'Nobody looks like me'

At a student diversity town hall meeting, Mykera Wright (center) and fellow students Takeshia Brown (left) and Ross Kressel (right) were encouraged Thursday to talk about recruiting and retaining minority students at the College of Charleston.

The message to the College of Charleston was clear and simple: Recruit and support more black students and hire more black faculty members.

That's what a group of students at a student diversity town hall meeting Thursday told campus leaders about the school, which has the lowest percentage of black students among the state's public colleges.

"My first semester, I thought, 'I hate this place; nobody looks like me,' " said senior Takeshia Brown.

John Bello-Ogunu, who was hired six weeks ago as the college's chief officer of diversity, held the student meeting to gather information to assess diversity issues at the college. He is holding similar meetings for faculty and staff members this month. He will then work with other campus leaders to develop a plan to increase minority enrollment, he said.

He has a tough job ahead of him. Blacks made up only 3.8 percent of the freshman class and 5.7 percent of undergraduates in the fall of 2008, the most recent year for which data is available. And black professors made up only about 5 percent of the faculty that year.

Black mentors are very important to black students, said senior Giovanni Richardson. "To be honest, we're more comfortable talking to someone who looks like us," she said.

Black student enrollment at the college has actually declined in recent years. In 2004, black students made up 5.1 percent of the freshman class and 7.9 percent of undergraduates.

Ross Kressel, a sophomore and secretary of the Student Government Association, said he understands the importance of students having an on-campus group with which they feel comfortable. Kressel is Jewish and said he has dinner every Wednesday and a Shabbat dinner every Friday with a campus Jewish group. When he was looking for a college, he refused to apply to any school with a Jewish enrollment of less than 7 percent, he said. Jewish students made up about 10 percent of the College of Charleston's student body, he said.

Michael Brown, director of access and equity for the S.C. Commission on Higher Education, said his office coordinates some statewide college diversity efforts, but "it's up to the individual schools to make strong efforts to recruit minority students."

Leaders at state colleges tell him "the pool of qualified black applicants is small" and many black applicants don't have sufficiently high SAT scores, he said. They also have told him that in tough economic times, they don't have enough money for proper support programs.

Gloria Jones is dean of the University College at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, where black students made up about 23 percent of the freshman class in 2008. The school made a strong push starting in the late 1980s to boost minority enrollment, she said. It has offered summer preparation programs and a variety of support programs over the years, she said, and the efforts paid off. Now, black students see the school as a safe and supportive place to receive an education, and they tell other students about it.

Joe Kelly, the speaker of the faculty at the College of Charleston, said the college sincerely wants to increase minority enrollment but that school leaders need a new plan. And, he added, "it's also painfully obvious that our faculty doesn't match the community."

Kelly said colleges nationwide struggle to hire enough black faculty members. But public schools in South Carolina have an especially hard time. Faculty salaries tend to be low, he said, and the state "has a reputation of being an inhospitable place for African-Americans."

And, unfortunately, the College of Charleston had a time in its history when it was not a welcoming place for black students. It actually became a private institution in the 1950s to avoid integration, Kelly said.

"Everybody is eager to change that," he said, "but we've got a lot of repairing to do."