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We should maintain and pursue an inclusive environment at Rice

Courtesy Alexander Walberg

By Alexander Walberg     2/23/21 11:29pm

Recently, I was looking through pictures from my freshman year and discovered something startling — they all depicted me as an unhappy and miserable student. Transferring to Rice was never part of my postsecondary education plans. In fact, like most students, I graduated high school with the expectation that I would spend only four years in college. My complex college journey has led me to realize how important it is for us as individuals and an institution to actively work towards maintaining our diverse student body and prioritizing inclusion. In light of Rice’s plan to expand its undergraduate enrollment, it is imperative that students educate themselves about student movements and hold the institution accountable for its actions and promises, paying closer attention to the “Down with Willy” protests, the work being done by the Task Force and the steps the university will take to attract new students while also meeting the needs of current students.

My first year at another institution was tainted by instances of microaggressions and an emotional burden that slowly edged me into depressive episodes at the start of my sophomore year. I would walk 40 minutes off campus to the nearest Planned Parenthood just to be able to talk to a therapist of color because the school did not have a single one. Not being well-versed in the culture of liberal arts colleges, I depended heavily on my friends to cope with feelings of loneliness and social isolation, especially as I failed to find my niche at a college that lacked affinity groups and centers tailored specifically to BIPOC students. Believing that my lived experience as a Latinx, first-generation college student could not be sustained by the institution, I dropped out of college at the end of fall 2019 out of frustration. I returned to school in fall 2020, this time at Rice — a place that I feel allows me to be authentically myself and that encourages me to celebrate the intersectional identities of my peers. I get to be part of a community defined by scholarship, support and diversity. 

According to Rice’s Office of Institutional Effectiveness, as of fall 2020, there were a total of 3,573 domestic undergraduates enrolled at the university, with the following demographic breakdown: 35 percent White, 31 percent Asian, 17 percent Hispanic and 11 percent Black. Rice is constantly celebrated for its diverse student body, recently having been named the No.1 school for “race/class interaction” by the Princeton Review, which also describes it as having “the happiest students in the U.S.” While these numbers speak quantitatively to Rice’s diversity, they don’t speak to whether or not Rice addresses student needs and prioritizes inclusivity. While my experiences have been mostly positive, not everyone feels the same way. 

In recent months, the Thresher has published a wide array of articles and editorials pertaining to inclusion, from an article about the lack of Black Orientation Week advisors at Lovett College to an editorial urging us to listen to our Black students. These articles shed light on students’ dissatisfaction with the institution, including a low Black student enrollment, a lack of Black counselors and therapists, and a need for affinity groups at each residential college during Orientation Week. In response, Black students have pushed to increase diversity training, establish a potential Black House, and for Rice to be more transparent with the hiring process of faculty. Part of our culture of care requires us to encourage and embrace those students whose journey at Rice is a battle against systems of oppression that constantly work against their pursuit for higher education, including Black students, first-generation students and low-income students. Centers such as the Center for African and African American Studies, the Chao Center for Asian Studies, and the Tapia Center for Excellence and Equity in Education should have their own physical spaces on campus that students can go to study and socialize in safe and supportive environments that are tailored specifically to support students from historically marginalized groups.  

Even if students continue to face dissatisfaction with the institution, Rice should still take pride in the diverse community it has constructed over the years. Upon graduation, some of you will enter work environments that are extremely homogeneous and that lack the diversity that has made this place what it is today. Being at Rice may be one of the few times in your life where you will have the opportunity and privilege to interact with individuals from different walks of life, who challenge your views of the world and open your mind to new knowledge. Our mission as individuals should be to uplift one another and make genuine attempts to learn from each other and educate ourselves, especially now that a pandemic has highlighted the social injustices built into our communities. Your actions can be as simple as attending cultural events or talks, donating to Rice Mutual Aid to help your fellow classmates, making the attempt to meet new people outside your social circle and most importantly, being aware of the struggles that those around you face. 

Institutionally, Rice should work towards increasing its outreach to reach students of color who may not be aware that a quality education is now more accessible thanks to the Rice Investment. By actively recruiting more students of color, Rice will have a better chance at producing more diverse incoming classes while staying true to its holistic review of applicants. As a way of not being complacent, it’s crucial that Rice takes a stand on issues affecting its students, especially racial injustice. As it expands its student body, Rice should also prioritize hiring more faculty of color, considering that white faculty made up 76 percent of all faculty as of fall 2019. In addition, our institution should increase the visibility of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, which performs important work through cultural showcases and diversity retreats that don’t get acknowledged enough by the university.

I firmly believe that Rice has the potential to be a place that everyone can call home. Even if I myself feel completely supported by this institution, I know my experiences are not shared equally by everyone around me. It is our duty as members of the Rice community to not only acknowledge these disparities, but also to collectively work to dismantle the barriers that prevent us from becoming a truly inclusive community.

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