When Michael Wilson stepped onto Concordia’s campus for Orientation four years ago, he knew there would be a lot of white kids. But when he looked around at all the upperclassmen, he saw that white was the vast majority.
Wilson, a senior and former president of Concordia’s Black Student Union, is from Waukegan, Ill., located an hour north of Chicago. It is a fairly diverse community, he said, but the opposite is true at Concordia.
Concordia’s current student minority population is 8.5 percent, said Mike Reese, director of student success and retention. This only includes the domestic minority students—international students are not grouped into this number because many of them are only here for a short time, Reese said.
“The minority population is very small… it’s probably one of the smallest of all private colleges in Minnesota,” Reese said. “That’s not because we want it that way… and not because of lack of effort.”
Wilson disagreed. He does not think local diversity is as much of a priority as other issues on campus.
Reese explained that ultimately, Concordia would like to have 12 percent of the population be composed of minority students. However, there are a few obstacles standing in the way. The most significant challenge Reese identified is the minority representation among faculty and staff.
If Concordia can recruit more minority employees, the dynamic of the environment may begin to shift, Reese said. Many times they hold available positions open longer in hopes of attracting minority applicants. However, they are drawing from a largely homogenous community.
Nick Ellig, sociology professor at Concordia, said that although the Fargo-Moorhead community is becoming more diverse, it is still relatively homogenous. He explained this contributes to the sense of connectedness minority employees and students may feel. Ideally, these students should not only feel integrated into the Concordia community, but also to the greater F-M area.
Reese said institutions located closer to metropolitan areas have more diverse populations because of the environments and opportunities they present. Schools such as Hamline and Augsburg are located right in the heart of an urban area, and, although largely comparable to Concordia, St. Olaf and Gustavus are within a short driving distance of a large city. There is a relationship between the location of the school and the cultural differences represented on campuses, Reese said.
Wilson said the environment Concordia is located within does not welcome diversity. When he came to Concordia, he thought he would find a group of people to fit in with because he was a Christian and could relate to other students. However, he soon learned many were close-minded.
When minority students experience racial slurs and are stereotyped, they need to find people they can relate to and share those experiences with, Wilson said. He emphasized the importance of that connection, which he was fortunate to find. However, with only a few students of color, that is not easy.
The college’s advertising may lead prospective students to believe Concordia has many more students of color than are actually present, and Wilson identified the gap.
“International students make (Concordia) look diverse,” Wilson said. “That’s who is on the catalogs and brochures.”
He explained that it is not the same experience.
“Intercultural Affairs helps integrate international students,” he said. “But there’s just as much culture shock (for minority domestic students).”
Reese said this culture shock can come from many cultural reference points. Many of the minority students at Concordia come from metropolitan areas, and it can be an adjustment as they try to fit themselves into underrepresented populations on campus and leave one environment to enter another, he said.
He also identified the differences in social interactions.
“Even people being overly friendly,” he said. “There are friendly people (in their hometowns), but as a rule of thumb…there’s a lot more of you relying on your own dependence.”
Reese stated the importance of finding the key people to rely on. But if the students do not have those people to rely on at Concordia, the transition can be much more difficult, he said.
Wilson said this is when a lot of the minority students transfer—when they experience the culture shock and do not have anywhere to turn to.
While Concordia has some resources open to all students in an effort to make them feel welcome, such as the office of student success and retention, it only puts a patch on the issue of the lacking diversity on campus.
Scott Ellingson, dean of admissions, explained that Concordia works with several programs, including College Possible and Multicultural Excellence Program, that focus on helping high school students look and plan ahead to their futures. Many of these students are from inner city schools in the Twin Cities. Ellingson said the programs seek to develop motivation within students for whom the idea of college is just a dream.
“The (programs are) set to keep dreams alive,” he said.
Concordia specifically sponsors bus trips set up by the organizations to help bring some of the students from the programs to campus for visits. Without these opportunities, many of the students would not be able to get to campus, Ellingson said.
But having minority prospective students is not translating into the number enrolled, and it has left Wilson confused and frustrated.
“I don’t know what we’re not doing,” Wilson said.