Being Black at the University of Iowa

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Julia Howe

The University of Iowa has been a cultural pioneer since it opened for classes in 1855, admitting students of any race ten years before the abolition of slavery. Yet today, only three percent of the student body is African American and many of these students feel marginalized by their professors and peers.

“Students don’t have many opportunities to express their diversity,” senior student and starting safety for the football team, Miles Taylor said. “I’ve definitely experienced people here being prejudice towards me.”

Both the retention and graduation rates of African American students have been exceptional challenges for the University.

According to the Center of Diversity and Enrichment, 52.3 percent of white students at the University graduate within four years, while only 35.6 percent of black students graduate in this time.

The low retention rates raised concern among faculty, putting pressure on Iowa to install and fund different programs to show that they are making an effort to create a more inclusive environment for black students, as well as provide them with the proper resources to be successful in college.

IOWA EDGE

Before arriving on campus, minority students are encouraged to take part in Iowa Edge, a 4-day pre-orientation program specifically designed for incoming first year students from under-represented groups such as African Americans, Native American, Latinos, as well as first generation students of all backgrounds.

From learning Iowa’s fight song to Q&A panels with faculty and professors, the intensive program provides students with skills that will help them navigate through their collegiate transition.

Assistant Director of Center for Diversity and Enrichment and the Iowa Edge Coordinator Lauren Garcia, says that the students in Edge have a particular need to be familiarized with campus resources.

“A lot of these kids are the first in their family to go to college,” Garcia said. “We really try to get them comfortable with the offices of financial aid, advising, as well as their professors and let them know it’s okay to reach out and ask for help.”

Iowa Edge was created 12 years ago to identify barriers for minorities and first generation students as well as equip them with the tools they need in order to be successful. Edge’s mission was to curb low retention and graduation rates of minority groups on campus.

The program has been a proven success. Overall graduation and retention rates are substantially higher from Edge students than minority students that didn’t participate in Edge, as well as minority students at other universities.

Garcia says that the Center for Diversity and Enrichment believes that there is still a long way for the program to go.

“We’re approaching the last year of our current strategic plan,” Garcia said. “Our next phase is integrating more career preparation and employer connectedness.”

Edge will still remain an interactive 4-day event, full of team building exercises and resource center tours, but will likely incorporate lectures and consultations from Iowa City community leaders and business owners in the future.

YOUNG, GIFTED AND BLACK LIVING LEARNING COMMUNITY

During the first day of Edge, students begin moving into the residence halls and meeting the others that they will be living with throughout the year. Some of the Edge students found themselves moving into the third floor of Slater Hall to be a part of the Young, Gifted and Black Living Learning Community.

In 2016, the University established Young, Gifted and Black with the objective to help black students transition into college and embrace their culture and traditions, as well as live with people who share similar experiences.

Resident Assistant of YGB, James Akinleye, has been an RA for the past three years, but this is his first with this particular Living Learning Community. He says that he knew having a floor geared towards the black identity would come with its own obstacles. In the video below, Akinleye and some of his residents discuss the benefits of having a black-identified community in the residence hall.

“There’s more financial burden in place for a lot of my residents,” Akinleye said. “We knew that people from marginalized backgrounds are usually of lower-economic status and that there would be more difficulties paying for college.”

Not only are many students facing financial trouble, but many residents complain of feeling isolated in the classroom and among other non-black students. Akinleye says that it is difficult for any student to be removed from the support system of their family and hometown, but especially difficult for black students when they’re constantly surrounded people that don’t share any of their same experiences.

“Before I got to Iowa and heard that it was only three percent black, I thought ‘I don’t think I can do this,’” freshman member of YGB, Tiana Warner said. “That’s another reason I chose this LLC, I needed to connect with the other black students on campus.”

Another floor member, freshman Robbi Boggess, describes Young, Gifted and Black as an escape for black people on campus.

“You can go around and not have people to ask to touch your hair and ask if it’s real,” Boggess said. “We’re all very close and I think we know a lot more about each other than a lot of our friends from high school ever did.”

Many concerns that floor members have voiced to RA Akinleye center around mental health.  Akinleye says that almost all of the members have said that in many of their classes, they are the only black student.

“Sometimes I hear micro-aggressions from other people, even professors in my class,” Warner said. “It’s hard to speak up in the classroom because we’re so outnumbered.”

RA Akinleye has faced racism firsthand several times on campus, the hardest time for him being when one of his floor members wrote the N-word on his door last year.

The YGB floor of Slater Hall is a safe space for black students to live comfortably and feel empowered and feel a sense of belonging.  Members participate in regular meetings that center around issues that hit home for the students, such as discussing the murders of Philando Castile and Sandra Bland.

This Living Learning Community was founded to increase retention of black students, but ultimately hopes that its creation will bring more African Americans to the University of Iowa.

