St. Cloud State goal: a ‘comfortable campus’ for students of color


Officials recognize diversity as essential to the school’s success

Over the past few years, the Spokesman-Recorder has published several news stories, commentaries, and In Our View editorials critical of both St. Cloud State University and the City of St. Cloud, questioning their commitment to provide a safe, welcoming environment for students of color. Recent developments give us reason to hope that meaningful changes are underway to address these concerns. This week and next we feature interviews with SCSU officials about efforts they are making to transform both the image and the reality of diversity on campus and in the surrounding community.

Blacks and other persons of color are enrolling at St. Cloud State University (SCSU) in record numbers, school officials report. Over a seven-year period beginning in 2000, Blacks signing up for fall classes have almost doubled, from 156 students in 2000 to 383 in fall, 2006. Asian and Latino student enrollments have shown increases as well.

However, students of color still only make up around seven percent of the total St. Cloud State student population. The university wants to raise that proportion significantly in the next few years.

With more students of color and fewer Whites graduating from Minnesota high schools according to Minnesota Department of Education projections, it makes perfect sense that St. Cloud State should not only target its recruiting efforts to students of color, but also make sure the school is a “comfortable campus” for them, stated Mahmoud Saffari, SCSU’s associate vice-president for enrollment management.

“We are working on the next three to four years to bring in an additional 400 to 500 more students of color to our campus,” he said, adding that St. Cloud State’s goal is to have at least 10 percent students of color enrolled by 2010.

In past years, the school’s recruiting of Blacks and other students of color was often viewed as insincere, at least partly due to the lack of diversity among the school’s admissions staff. SCSU Admissions Director Jeff Rhodes said that since he was hired last September, his office has taken immediate steps to address that concern.

“Our admissions team is very new,” Rhodes said proudly. With the exception of Associate Director Adrece Thighman-Nabe, who has been at St. Cloud State for over seven years, admissions officers Martha Noyola and Tzong Chang both are recent additions. Thighman-Nabe, Noyola and Chang work with the Black, Latino and Asian populations respectively.

Having a diverse staff is very important for recruiting more students of color, Rhodes believes. Even more important, he added, is making better connections with communities of color.

“We need to go to the families of those students where they are, rather than expecting them to come to us,” noted Rhodes. “Adrece [who was named director of outreach in June] has done an excellent job reaching out to the African American population. Tzong has done a great job reaching out to the Hmong community. Martha has begun the process in reaching out to the Latino students in their community.”

Rhodes said he will soon hire someone to work with the Somali community; in the interim, Noyola will serve in that capacity. “She has a lot of connections with the Somali community,” he said.

“The traditional college fair doesn’t give us the contacts with students of color,” Rhodes explained. “I have pushed our staff to reach out beyond the traditional [recruiting] method.”
“You have to recruit the whole family, not just the student,” said Noyola. “That makes a huge difference in recruiting. You not only educate the student on the admission process, but also the entire family.”

“Our focus is all about building relationships, especially with students of color,” Rhodes added. “We want them not only to enroll, but we want them to be successful. When we go recruit, we don’t recruit freshmen; we recruit future graduates. That is our goal, our focus.”

Being more visible at community events gives St. Cloud State a competitive edge in attracting more students of color, added Saffari. Preliminary numbers thus far shows a 29 percent increase in students of color over last year’s enrollment, he pointed out. “We have worked very hard to make sure that when we go out into communities of color and recruit, we also have the resources.”

Rhodes said that persons of color, whether they are staff members or current students, are fully involved whenever prospective students are visiting the campus. “Tours are led strictly by the students,” he said. “They don’t have staff looking over their shoulders, so they can give [prospects] a first-hand picture, a portrait of their experience here at St. Cloud State.”

Other programs designed to attract more students of color to St. Cloud State include a “pipeline program” that works with students beginning at the elementary level and following them through high school. A math and science program for 9th, 10th and 11th grade students also is held on campus during the summer.

Saffari said he offered scholarships to 12 or 13 high school juniors who participated this summer. “This is the first year we did this,” he noted.

But it is not enough to just bring more students of color to St. Cloud State — they must be helped to succeed there as well. Critics have noted that in addition to the past lack of diversity in SCSU’s student population, the school has had the worst rates of retention of students of color among the state’s colleges and universities.

Saffari believes the university can improve these graduation rates as well. “You can go out there and recruit for the sake of just numbers,” he said, “or you can go out and recruit for the sake of retaining those students for them to graduate.”

This effort includes scholarships and financial aid packages that will help reduce anxiety for those families with first-generation college students, Rhodes said. “It [financial hardship] becomes intimidating and can prevent students [of color] from enrolling. We have begun building a stronger relationship with our financial aid office to reach out to [families of color] and help them through that process.”

The school began last year to ensure that all recruiting printed materials and videos also are done in Somali, Hmong and Spanish. “We are going to continue to do more in accommodating students of color,” Saffari said. “We should not over-promise and under-deliver.”

But what about the broader St. Cloud and surrounding communities that have an established reputation for overt racism and are regarded by many as hostile places for people of color? Will students of color want to come to a campus community that might not be a welcoming one?

This issue is not ignored in their recruiting efforts, admitted Noyola. “I am very honest about [the negative reputation]. I know things in the city itself need to change, but I know that there are more students of color feeling very much at home [here].” She added that the area’s growing communities of color “is a comforting thing for our students.”

“The university is really doing everything possible to overcome that,” said Saffari.

Saffari emphasized that the school is committed to diversity among its faculty and staff as well as within its student body. New SCSU President Earl H. Potter III has made it a top priority.

“I am really impressed that [President Potter] is focusing on the improvement of diversity,” Saffari said.

Next week: An interview with new SCSU president Earl H. Potter III.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@