EDITORIAL: Students of color forced to go the extra mile


Photo Illustration of Marissa Mengesha, left, and Gabe Ohngren.

Central Michigan Life has had the chance to speak with students from all walks of life — Black, LGBTQ+, Hispanic, first-generation, Asian, Hindu, Indigenous, Jewish, white, Muslim and so on. What every student has made clear is the need for community, specifically among students of color.

In the past year, Central Michigan University has taken major losses with budget cuts, but the most impactful have been faculty and staff vacancies. Within the Center for Student Inclusion and Diversity, two major roles that serve student needs are currently vacant: Director of LGBTQ Services and Director of the Office of Indigenous Affairs. 

Without educators and allies in these positions, students that identify in these communities are not receiving the support they need, deserve and were promised. According to the 2023-2028 Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Strategic Plan, CMU’s focus for 2023-2024 is to promote a more inclusive community by developing a structure for units to promote DEI community engagement. 

However, there is no trace of CMU putting together a search committee to fill these positions, let alone a public announcement to make it known to students, faculty and staff. How can we focus on creating an inclusive community without taking the first step in making sure students have resources and professionals they can identify with to receive guidance or aid? And to take matters even further, how can we do so without putting more allocated funds toward these efforts? 

At CMU, a predominantly white campus, 25% of our student population identifies as a minority, according to CMU by the Numbers.

What the university fails to mention is that there are 14,423 students on campus as of the Fall 2023 semester, which does not count the retention rate for Spring 2024. When you say 25% of the student population is minority — sure that may seem like a number worth highlighting; however, according to Western Michigan University’s demographics, its minority population is 25.1%, whereas Eastern Michigan University’s is over 28% according to Data United States. 

Therefore, CMU is currently showcasing average numbers for minority demographics. Nevertheless, we certainly won’t discredit CMU’s incredible administrators at the helm that are specifically working to better the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion efforts here. 

Thank you to those working behind the scenes for all of the policies, events and the work that you do to make this institution a welcoming school, home and community as much as you are allowed and able to do so. 

Without the Center for Student Inclusion and Diversity (CSID), the office for Institutional Diversity, Equity and Involvement (OIDEI) and Student Activities and Involvement (SAI) — students of color would not have a place they could go to for guidance, acceptance, comfort and to just be themselves. Some of these efforts look like the Belonging Movement, having an imbedded multicultural counselor in CSID, incorporating religious policies for students to practice freely and just being supportive when students need a listening ear. 

However, for those whose conversation about DEI revolves around emailing students apologies when a racist slur is found on their dorm room, showing up at the annual Martin Luther King CommUNITY Peace March and Vigil, attend heritage month events on campus or introducing Antiracist campaigns and letting them drop, students notice that.

CM Life will be hosting an open forum in honor of Black History Month for students of color to come in and share their stories, if comfortable, and to talk about what you would like to see from us — your platform and resource. The event is scheduled for 5 p.m. Feb. 21 in CM Life’s office on the fourth floor of Moore Hall, and food and refreshments will be provided. 

If you do not feel comfortable with participating in that event, but still just need an outlet in general, CSID has a dedicated counselor housed in its office located in the Bovee University Center room 104M. Elizabeth Husbands is a woman of color that has over 25 years’ of experience working in the mental health field. To schedule an appointment, call 989-774-3381 or visit the website counsel.cmich.edu to request an appointment. 

What are students of color experiencing at CMU?

Central Michigan Life talked to a student recipient of the Multicultural Advancement and Lloyd M. Cofer Scholarship (MAC) about their experience on campus as a student of color. The student wished to remain anonymous to protect their academic scholarship. 

After being asked whether they feel supported on campus, the student said there are people within the previously mentioned offices that do make them feel supported. However, as for the university as a whole, the individual has not felt supported as a Black student on campus. 

“I think there are steps and things that need to be done in order for that support to be shown,” the student said. “I mean, look at the retention rates of colored students. Or even just the small things, taking the small steps to make sure that students have what they need and accessibility. People don’t know about the Student Food Pantry, people don’t know about these important necessity things, or even One Central sometimes ... things like that. 

“Also, there’s no accessible things for people of color on campus. Like, we’re still working on Black haircare products. Those things should be up here already.”

The student mentioned that they do not see particular cabinet members or the president of the university at any of the more targeted multicultural events, such as Black Hair Care, but instead making appearances at the “photo-op” outings like the MLK walk. The student also admitted they are not at every event on campus; however, when that lack of higher-up presence is noticed, it makes students feel unsupported and unheard. 

