Diversity is a fundamental concept in the College’s new “Gateways to Greatness” strategic plan. Like many universities across the country, the College is doing its best to attract a heterogeneous student population, but with varying degrees of success. We asked an alum journalist to reflect on his experience as a minority student and see what the College is doing to diversify, especially with African American students.
by Eric Frazier ’87
Photos by Sully Sullivan
I was a freshman, maybe a sophomore, walking along George Street under a blue bowl of Saturday afternoon sky in the mid-1980s. The street had been blocked off for a student activities festival, and I was soaking up the sights and the color, happy to be alive and young. And then, a song I’d never heard came wafting out of a loudspeaker:
Bye bye, Miss American Pie.
Drove my Chevy to the levee,
But the levee was dry.
Them good ol’ boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye
Singing “this’ll be the day that I die.
This’ll be the day that I die.”
I barely noticed. But everybody around me did. They responded instantly, smiling at each other in mutual recognition. Guys draped their arms across each others’ shoulders. A couple of girls skipped past, swinging clasped hands between them, grinning like ninnies. George Street burst into song, and it seemed everybody knew the lines except me, the only African American in sight. I stood there, dumbstruck, wondering what kind of cultural wormhole I’d just tumbled down. All I knew was that in the world where I grew up, talk of drunken “good ol’ boys” didn’t prompt smiles and celebration – it meant time to knuckle up or make yourself scarce.
I knew no one at that moment meant me any harm, of course. My time at the College had been overwhelmingly positive. I’d come in on a scholarship named for J. Waties Waring, a Charleston judge whose progressive rulings helped pave the way for school desegregation and the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case. Shortly after my admission, the College had immediately offered me a slot in the SPECTRA program, which gives incoming minority freshmen a head start on classes and invaluable orientation sessions. Everything the school did for me said, “Welcome – we want you here.”
But then, one simple, innocent song, and I was asking the question every minority student on predominantly white campuses asks: Do I really belong here?
It’s the question so many black students head off to historically black colleges and universities to escape. If only for one season in their lives, they want to feel totally, randomly, anonymously homogenous. Not the black guy. And at the College back then, you only had to look at the architecture around you or the Confederate flags on frat boys’ T-shirts to know you were still in the Old South. It was easy to think that you might not really fit in, even when all the surface facts said you did.
I suspect fear of that question is part of the reason why the College, even two decades removed from my time there, finds itself with the lowest percentage of minority students of any public four-year college or university in South Carolina. But I also know that the College has been and is working hard to change those low numbers. So, I went back to campus to see how the College was addressing the minority challenge.
The Diversity Dilemma
John Bello-Ogunu, the College’s chief diversity officer, greets me with an outstretched hand and a courtly formality matching his black double-breasted suit. He shows me to his office, dominated by a framed picture of a tiger and wood carvings that bespeak his native Nigeria. He arrived at the College in January, tasked with fixing a problem that likely is much bigger than the College and could prove to be well beyond the reach of any strategies he devises.
State enrollment statistics for fall 2009 showed the College with just 551 African American students, compared to nearly 1,400 for Winthrop, more than 1,600 for Francis Marion and more than 1,100 for Coastal Carolina. African American students accounted for 4.9 percent of new freshmen at the College and 5.4 percent of the total undergraduate population. International students accounted for less than 1 percent of incoming freshmen and 1 percent of the undergraduate population.
Bello-Ogunu, who came from Wichita State University and holds a doctorate in speech communication, took the job knowing it would be, in his words, “what some would consider an uphill climb.” The problem stretches back generations, he points out, and likely has roots in the long era of segregation that today’s students know only from talk they hear through their parents or grandparents. As he interviewed for the post, Bello-Ogunu grew convinced that the school understood the importance of diversity and stood ready to offer the kind of support and commitment that separates successful diversity programs from the failures.
“The College is very mindful of the seriousness of the challenge that exists here, and it is determined to succeed,” he says, “but the diversity challenges will not be overcome overnight.”
He held town hall meetings for students, staff and faculty early this year, taking the pulse of his new school. He scheduled programs on Gullah culture, women’s equality and sexual harassment. It marked the start of what he calls his fight to create a “culture of collective responsibility” at the College, an environment where everyone sees diversity as their personal responsibility, not just something black students or gay students or women or other minority students should be concerned about. He has asked for and received permission to hire a director of diversity education and training, a staffer who will conduct sensitivity sessions for students, faculty and staff.
Bello-Ogunu suggested – and President George Benson quickly approved – plans for a presidential commission on diversity, access and inclusion. This working group will develop a comprehensive strategic plan with clearly defined action goals, budget targets, measurable outcomes and lines of accountability. Bello-Ogunu hopes to have it ready for the College’s Board of Trustees to approve by the end of the academic year. His plans take into account the research on what makes diversity programs successful. Talking about his efforts, brows furrowed behind his black-rimmed glasses, he sounds very much like a scientist tackling a research project.
