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As UC Grapples With Its Past, Students Of Color Look To Change Its Future

Students of color gather in the ethnic services office to hang out, study and eat between classes.
Students of color gather in the ethnic services office to hang out, study and eat between classes.

The University of Cincinnati's Uptown campus is experiencing record growth in student enrollment, particularly among first generation students and people of color.

Last month's "decision day" showed a 10% increase in African American applicants and an 8% increase in Hispanic applicants.

"We're celebrating the diversity of our students not just for the sake of diversity," UC's new Vice Provost for Enrollment Management Jack Miner says. "But because it's enriching the educational experience of the entire University of Cincinnati community." He says it's pushing the university to address its strides and discuss issues in higher education.

Throughout the U.S., colleges and universities are experiencing growth from low income students and students of color.

During the 2018-2019 school year, 27.3% of UC students were people of color, which is a steady increase from years past. The growth of students of color and officials' desire to focus on equity and inclusion comes at a time when the university is also coming to grips with its ties to slavery.

In December, the university decided to drop enslaver Charles McMicken's name from the college of arts and sciences. Parts of his wealth came from the enslavement of African people and he used this wealth to become the main sponsor for the university. In 1858, McMicken wrote that the institution should educate "white boys and girls."

Florence native Amanda Bowman identifies as a white Latina.
Credit Ambriehl Crutchfield / WVXU
Florence native Amanda Bowman identifies as a white Latina.

"UC has a very dark history of racism and prejudice but I also think with that you can see all the people who have come before us and have made strides to counteract that," UC junior Amanda Bowman says. "UC is a place where we can grow and develop." Bowman says she was drawn to the school because of its affordability. As a white Latina first-generation college student, she credits the Emerging Ethnic Engineers pre-college outreach program for helping her learn about the course load, time management skills and how to work independently.

The university has been creating relationships with high school counselors to recruit students throughout the U.S. and internationally. International students submitted 36% more applications this year.

Bowman says she doesn't feel unwelcome at UC, but she feels more supported at the university's organizations centered on people of color. "Everywhere else is just on autopilot mode but when I'm here I feel welcomed," she says. 

UC partners with Cincinnati Public Schools, which is majority students of color, to attract first generation and people of color to the university. CPS alumni are helping high schoolers fill out paperwork like FASFA and giving tips on how to transition into higher learning.

UC's Uptown campus retention rate is 86.7% for underrepresented communities and 88.2% overall.

Departments like Ethnic Programs and Services work to ensure students can create community and thrive once on campus. Renee Rodriguez-Merino is the assistant director. She says professors who teach Africana Studies and other race-based courses are helping to push the institution forward culturally. But she says more work needs to be done to be a welcoming space.

"It's one thing to offer a handful of classes and create some diverse spaces," she says. "But the university may need to change some of its language, too." She says she hasn't reviewed the university's language recently but using terms like "Latinx" versus "Hispanic" could help students feel more welcomed.

With UC being embedded in Cincinnati, UC officials see the success of the university and city as being deeply intertwined. According to UC, almost half of the school's alumni reside in the Greater Cincinnati region.

"There are some white students who definitely are traveling alongside the students of color and their paths," Rodriguez-Merino says. "Because they know allies come in lots of different colors and different backgrounds. When you see that kind of support and that kind of community it makes you feel really hopeful - not just for UC but for the city of Cincinnati."

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