a journey, but I think it’s better than it had been, a bunch of trails going parallel or going flat in different directions.”

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