But, I find myself wondering, isn’t teaching tolerance more art than science? Doesn’t solving this still come down to decisions made by teenagers – teenagers who more quickly take guidance from other teens and online reviews sites like Collegeprowler.com than from well-meaning adults like Bello-Ogunu? Collegeprowler, for whatever it’s worth, recently gave the college a D in diversity. “Culturally some students feel that they are immersed in a world of Southern mindsets, mannerisms and ways of life,” a student reviewer wrote. “The College of Charleston is not a school that is unwelcoming or discouraging to minority and ethnic students, and it offers clubs and organizations for its minority and international students to come together and form a community within the Charleston campus. Even with these resources, non-white students don’t tend to flock to the College of Charleston the way white students do.”
I tell Bello-Ogunu how I was struck during my own student days by the relative absence of black students from Charleston. A few of the ones at the College then told me their Charleston friends felt the school was for rich white kids, not them. The massive columns and sweeping staircases of Randolph Hall, the ancient Spanish moss–draped oaks of the Cistern Yard, the regal Sottile House – it all seemed too Deep South, too forbidding, for them.
“Unfortunately, that perception lingers on,” Bello-Ogunu admits. He knows the “Eureka!” breakthrough scientists live for is not yet in sight for him. “Unfortunately, the tendency for students in general has been to always believe and form their perceptions based on what they have heard.”
Still, the challenges facing the College are no different than those facing other predominantly white institutions of higher learning, he adds. At any predominantly white university, from the University of South Carolina to Clemson to Winthrop, minority students find themselves confronting the question I did on George Street that day. The key, Bello-Ogunu says, is developing that culture of collective responsibility.
“In our case, we are building that culture,” he says. “But these are challenges that can be overcome.”
When Associate Admissions Director Debbie Counts travels around South Carolina on recruiting trips, African American students often tell her they’ve never heard of the College of Charleston. Those who have heard of it sometimes say they thought it was a private school. She even had one African American high school guidance counselor tell her she wouldn’t recommend the College to any of her students because she felt the current African American students didn’t receive enough support to succeed. Fortunately, after Counts explained the resources the College has to offer, two African American students enrolled from that school. And they have done well at the College.
“I just think we have some sort of negative image in the minority community,” says Counts, the College’s point person on minority student recruitment. “I do think it’s getting better … but it’s just going to take a little bit of time.”
One of the biggest obstacles to minority recruitment is money. Counts has found that the University of South Carolina spreads its scholarship money more broadly than the College can afford to. Even if a student might like the College, she says, they and their parents are understandably likely to go with the best financial aid package. Officials at the College are working on increasing the endowment, especially through the new strategic plan, “but that doesn’t help in the short term,” she says. “All people know is that their student didn’t get enough money.”
Finding the College
I’m on the phone with Kim Houston Ligon ’87, a friend from my days at the College. She served as a mentor in Upward Bound, the federally funded summer program that gives minority high school students a taste of college life. She met her husband, Gerald Ligon ’87, a former CofC basketball player, during her days on campus. I wondered what she might think about the College’s minority student recruitment dilemma.
Coming out of Goose Creek High School, she’d figured on following her older sister to the University of South Carolina. She hadn’t thought about going to the College. She’d heard the same kind of talk among black teenagers back then that I’d heard: The College was for rich white kids. “Yeah, absolutely,” she says. “You just didn’t consider it.”
But she babysat for a couple who had attended the College. Remus Harper ’72 was one of the College’s first black basketball players. His wife, Tanya Trescott Harper ’73, was also a student. The Harpers surprised her one day by taking her to meet with a recruiter for the College. She won acceptance. She still recalls the reaction from her high school guidance counselor, a black woman who’d encouraged her to attend the historically black Claflin College in Orangeburg. “She just rolled her eyes at me and looked at me like, ‘I don’t believe this.’”
The College didn’t get Kim’s 21-year-old twins, though. They’re seniors at the University of South Carolina. As they prepared to graduate from Mt. Pleasant’s Wando High in 2004, she wondered if they’d consider attending the College. A lot of their white friends did, she recalls, but only one of their African American friends enrolled – a young man who sang opera. When she asked the twins about possibly attending the College, “they just kind of shook their heads,” she says. They told her in their opinion, the kids who went to the College “were the smart kids, but they were the kids who wanted to go hang out at the beach all the time.”
As students began returning to campus for this fall’s classes, I took a walk around the campus. It has changed so much. My old dorm, the funky-if-decrepit College Inn, has been replaced by the new state-of-the-art sciences and mathematics facility. The old Bishop England High School, with its hundreds of green-and-white uniformed students, has been replaced by the massive Marlene and Nathan Addlestone Library.
But it was nice to see how many things haven’t changed: the moss-covered oaks in the Cistern Yard, the Stern Student Center, Randolph Hall’s elegant columns, Maybank Hall, where I took most of my first classes. A friend, an African American raised in Miami, walked with me. “Gorgeous,” she noted, gazing at the Sottile House. “It looks like white Southern royalty.”