Let’s look back to “CMU by the Numbers.” Out of the 14,423 students there are 3,605 students of color. Out of that 3,605 — 1,683 of those students are from India, Bangladesh, Ghana, Nigeria, Spain and so on. As for domestic BIPOC students there are 1,922. 

Both of those numbers are as large as a high school population in a well-populated city. However, there are 10,818 white students — that is almost 10 high schools, combined — or more. 

When you put students into numbers and look at it from this perspective, minority students are far outnumbered. 

However, when you look at students as people, not as a statistic to the enrollment, retention and tuition rates, you may find that through interacting with students that they are people that all have entirely unique experiences on campus, which just so happen to also impact CMU’s buzz words of enrollment and retention. 

CMU brings in more and more international students but lack the efforts to integrate them with the other student populations on campus. International students face the challenge of coming to an entirely foreign place when it comes to culture, race, religion, politics and even different ways of driving and the laws that come with that. 

Many international students choose to come to America for schooling to take part in the different cultures that are here, on top of academics. However, without the university’s support to bring all students together, it is extremely hard for those students to make friends that don’t look like them on campus. 

What international students and BIPOC students on campus have most in common is the fact that they both have to make the extra effort to find a community on campus. White students can go through an entire day only seeing other white people and not at all question their comfort or how isolated they feel. And when it comes to making friends, it comes down to whether they feel like talking. 

However, for the minority population on campus those students have to go above and beyond to get involved in RSO’s, seek out other people that look like them and go about their day getting ignored by white students who are not comfortable with being friends with people outside of their race. That is only scratching the surface of being the minority on a predominantly white campus.  

“There is a lot of extra effort that you do have to put in being a Black student in the community,” the anonymous student said. “Which is not fun … because it’s exhausting. And now you’re taking time out of your day on top of million other things that you’re doing.”

A majority of students of color go through this isolating experience on campus. 

The student said they went through culture shock when they first came to campus and stayed in the dorms. However, their experience with the MAC scholarship program is what made them decide to stay at CMU and they are very grateful to have that community. 

The MAC program

Alfred Harper, assistant director for Multicultural Student Education, said it was disheartening to hear that comment from the MAC scholar who felt it was the only community they have on campus.  

“But then it’s also, I will say, a great piece of information to hear that one the community is serving the purpose that it’s meant for,” Harper said. “And not knowing who the person is but understanding that they may have identities to where they feel as if they would not have that — it shows the scholarship, the program and the value of experience that students are going through. 

“It shows that CMU needs to really put forth more effort to ensure that individuals are learning about each other (and) have more opportunities to where students of all identities are learning about individuals holistically.”

James Span, Jr., executive director of Student Inclusion and Diversity, said that hearing the student’s statement about only having a community within the MAC program did not shock him. 

“It is something that I have definitely heard pretty much over the entirety of my tenure here at the university,” Span said. 

He said the MAC program has been designed to create community for students. 

“It’s not by happenstance,” Span said. “It’s not something we just, you know, hold on to hope and say, ‘Well, we hope they feel welcome, or we hope they feel.’ No. We go out of our way to to be very intentional with the relationships that we build with our students. How we role model for our students, how we expect them (staff) to interact with their peers, underclassmen and upperclassmen.“

Regardless of who students are, what classification they are in life, where they come from, Span said he does not take it for granted that when they leave the CSID that those students will be treated with the same level of respect or care elsewhere on campus. On one hand, it is disheartening, but on the other hand, he said it is enlightening to know he and his team are hitting the mark with the MAC program. 

Harper said there are currently 250 MAC recipients. But what about the other 1,742 minority students that are not a part of the program? Or those who haven’t gone the extra mile to get involved in RSOs because of how tiring it can be to put yourself out there as a young adult, but especially as a person of color on a majority white campus? 

It is truly a privilege to not have to think about that. But for the students that do and the faculty and staff that recognize those experiences — it is disappointing to hear and see. 

At the very least, the MAC scholarship has allowed students to meet different people from different backgrounds and teach one another about intersectionality and being curious and respectful of other peoples’ cultures, races, backgrounds, religions and ethnicities.

“It showed me that I also wasn’t the only person of color,” the student said. 

The program has contributed to most of the cultural events on campus. The student said there most likely would not be as many without it.

