By Anna Bryson
USF St. Petersburg’s student population reached its highest level of diversity this semester. About a third of new students self-report non-white backgrounds, according to Serge W. Desir Jr., director of Undergraduate Admissions.
The university makes deliberate strides to maintain diversity, not only demographically, but in all aspects of inclusion, Desir said.
“My role is to make sure the university is doing all it can do to ensure a safe and comfortable environment for all the individuals,” said Cecil E. Howard, chief diversity and inclusion officer.
Howard partners with students, faculty, staff and institutional committees and serves as a liaison to community partners regarding initiatives and advances in diversity and inclusion on campus.
It’s his priority to ensure everyone feels respected on campus, regardless of their race, age, sexual orientation, gender or socioeconomic status.
The university’s faculty, staff and administration play an important role in maintaining diversity within the student body. But the university still has a long way to go.
“I’ve heard that from some students here at USFSP: being the only black kid in the classroom can feel very uncomfortable, particularly if you’re talking of an issue of race or if another student says something in the classroom that’s somewhat inappropriate,” Howard said.
“If that black student is the only one in the class, they are going to feel like all eyes are on them, and nobody likes to be put in that type of situation. So we’re doing all we can to make sure that our classrooms are diverse, our offices are diverse, students see others that look like them. The more we improve in that department, then the more likely we’re going to attract larger numbers of minority students and they’re gonna stay.”
Getting minority students and faculty to stay at the university becomes a revolving door situation; they often leave soon after coming in.
“We believe once they (students) get here, that they see minority faculty members. It’s important that they see other students that look like them. It’s important that they see, if I talk black males for instance, that they see a black male administrator on campus, because then they start to feel comfortable and then if they have an opportunity or a need to speak with someone else about an issue, they will feel comfortable coming to that person,” said Howard.
The university is developing a “diversity and inclusion plan” and hopes to present it before the campus board next semester. It includes specific strategies to attract and retain minority students and leaders on campus.
An undergraduate admissions office at a state university cannot make decisions based on race. Instead, it strives to ensure that the language in its messaging reinforces commitment to diversity at all levels of the admissions process.
When the university is invited to recruitment events that are likely to serve students and families from historically underrepresented populations, attendance becomes a priority.
The admissions office communicates with guidance counselors and principals at high schools in the area as well as attends college fairs.
“The university is very deliberate, very intentional in what’s being done to attract minority students here, attract minority faculty, attract minority staff to the university,” said Howard.
There will be a public forum on the diversity and inclusion action plan at The Edge Jan. 17 and 18.
This article originally ran in Issue 12, Volume 49 on Nov. 27, 2017. Due to an editorial oversight, it wasn’t published online.
Header photo courtesy of USFSP