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ISSUE 116 VOL 3 PUBLISHED 9/27/2002

Branching Out

By Jane Dudzinski
Contributing Writer

Friday, September 27, 2002

"Global perspective," "inclusive community," and "knowledgable citizens of the world": these phrases highlight the St. Olaf Mission Statement, the document that guides and informs the goals and decisions of the College. Through the admissions office and the newly established Office of Community Life and Diversity, St. Olaf expresses a commitment to continually assess and affirm the value of racial diversity in a college community. Yet the make-up of the undergraduate population remains largely homogenous.

According to U.S. News and World Report’s most recent edition of "America’s Best Colleges 2003," St. Olaf reports that ten percent of students of the class of 2006 claim a racial background other than Caucasian, a statistic confirmed by the Office of Admissions. The largest minority group represented is Asian Americans, at three percent.

Recognizing the relatively small presence of minority groups on campus, President Christopher Thomforde said that when he walks from Boe Chapel to his office every morning, he finds that he does not encounter members of every minority group. In spite of the lack of racial balance on campus, though, Thomforde remains encouraged by and optimistic about the increased efforts to bring diversity to the College.

"Our goal is to serve the population of Minnesota, the Midwest, the United States, and the world," Thomforde said. "We’re weakened as a community if we don’t have all of the voices and all of the stories."

Thomforde’s point becomes even more relevent as the growth in school-age populations in Minnesota is expected to greatly change between the years 2002 and 2020, according to the Office of the Minnesota State Demographer.

Hispanic Americans will increase by 98 percent, African-Americans will increase by 28 percent, and Asian Americans will increase by 25 percent. Meanwhile, Caucausians will decrease by 23 percent.

According to Thomforde, the current first-year class is the most diverse that the college has ever had.

The class of 2006 represents 42 states and seven countries.

The entire college represents 49 states and 20 countries as a whole.

Increased racial diversity this year is due in part to a relatively new edition to the college: the Office of Community Life and Diversity.

"We want students to be more comfortable with things that were previously foreign," said Eida Berrio, dean of community life and diversity. "We provide a liberal arts education, and students need to be educated to be aware of the demography of the nation and the world."

Berrio also serves as an affirmative action officer in the hiring of college staff. According to Berrio, the college adopted a voluntary affirmative action plan, which protects people in on the grounds of race, age, religion, and gender as well.

"If the plan is going to make a difference, it has to be implemented consistently," said Berrio. "Efforts to be a more inclusive community have not been sustained."

Stressing the necessity of a "diverse and culturally inclusive work force," Berrio said that the staff itself must be diverse in order to foster diversity within the student body.

She also mentioned that "institutionalized efforts" must be made in order to stay committed and "expand the school’s outreach."

The areas of focus for the office are educational opportunities, community participation, community days throughout the year, and supporting other committees.

Associated with the Office of Community Life and Diversity is the student-run Diversity Celebrations Committee (DCC), a branch of the Student Government Association.

DCC, originally created in 1999, is the result of the coordination of various multicultural organizations on campus.

The groups represented in DCC include Asian Awareness Association; Cultural Union for Black Expression; Gay, Lesbian, or Whatever!; Harambe; Hmong Awareness Group; International Students Organization; Pre-sente; and Talking Circle.

"One of our goals for this year is not only to have more participation and involvement from St. Olaf students, but from the surrounding Northfield community as well," said Philana Roberts ‘04, the coordinator of DCC.

Throughout the year the committee plans a variety of events from Native American Weeks to Diwali Festival, all in an effort to foster awareness among students.

Hispanic Heritage Month is among the events currently taking place.

Thomforde also expressed a sincere interest in learning from St. Olaf’s neighbor, Carleton College, which reports 30 percent racial diversity. "Our education is diminished by not having a rich variety of voices and experiences," said Thomforde. "If we don’t catch up, we’ll be left behind."

Berrio also pointed out that because Minnesota is not a historically diverse region, efforts must be made to "cast a broader national net," like Carleton College.

She also emphasized the importance of people outside the St. Olaf community feeling welcomed and included.

"One of our goals is to foster a greater understanding in the community outside of the college, for awareness in all dimensions of the college," said Berrio.

Yet another step in fostering diversity at St. Olaf has been the study abroad program.

According to the admissions office, between 50 and 64 percent of recent graduates have studied abroad.

On average, students have traveled to 45 countries through about 90 different programs.

Berrio stressed the significance of the extensive program, hoping that it can add one more dimension to the diversity aspect on campus.

She expressed her hope that students can continue their journey and bring their experiences back home.

"We need to come to a full vision of all that we stand for- welcoming, understanding, and valuing diversity. We must manifest that in the way we act," said Berrio. "We want to see the energy and enthusiasm to get involved."

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