An examination of Cal Poly’s attitude toward some of today’s politically charged issues.
During the time Cal Poly students spend in college, the campus can become a world within the larger world — a place of learning, business and social interaction. As in any society, some issues on campus become more politically sensitive than others. There are many politically charged issues permeating the Cal Poly campus, and ethnic diversity is one that is part of the Cal Poly experience for every student, regardless of major or year.
However, in a poll of more than 200 Cal Poly students, staff and faculty, 58 percent said the university and the students are lacking the understanding of the importance of ethnic diversity.
Dean of Students Jean DeCosta said she sees the Cal Poly student body as open, accepting and quick to support students who are singled out. She said she believes the best way for Cal Poly students to gain a better understanding of diversity is to increase the numbers.
“Right now students don’t get exposed to what it means to be a citizen of the world,” DeCosta said. “Only through exposure do we really understand cultural differences and the value of those differences.”
The Fall 2010 PolyView report published by Institutional Planning and Analysis said the Cal Poly student body is 64.4 percent Caucasian.
Multicultural Center (MCC) coordinator Renoda Campbell said while she doesn’t think minority students at Cal Poly are intentionally targeted, they often feel more noticeable and treated like outcasts.
“When it’s a personal situation it becomes important,” Campbell said. “Sometimes students have the courage to speak out and say ‘This is wrong,’ when others don’t have the voice.”
Campbell said from an ethnic perspective there are many clubs and organizations on campus to support minority students, but sometimes there is so much going on that those students don’t know what to choose.
There are faculty and students on campus who do make an honest effort to reach out to other ethnic groups, Campbell said, but that consciousness is not woven into the campus culture.
Ryan Santilla, a Cal Poly graduate and the MCC’s assistant coordinator, said the attendance at the MCC information sessions and activities is not high and the students who attend are mostly other MCC students helping friends out.
“There are times when we have to take baby steps backward,” Campbell said. “We really do have to start over every quarter.”
Environmental engineering junior Kando Ogunrinola said she thinks Cal Poly students are interested in other ethnicities, but in the way they would be interested in a show.
“I haven’t come across anything really insensitive, but people expect you to be a certain way,” Ogunrinola said. “Sports is the main stereotype for me — people ask me (if) I play basketball. I think it’s better to educate them than just get mad.”
Campbell said she believes more diversity in the curriculum would have the biggest impact on sensitivity toward other ethnicities.
“Changing the curriculum is a process, and students often say they want to see it happen now,” Campbell said. “Congruency between Student Affairs and Academic Affairs would be extremely helpful.”
Inclusive Excellence (IE) is an administrative group that also addresses the issue of diversity of all types in the Cal Poly community. The IE council is made up of Cal Poly students, faculty and administrators who evaluate programs on campus that promote diversity and share the results with the campus community. The council advises the president on how to promote the goals of the IE initiative, which was designed by the Association of American Colleges and Universities to promote diversity and equity.
Part of the research IE does to evaluate how diversity is handled on campus is through surveys. Every few years, Cal Poly participates in the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which determines how university students feel about their education. Freshmen and seniors were asked more than 80 questions about Cal Poly, including some about their opinion of the ethnic diversity on campus.
One survey question asked how much the university encourages contact among students from different economic, social and ethnic backgrounds. Participants ranked their answers from one meaning “very little” to four meaning “very much.”
Between 2001 and 2008, the answers given by Cal Poly freshmen averaged above 2.5, while the answers given by seniors were never above 2.1. The results given by Cal Poly freshmen and seniors in 2008 were significantly lower than the California State Universiy (CSU) average.
IE council vice president and co-chair David Conn said from his experience, the Cal Poly campus is not as welcoming of all people as it could be.
“Cal Poly is pretty homogeneous in terms of ‘visible diversity,’ and we commonly deal with issues of insensitive things being said, heard or done,” Conn said. “I’ve heard stories about one African-American student in a class who is expected by others to represent the entire race.”
Conn said with Cal Poly’s small diversity numbers there is not a critical mass of certain minority students, and it is difficult to provide the support these groups need.
“We have a way to go,” Conn said. “The IE Initiative is built on the idea that all students benefit from diversity, and we’re trying to get the campus to realize how painful it can be to make assumptions based on stereotypes.”
Ethnic studies professor Denise Isom said she interacts with students in the classroom who have a range of interest in learning about other ethnicities.
“There’s one group of people that is sick of the word ‘diversity’ and are biding their time until they’re done with the class requirement,” Isom said. “The second group is made up of people who are perfect exemplars of the ‘colorblind society,’ and think the best approach is to just pretend color doesn’t matter. The third group knows they don’t know much about multiculturalism, but want to learn more and be part of the solution.”
Isom said while there are many resources available for support and education about other cultures at Cal Poly, the school still has glaring issues.
“We haven’t mastered why we have difficulty recruiting students of other ethnicities,” Isom said. “If we were a more diverse campus, it would open up the marketplace of ideas and discussion.”
Conn said in February the Center for Teaching and Learning will offer a workshop for teachers in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math) that don’t regularly deal with issues of diversity to show them ways to include diversity in their teaching without taking away from the subject matter. Conn also said the university is planning to offer a new two-unit class this fall called Inter-Group Dialogues to teach students more about how to communicate with people who are different from them.
Associated Students Inc. President Sarah Storelli said she thinks students on campus are tolerant of different groups, but the interest of those groups only applies to students with a personal connection. She said she wants to help create opportunities for students who may not have a strong interest in a subject to be exposed to the different issues out there.
“They don’t pertain to everybody’s interests, just the people that are interested in that subject,” Storelli said.
Cal Poly President-elect Jeffrey Armstrong said he believes being exposed to people who are different in and out of the classroom is part of Cal Poly’s “learn by doing” experience.
“The overall experience at Cal Poly is very good — more diversity would make that something good even better,” Armstrong said. “I have several top priorities that I plan to focus on, and diversity will be one of them.”