In front of Berry Residence Hall on St. Philip Street, I find Kelli Mack, an African American sophomore from Columbia, S.C., waiting beside a clump of her luggage and belongings. Her dad, Carlton Mack, is leaning against the wall, fiddling intently with a cell phone.
“It’s not very diverse,” Kelli says of the College. “It’s still very self-segregated. It seems black people hang out with black people, white people hang out with white people.
“I wouldn’t say it’s not welcoming,” she adds. “The school, the community itself, is welcoming.”
Her father, a chemical company project engineer and 1980 graduate of South Carolina State, looks up, his interest piqued.
“Do you think the school should do more to foster that?” he asks his daughter.
“I think the school does all it can,” she shrugs. “It’s like, what can you do?”
The same words could have been coming out of my mouth, standing around outside the College Inn, two decades earlier.
She grabs some of her stuff and heads inside. Her dad explains that the family chose the College because Kelli didn’t want to stay in Columbia at USC. So, even though other schools, including nearby Charleston Southern, offered her better aid packages, Kelli came to Charleston.
“Basically, all we got here was the lottery money,” he says. But “we’re doing it because the school does have a good reputation.”
The College is ramping up its recruitment and retention efforts. In 2009, the school created MOVE (Multicultural Overnight Visit Experience), which brings high schoolers on campus and treats them to campus cultural events as well as informational sessions with faculty and staff.
In the summer of 2009, the school brought 23 rising high school seniors on campus as part of its first Senior Project program. The College put them up in the Liberty Street Residence Hall for a week and provided them with sessions on time management, writing and other subjects they’ll need in getting ready for college. They had breakfast with College officials, met with deans and did a tour of the Medical University of South Carolina. Nineteen of them enrolled at the College. This year, 43 went through the program, and all filled out applications; Debbie Counts in admissions hopes at least half will enroll.
Getting students to campus means little if they don’t succeed. To that end, the College just received a five-year, $1.1 million federal grant to extend tutoring and other support services to 140 students through the ROAR (Reach Overcome Achieve Results) Scholars program. It will help low-income and first-generation students, as well as students with disabilities.
“We are busy,” Counts says, “and we are reaching out.”
In August, she traveled to Missouri for a college fair that usually attracts historically black institutions such as S.C. State University and Claflin College. She figures it’s time to start going head-to-head with those institutions for students, even if that means following them to their key recruiting fairs. She wound up with a table near officials from Claflin, who were surprised to see a representative from the College there.
Counts, who has been in her post since 2007, says the College will continue to expand its outreach efforts, and she believes they’ll bear fruit.
“We’re not sitting in the office saying there’s nothing we can do. We’re thinking outside the box,” she says. “Once we get this thing going, we’re going to see some benefits from it, and we’re going to see more and more students coming here.”
Hopefully students like Brittany Johnson. The senior computer science major from Sumter, S.C., is a three-year member of SCAMP (S.C. Alliance for Minority Participation), a Ronald E. McNair Scholar, a member of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars and, usually, the only African American female in her computer science classes. Her sunny outlook beams through, even in e-mails.
“There are so many opportunities on campus for students to get involved, but most just don’t,” she writes. “Find something you’re interested in, then do it. There’s no better way to network and make new friends than to put yourself out there.”
Another reason for her positive outlook: her mentor, Jim Bowring, whom she met her freshman year and credits with helping her find her way. She works part time, doing software research under him for CIRDLES (Cyber Infrastructure Research and Development Lab for the Earth Sciences). She thinks the College should focus less on its history and more on getting the word out about the diversity of clubs, organizations and students already on campus. “I know that when I first came here, I wanted to find something familiar. Something that I could relate to.”
Something to relate to. That’s what I so desperately wanted that day on George Street when Don McLean’s 1971 folk-rock anthem made me question my place at the College. The shock I got that day proved only fleeting. More students, staff and faculty than I can count reached out to me over the years and assured me that I was indeed welcome at the College. I went on to become a SPECTRA counselor, a member of the judicial board, a reporter on the school newspaper staff, and even had my picture taken for some now-ancient, hopefully forgotten admissions office brochure. An internship in the College’s public relations office literally set me on my career path as a writer, when Bobbin Huff, a kind soul there – who happened to be white – noticed my writing ability and put in a good word for me with her friends down at The Post and Courier.
The College turned out to be the best training I could have received for life in “the real world.” I’d grown up in Colleton County, an hour’s drive into the countryside west of Charleston, surrounded mainly by my own cousins. In my early years, virtually everyone in my community was black. But at the College, I met people of all colors, from all kinds of backgrounds, and by the time I graduated in 1987, the College was such a big part of my life that I recommended it to my younger sister, a 2005 graduate. I’m not sure where my 16-year-old daughter will want to go to school when she graduates in 2012. I asked her about the College recently. “Maybe,” she said. The choice will be hers, but I’ll be rooting for the College.
All these years later, I can still summon up the melody and the chorus for “American Pie” at will. It’s as if that day on George Street permanently embedded it in my subconscious.
That’s OK, though. It’s just a song. And it is pretty catchy.
– Eric Frazier ’87 is a reporter for The Charlotte Observer.