When asked about the increase in white students receiving the multicultural scholarship, the student said they see both sides — white students need to learn about intersectionality and respecting and being curious about other peoples’ cultures, but it is also one of the most prominent opportunities on campus for minority students to receive financial aid. 

Span said the program can be just as beneficial for a student from Southside Chicago than it is for a student from the Upper Peninsula. 

He made the point that when it comes to the world outside of college, there are less-often times when students will experience a self-segregated environment. 

“If we create an opportunity where we self-segregate, and we say ‘This scholarship is awarded to individuals who hold that minoritized or marginalized identity only’ and then we talk to them about all things DEI -- we talk about intersectionality and we talk about identity and we talk about intercultural communication, and we’re talking about intercultural communication, but it’s only between two people of color -- then that limits the impact that we can have,” Span said. 

How can CMU do more? 

Span and Harper agreed that the university should be doing more to provide fiscal resources and scholarship opportunities specifically for students of color, just as the university has recently done for first-generation students. 

“They have access to funds because of that identity,” Span said. “I think there should be more; I need to find populations that warrant fiscal support.”

Although the MAC scholarship is open to all due to the affirmative action policy to not discriminate against applicants based on their race, it should be a requirement for all students to have some sort of DEI training and hands on experience. 

“Again, is it great to have white students learn more about culture? Absolutely,” the student said. “But that shouldn’t just be multicultural requirements, which is another problem I have with the university. ... This should not just be a requirement for multicultural students. 

“It should be a requirement for everybody to learn about diversity and inclusion and how to be inclusive and not just on a racial level, but also with gender inequalities and different identities … and religious aspects too. These are things that we should all know by the time you graduate, not just MAC scholars.”

Many students experience being away from home for the first time on campus and being away from their own “society and what your society that you come from has taught you,” the student said. 

Therefore, by having all students required to engage in DEI education, the student said that it’s a good way to break that thought process and challenge it.

Harper agreed. He said it is important that it is not just MAC scholars taking the time to learn about the value of each other’s identities and other cultures. 

“It’s not MAC scholars that are essentially stereotyping or showing this act of discrimination towards other students, it’s those of the majority identity,” Harper said.

All students should be highly encouraged to attend DEI-related events, not just for a scholarship or class, but out of sheer curiosity and the willingness to learn and step outside of their comfort zone, Harper said. 

However, more opportunities and requirements such as that mandate funding, which is a term that DEI offices on campus would like to hear more often — and not budget cuts, which can be seen across campus as well. 

“It’s hard being a person of color living in Mount Pleasant,” the student said. “It’s uncomfortable, to be honest. You don’t have access to the resources you need. … It can be terrifying because it’s a mostly white town. Sometimes it’s not the safest environment for a person of color. And sometimes it may be hard to express yourself and people don’t understand your backgrounds.”

With extra funding going toward DEI, the university would be investing into its favorite words: enrollment and retention. But what should really be important to the university is students feeling safe and accepted on campus — not having to seek that safety themselves when they have already put themselves out of their comfort zones to move away from home and go to college knowing no one. 

Going into the unknown

As of the end of the school year on Dec. 31, 2024, President Bob Davies will be resigning from CMU. Students, staff and faculty have been discussing what the future will look like for the univeristy and who the potential next president will be — and will they be up to the task for adhering to the needs that are not currently being met? 

“I feel like whoever needs to or is going to take over next has a lot of work to do in order to help the university to go forward,” the student said. “And if that person can’t do it, then we’re going to be stuck where we are, and we’re going to be confused (as to) why we have such low enrollment and all these things.”

To the next president of CMU and to the white students that do not open themselves to new friendships and new lessons: There is much work to be done. Get comfortable with the uncomfortable, and you may just be surprised by what you are capable of, the people you meet along the way and the lessons and knowledge that can be exchanged. 

To the students of color on campus: Stop by the CM Life office on the fourth floor of Moore Hall in room 436 sometime. We want to hear from you and spread the word about your experience to make a difference. We want you to feel safe and comfortable when you walk into our office or interact with our staff — we will do so. 

Let us celebrate Black History Month together and engage in these tough conversations. As CM Life said in the 2023 Black History Month editorial — a month is not enough to recognize people and their lived experiences. 

Let us strive to treat others the way they want to be treated. That, in turn, comes with needing to be curious about how others would like to be treated and what our cultural differences may be. 

Do what you need to do to go the extra mile and make your peers feel welcome, so that when it comes to students speaking about their experiences at CMU and whether they have a community inside and outside their race, we can all say, “we do.”