Since its inception in 1847, The University of Iowa has accepted all students on an equal basis. It continues to provide a rich environment for all students, by bringing together undergraduates and graduates from a variety of backgrounds and life experiences.
Nationally, the racial demographic is changing, says Val Garr, a multicultural coordinator for the Opportunity at Iowa program in the Office of the Provost. Iowa is no stranger to that changing demographicthe Latino and Asian population is growing in this state, which in turn is changing some of the educational needs of the state.
Garr, who helps to recruit and retain students of color to the University through programs and contacts in schools and youth organizations around the state, says that Iowa can sometimes be a challenging place to be a student of color. (In the fall of 2002, minority students comprised 8.9 percent of the UI student body.) But, it has advantages as well.
You can get a good education here, at a reasonable price, in a relatively safe environment, she says. Its not a utopia, but Iowans are friendly people, and many members of the faculty and community are accepting and encouraging of diversity. And because of Iowas smaller size [compared to other Big Ten schools], students have lots of opportunity to participate in dialogue about race and ethnicity, and student voices can be heard.
One student who chose to come to Iowa is Jane Wu, an Asian American student who moved to Cedar Rapids in her sophomore year of high school.
Asian Americans were not even a one-percent minority in my high school, she says. Her response was to form the Asian Awareness Club. She has continued her activism at the University through the Asian American Coalition, an umbrella group that supplies people-power and fundraising for numerous Asian-related campus activities. These include last years Asian American/Pacific Islander Heritage Week, which featured guest speakers and films, and Chopsticks Theater, a group that uses skits and puppets to present Asian stories to children in Eastern Iowa museums, libraries, and classrooms. Most recently, she and other members of the organization lobbied successfully for the Universitys first Asian Pacific American Cultural Center. Wu also works as an Opportunity at Iowa ambassador, helping other students of color adjust to college life.
Wu says that although shes personally never experienced outright racism on campus, she remembers feeling more comfortable in her first-year Courses in Common classes when she noticed two other minority students among her classmates.
In small classes, you notice whos there, she says. Seeing them made me feel better.
Wu feels that Iowa is the right place for her.
Its very beneficial for me, because I can help expose students to cultures other than their own, she says. And Im learning about other cultures too. Im the representative for all Asian students in UI Student Government and so I go out and talk with the Indian students, and the Vietnamese students, and the Chinese students. And right now Im taking an Asian American history class.
Wu has found her niche at Iowa. To help other students of color do the same, the Universitys response to changing demographics has been to strengthen existing services and create new opportunities. Some, such as Support Service Programs, have been in place for years, according to program director Sheila Vedder, a UI graduate and 33-year University employee.
Some of our programs were created during the civil rights movement in the 1960s, to serve students from traditionally underrepresented groups, she says. Support Service Programs promotes educational opportunities for students from a range of backgrounds, with the intent of helping them succeed here at Iowa.
Through a variety of University and federally funded programs, student support includes tutoring, counseling, and workshops on topics such as preparation for graduation, and how to get the most out of a University-sponsored career fair. The office recently sponsored its first-ever poetry slam.
We want to provide an open, inviting, supportive environment where students can find other students like themselves, Vedder says. This includes first-generation college students, defined as those who come from households in which neither parent graduated from college.
In fall of 2001, about 44 percent of the 565 entering transfer students and about 30 percent, or 1,217 of first-year students, were first-generation college students, she says. Not all, but about 92 percent of students served by Support Service Programs are students of color.
Another program in place to assist students of color is the previously mentioned Opportunity at Iowa.
Were here to help students figure out whats available on campus to help them feel included by getting involved, Garr says.
Whats in place are myriad campus organizations, black and Latino/Latina fraternities and sororities, cultural centers (including the Latino/Native American Cultural Center and the Afro-American Cultural Center), the annual Native American Pow Wow and Cultural Diversity Day, art exhibitions, dance performances, readings, films, and summer programs.
These things are a reflection that the University values a students culture and heritage, Garr says. The goal is not only to be around people who share your culture, but to enhance what you know and help you learn more about your culture and others.
One student who took part in a summer program, the Iowa Biosciences Advantage (IBA), is Rochelle Wilson, a junior from Chandler, Ariz. Wilson has long known she wanted to pursue medicine, and her father, who went to Iowa State University, suggested The University of Iowa because of its excellent medical school.
I came to visit for Black and Gold Day and liked it, she says, despite never having been in Iowa before. IBA, a competitive program for underrepresented minority students who are majoring in a bioscience, brought her to campus the summer before her first year, to work in a lab setting and help her hone her math and science skills. She lived in the residence halls with other IBA students.
That was a change for me, because my high school was mostly white, and I had few friends of color, she says.
She admits to being nervous at first about what other students of color would think about her being so comfortable with white students.
But its been very rewarding, she says. I have more friends of color here than I did at home, and I have many white friends, too. Now Im more outgoing and independent than I was my freshman and sophomore years, and Im less afraid of what people think of me.
Although Wilson says she experienced some racism during her first year, she generally finds Iowa City a tolerant town.
Im often the only person of color in a social setting, but Im comfortable with that, she says.
While Wilson has participated on diversity panels during orientation, her activities tend to be unrelated to her cultural heritage. She does, however, find herself sensitive to comments about teaching assistants (TAs) who are non-native English speakers and more difficult to understand. Her father, a statistics professor at Arizona State University in Tempe, is originally from Trinidad, and shes had plenty of friends comment on how hard he sometimes is to understand.
I took a history class on 20th-century crisis, and had a TA from Japan, she says. While he remained neutral, he did share the Japanese perspective and even taught us a little Japanese. If you just relax, you can learn so much more sometimes. These TAs know they may be hard to understand, and theyre willing to help you. You have to be willing too.
Wilson offers this advice to parents whose Iowa students are likely to be confronted with cultural norms different from those with which they grew up.
Allow your kids to be open-minded, she says. You can learn something from everyone, regardless of their background, and sometimes even because of their background.
Opportunity at Iowas Val Garr concurs.
Iowa is a state that values education highly, says Garr, herself a native Iowan. Part of that education is learning about people who are different. When students get out in the world, it wont be all black, or all Latino, or all white. This is a great place for students to define themselves and develop communication skills that will help them make better connections with other people.
By Linzee Kull McCray