AFRICAN AMERICAN STUDIES

Young, Gifted and Black works in collaboration with the African American Studies program, requiring all of the floor members to take Black Culture and Experience as one of their general education classes.

The African American Studies department also orchestrates and encourages the members of YGB to participate in a service trip to Detroit, the Black Student Union talent show, and visits to the African American History Museum of Iowa.

The department additionally seeks to bring knowledge and appreciation of the black identity to students on campus from all backgrounds.

Iowa’s African American Studies department was created in the 1960’s in an effort to to connect black students on campus with their heritage and bring more cultural understanding to non-black students. Both a major and a minor are offered in three primary focuses: African American history, religion, and culture.

Timothy Havens, Chair of the African American Studies Department, says that the program is still considered very “up-and-coming,” with only about 20 students on campus currently working towards the degree.

Demographically, African American students make up most of the majors, but not exclusively.  The department hopes to bring in more students from a wide variety of backgrounds, as they believe that the courses offered are essential for everyone.

“I do this thing every year where I show a racist advertising campaign,” Havens said. “For example, this year it was Dove, where a black woman washed her body with the soap and became white. This happens because people don’t understand black culture, why differences exist and how to navigate them.”

The department envisions the African American Studies program as the “spearhead” of understanding and finding solutions for issues of racism and prejudice in Iowa City.

The installation of the Diversity and Inclusion general education requirement in 2016 was a huge step forward for the African American Studies department. Currently, there are two general education courses available to all students. They plan on adding several additional courses for students to take to meet the requirement.

“In terms of both your career and being a citizen, you have to be able to interact with people who are different than you,” Havens said.

Havens says that he wants to demonstrate the value of the program to all students on Iowa’s campus and additionally, he hopes to bring more African American students to the University by having the program and additionally bringing more cultural awareness to non-black students.

MULTICULTURAL PROGRAMS/AFRO-AMERICAN HOUSE

Throughout their collegiate careers, black students are encouraged to attend events put on by the Afro-American Cultural Center (also-known-as the Afro House), a space established in 1968 that allows students to experience diversity, participate in activism and volunteering opportunities, and connect with all of the resources that Iowa has to offer.

Students can drop by the Afro House on Melrose Avenue from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, receive an advisor that can point them in the direction to any resource that they might need, or simply come and talk.

Every Wednesday night, the Afro House hosts the Hubbard Scholars and SistaSpeak, two groups that focus on promoting education and social support for black men and women respectively at the University.

Tabitha Wiggins, Multicultural Programs Assistant Director, runs the Afro-American House and serves as the advisor to SistaSpeak.  For Wiggins, these groups are essential to the retention and prosperity of African American students.

In the audio below, Wiggins discusses the role that the Afro-House and Multicultural Center plays in the lives of black students on campus.

Second and third year black men are most vulnerable to dropping out. The Multicultural Program established Hubbard Scholars specifically to combat this and give those students a support structure that focuses on academics, social issues, community service, and financial literacy.

In the last three years, the GPAs and credits attained has increased for the students that regularly visit the Afro-House.

“Historically, Iowa was created for cisgender white men,” Wiggins said. “Now, we have to center the margins and these programs have been created as the students have changed throughout time.”

The Afro-House is known to black students as a home away from home. Wiggins says that although she feels stigmatized every day, she believes that the University is truly committed to “inclusive excellence.”

“Marginalization is all over the place on campus,” Wiggins said. “A lot of our students are self reporting micro-aggressions in the residence halls and the class room. The biggest issue would be the mental health tax it takes; the racial battle fatigue is the biggest threat to success for black students.”

While mainly black students participate in Multicultural events, one of the center’s goals is to reach out and educate the entire community about societal issues facing African Americans.

“My personal goal is 100 percent graduation rate,” Wiggins said. “I want every black student that starts at Iowa to finish at Iowa and know that they have a place here and know that they are a Hawkeye.”

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On a letter grade scale, Wiggins gave the University of Iowa a D on how inclusive the campus is to black student, saying that she feels prejudice every single day.

Young, Gifted and Black members, Warner and Boggess, both gave Iowa a D on their diversity and inclusion as well.

“I would like to give them an F, but I’ll give them a D,” Boggess said. “They try, they gave us this LLC, they host cultural events, but everything here is so centered around white culture that it’s hard to feel like you’re making an impact or that you’re supposed to be here.”

Resident Assistant Akinleye felt it was hard to give Iowa a grade but said “I know there are people who are genuinely trying to make it better but there’s still a lot of work to do.”

Football player and journalism major Miles Taylor gives Iowa a higher grade, a B-, because he believes that the programs and events available are helping students feel more comfortable at the University.

While the University has made a clear push to foster diversity, there is still a long way to go to improve overall retention rates and recruitment of African American students.  With an increase in resources and programming for black students, students and faculty are optimistic that there will be an increase in the number and the success of black students at the University of Iowa.

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